Argonauts open doors to tailgating, with a Toronto twist

In Toronto, a city where alcohol and professional sports have endured a glacial courtship, where Major League Baseball once housed its only dry stadium — not one dry section; an entirely alcohol-free park — one team is introducing a beer-tinged tradition in the hope of sparking renewed interest while also attracting younger fans.

The Argonauts want to tailgate.

For the first time, the team is planning a real pre-game tailgate, where fans are allowed to park their cars, pull out their barbecues and grill their own food. Beer, a key ingredient in the process, will be permitted as the team opens its debut season at BMO Field.

There is one catch.

“Our liquor laws prevent people from bringing their own beer,” said Michael Copeland, the team’s president and chief executive. “But other than that, it will be true in all other respects.”

The team will sell the beer. Copeland said the Argos are still finalizing the prices, as well as the brands that will be available for purchase, but stressed the idea the team is trying to create an “accessible experience” for fans and that “overpricing for beer just shoots us in the foot.”

“When people experience it, they’re not going to think, ‘Oh, I wish I could have brought my semi-warm case of beer in with me,’ ” he said. “We’re going to price it affordably, because again it has to be an authentic experience.”

Special zones will be reserved for tailgating within the lots at Exhibition Place, as well as Ontario Place. Copeland said the team has not finalized the parking rates, but suggested a modest premium would be levied on the designated tailgating zones.

He said there would be a minimum of 250 tailgating spaces for each regular season home game, but felt that number could swell to 1,000 depending on demand and availability at both venues. (Duran Duran is scheduled to play the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on July 13, the night Toronto hosts Ottawa, creating a crunch on available parking spaces.)

Copeland said access to the tailgating section will likely be made available through a presale process. The team is planning a trial run at its pre-season game against Hamilton on June 11, building to the main launch 12 days later, at its regular season home-opener.

“We’ve got a very, very strong core fan base, but it does skew older,” Copeland said. “And we need to bring in new fans, probably more urgently than most sports teams.”

The Argos have been working with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, the government organization that administers the Liquor Licence Act. Copeland has also had talks with Toronto Mayor John Tory, as well as Exhibition Place, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others with a stake in the process.

Beer sales will end 30 minutes prior to kickoff. Cars entering the special tailgate area will be searched for contraband alcohol. It will be open to all ages, with Copeland envisioning children throwing a football around with parents.

“It’s starting to take shape as an opportunity to do something that might get more people out to watch CFL football, which is their goal, and do it in a respectful way that’s not going to put others at risk,” said Andrew Murie, chief executive of MADD Canada. “The worst possible scenario is someone gets hurt and that’s one of the outcomes we don’t want.”

Tory, the former CFL chairman, said the team has his “full support” to run a tailgate.

“I wanted to make it work both because I thought it was a sane way for responsible adults to entertain themselves, but also because I wanted to try and help the rebirth of the Argos,” he said. “I have the CFL in my blood both from being a fan as a boy, but also of being the chairman and the commissioner in days when it was pretty dark.”

Having struggled for years to build a fan base at Rogers Centre, the team needs to spark new interest in its new home. Earlier this month, the Argos dispatched players to a bar in nearby Liberty Village — an enclave of young professionals — behind the rallying cry of, “Who wants sangria?”

Tailgating has been a staple of football for generations in the United States, both at the collegiate and professional levels. Several versions have been attempted around Toronto, but usually revolving around a pedestrian area featuring expensive beer.

Part of that is tied to Ontario’s liquor laws, which have deep historical roots.

“There was a large population who felt that a lot of things were immoral,” said Dr. Ron Stagg, a professor in the department of history at Ryerson University. “And they were particularly immoral on Sundays, because Sunday was supposed to be reserved only for worshipping.”

In Ontario, until the late 1950s, Stagg said the government tied the purchase of alcohol to a kind of passport. One side would list the customer’s personal information, and the other would list their purchases.

“If you bought too much,” Stagg said, “they would ban you.”

In 1977, as the Blue Jays were preparing to make their big league debut, the Ontario government announced it would not allow beer to be sold at Exhibition Stadium. Fans were unhappy — sometimes chanting “We want beer” in the stands — but the protest never quite evolved into outrage.

“To be honest with you, they didn’t know any better,” said Howard Starkman, a long-time Blue Jays employee now working as a consultant with the team. “Most of the people who came to our games just really didn’t realize they were missing anything, other than people saying you were supposed to have a beer and a hotdog at a baseball game.”

Beer finally broke through in 1982.

The tailgate has taken a bit longer.

“Why it wasn’t done before? I can’t answer that question,” Copeland said. “I think, perhaps, people just didn’t pursue it to the extent that they may have been able to.”

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