Toronto’s disappointing Grey Cup has lessons for Hamilton

The Box J Boys marched 30 strong down John Street in Toronto this weekend, a moving mass of Black and Gold tartan, hard hats and maybe a flask or two tucked away in those kilts. They sang songs, posed for pictures and generally reminded unsuspecting residents that not only was the Grey Cup in town, but there was sizeable Hamilton element to it as well.

Steeltown loomed surprisingly large at this week’s festivities in Toronto. The Ticats may not have been participants in the big game but an “unauthorized promotion” by the city’s Pizza Pizza franchises that offered Grey Cup tickets as part of a $30 combo deal was the story that would have, were it not for a historically great championship game, defined a disappointing week for the CFL and the Toronto Argonauts.

The atmosphere at BMO Field on Sunday was excellent and but there were still a smattering of empty seats despite an array of increasing desperate giveaways. Given the spectacular nature of the game itself, it was a minor indignity in a series of them. Of more concern were poorly-attended team parties — the vaunted Riderville was a sad, empty ballroom for extended stretches — and decided lack of buzz for what is, in most other Canadian cities, a significant and overwhelmingly fun event.

The reasons why are long and varied. Botched ticket pricing discouraged even hard-core fans from making the trip and the various attempts to fix it made things increasingly worse.

This is also the third time in 10 years that the game has been held in Toronto and while the 100th anniversary event in 2012 was considered an unqualified success — aided by a $12-million boost in federal government money — that pace is unsustainable by even the most rabid of fan bases.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t pockets of serious fun. The Tiger-Cats’ takeover of a downtown watering hole was well attended by fans of all stripes and the Spirit of Edmonton cemented its status as the granddaddy of Grey Cup parties with its free admission and (relatively) cheap drinks. The league’s first LGBTQ event was both a symbolic step and a good time.

But overall, the 2016 Grey Cup will be seen a colossal disappointment, a delicious dipping sauce for those intent in looking down on the league. Some of the mistakes were circumstantial and others self-inflicted but the end result that the Grey Cup should not and will not be back here for a good, long time.

It’s also a cautionary tale for those in Hamilton so intent in hosting a Grey Cup as soon as possible. The best of these events are planned well in advance and executed with meticulous attention to detail. All the stakeholders — team, city, corporate partners, community leaders — need to be in lockstep to avoid a similar disaster.

That said, there’s little question that there’s a league-wide appetite to bring the game back to Hamilton, where it hasn’t been held since 1996. In that depressing ballroom, a trio of Saskatchewan fans dressed in fuzzy Oscar the Grouch costumes adorned with Riders paraphernalia talked about the Ticats as a cornerstone franchise and their desire to reward owner Bob Young for his faithful support of the CFL by coming to party in his city.

This Grey Cup will be seen by those aforementioned naysayers as yet another indictment of the CFL’s prospects in Toronto, but not long ago those same critics were talking about the league’s Southern Ontario problem and that narrative has been thoroughly debunked; with stable ownership, a new stadium and recent run of on-field success (relatively speaking, of course) the Ticats are now a three-down success story.

And expect the stink of this week to get washed away by the fire hose of fun that the Ottawa Grey Cup is expected to be in 2017. That ownership group, led by Jeff Hunt, has done virtually everything right and are already ahead of schedule on their preparation for next year.

Planned correctly, the Grey Cup game (and its fans) will come to Ontario. Toronto’s missteps proved there are risks to getting it wrong, but trust in Ottawa and, eventually, Hamilton to get it right.

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