Arthur: Grey Cup a tough sell in Toronto

Well, at least the horse pooped in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. The last time the Grey Cup came to Toronto the Royal York once again decided it was too snooty to let an equine and some Westerners stroll through the lobby, tradition be damned. In 2007 they barred the doors; in 2012 they let Marty the horse in for a second, and then shooed him away. This time, the Holiday Inn on Carlton invited Marty and Calgary’s travelling troupe in, and wouldn’t you know it, Marty did what horses do. Kablooie.

It would be easy to take it as a metaphor for the CFL in Toronto, except that horses pooping in lobbies surrounded by men in cowboy hats and cheerleaders is one of the fun things about the CFL in Toronto. It’s not that there was no fun this week — the Spirit of Edmonton throbbed with its same cheerful, eternal vibe of the band, the cheerleaders, the costumes, the beer. Stamps House, Calgary’s party, did fine, and the first-ever LGBTQ Grey Cup party was poppin’, as the kids say: Mayor John Tory came by, commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, actor Kal Penn, and retired Stampeder Jon Cornish with the Grey Cup. Great fun. That was terrific.

And still, the Grey Cup should not have been here, not this year. The Grey Cup should have been trundled off to Ottawa, the league’s new hotbed; failing that, it should have been plopped in the Alberta fail-safes of Calgary or Edmonton. This was another annus horribilis for the CFL in Toronto: a new stadium, new owners, a bright shining future, and they only got 16,380 people per game in the building to watch the team implode. The team lost more than its customary minimum of $5 million, due partly to marketing costs. If this was a watershed year, the Argos once again failed.

And the Grey Cup . . . well, failed is a strong statement, but by the standards of the event it’s been a bummer. For a long time the Grey Cup in Toronto was a tenuous idea, a rube that got lost in the big city and vowed never to go back. The 1992 week was so roundly ignored by the locals that it took 15 years to work up the gumption to return. When it did in 2007, it was . . . fine. Not a Prairie Grey Cup, not even Vancouver or Montreal, but fine. In 2012, the 100th Grey Cup? That was actually pretty good. The Grey Cup can get swallowed up by Toronto, but four years ago, with federal money as rocket fuel, it fit.

This time? Maybe it was doomed, an endpoint of this franchise’s tortured local history. The owners who ran the 2007 game, Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon, ran short of money and patience and turned over the keys to David Braley, the league’s crewcut godfather, in 2010. Braley, who negotiates like the other party is over the barrel whether they are or not, negotiated the rights to two Grey Cups, and this was the second one. After 2012, Braley pared the franchise down to the bare essentials — no marketing money, a skeleton crew, pizza and Coke for the team party.

When he sold to Bell and Larry Tanenbaum in 2015, the rights to that Grey Cup were part of the deal, and the new Argos ownership took over Jan. 1 with 12 employees left for a franchise that now has 36. Grey Cup tickets didn’t go on sale until July: by contrast, the Ottawa Redblacks put 2017 Grey Cup tickets up for sale a month ago. The Toronto prices were modelled after the 2012 game — a base of $169 and $199, and a high of $899, steep as hell — but the Argos found the corporate appetite, more than anything, wasn’t there. With the NBA all-star game, the Raptors playoff run, the Blue Jays, the World Cup of Hockey, a Leafs outdoor game and a second World junior hockey tournament in three years, Toronto was strip-mined for every sports entertainment dollar it could in 2016-17. The Grey Cup lost out.

So even after ticket prices were cut, comp tickets were flying around the town like confetti, and the game was still 500 tickets short of a sellout as of Saturday morning. Riderville, usually a beacon for partying, was by all accounts a relative ghost town at times, rather than a rolling party. The Festival? It was there, all right. Even the Spirit of Edmonton wasn’t near the madhouse it was here four years ago. There were still diehards, because this great national drinking holiday always pulls in its old diehards: men in white tuxedos, dudes in Bison coats, the Fun Police, the circus folk in green, the walking flags of every team in the CFL, and a few that aren’t.

But the crowds had shrunk, and the Grey Cup shouldn’t come back here for about a decade. This was the end point of the 30-year rolling failure of this franchise to stay relevant in this city: the end of the last owner to bail them out before he sold the Argonauts to owners who have enough money to be patient, and will need to be.

So, now comes the next thing: Can the Argos stabilize, even grow? The break-even point under current ticket prices for the Argos is about 20,000; they are considering lower-priced tickets, though, to better attract the legions of young people who live all around them. But it’s not like that’s the other side of the world. In retrospect, the greatest failure of the new Argonauts franchise was an inability or unwillingness to recognize that decades of an unsolvable problem wouldn’t be wiped away with a new stadium, like a magic trick. Now, presumably, they know.

Even beyond the lobby of the Holiday Inn, there is a lot to clean up in Toronto. It’s not impossible, but nobody should have thought it would be clean.

Must Read