Argos moving on from dubious (recent) history

A few years ago, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas was retelling an old story about the time he was commissioner of the Canadian Football League and how, on the eve of the 2001 season, he had to stop one team from hiring exotic dancers to work in a pre-game wet T-shirt contest.

The listener did not believe him.

Michael Lysko replied flatly: “Google it.”

It is true, and it involved the Toronto Argonauts.

On Saturday, the team will launch a trial run on a new pre-game tradition. The Argos are set to launch a tailgate party — welcoming cars and hibachis and beer — in the parking lots around BMO Field.

Their aim is much the same as it was 15 years ago: To lure new fans and inject new life into the franchise.

Success is not guaranteed, but only through looking back is it clear just how much further ahead the team is today compared to the last time it looked to pre-game salvation. Today, the Argos have stable ownership, a new stadium and government support.

In 2001, a New York-based businessman named Sherwood Schwarz owned the team, and it was not thriving under his watch. According to reports at the time, the Argos only had a season-ticket base of around 4,600, and they were getting desperate.

It was early June when they announced their plans: Ticket-holders of legal drinking age would be invited to a golf course across from the stadium — now a row of condo towers on Spadina Avenue — to watch dancers from Whiskey A Go-Go compete in bikini and wet T-shirt events.

“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Argos president Jeff Giles told a Toronto reporter. “It’s not like we’ve got 15,000 season-ticket holders and that we’re going to upset a lot of them.”

They did upset many, though, including the CFL commissioner. Lysko had only been on the job a few months when he woke up, preparing for his usual morning run, to see a front-page story on his doorstep.

“We were in the midst of talking with a couple of sponsors at the time — national sponsors — and they were saying, ‘This is the sort of thing that really makes us wonder about whether you guys have your house in order,’ ” said Lysko.

“It was an embarrassment.”

Governors from teams around the league called him in a panic.

“They hadn’t even played their first game I don’t think, and they were already throwing their hands in the air,” said Lysko, now director and professor in the sport management program at Southern Methodist University.

Giles did not immediately return voice and email messages from the Star.

“I don’t care what market you talk about, I can’t imagine that would fly anywhere,” Lysko said. “It certainly didn’t make any sense for us.”

Following several days of discussion, with much of it playing out in public, Lysko finally prevailed. The plans were scrapped. (The Argos, undeterred, proceeded to stage a scaled-down version of their original plan, with pre-game bikini contests. It did not seem to help — they only drew 11,041 fans to their second home game that season.)

Within two years the team was bankrupt, and the league assumed control.

Today, the Argos are still searching for new, younger fans. Unlike their last famous pre-game idea, though, their current plans for a pre-game tailgate have support from the mayor, as well as from the province.

On Saturday, 250 parking spaces will be reserved for tailgating at Ontario Place before the Argos face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in their pre-season opener. The lot will be open three hours before kickoff.

Fans will not be allowed to bring their own beer. The team will sell beer — Budweiser, Bud Light and Steam Whistle — for $4 a can.

“I hope it all works out for them,” said Lysko. “I hope the combination of what they’re doing stabilizes the franchise and makes them more relevant to younger people.”