Cox: Argos need more than Grey Cup to move the chains in Toronto

It’s hard to say what the primary goal of the Toronto Argonauts should be this season. Probably putting an end to their status as Toronto’s only pro sports team that can’t draw a crowd would be an appealing one.

That’s tough talk for a team that is the reigning Grey Cup champion, but let’s face it, the Argos are an organization that’s used to tough talk. To being ignored and dismissed. To being written off as a team that has no chance to get anywhere close to the status it once had in the city.

The Argos would love the talk to be about their players, their chances of repeating and any newcomers that fans should be looking forward to seeing at BMO Field. In a perfect world, there would still be a tingle of excitement about winning the 105th Grey Cup in Ottawa last season. Except, as usual when it comes to the Argos, there are other considerations. Pressing business considerations.

The football team is now fully under the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment umbrella. That officially happened in December, and Toronto FC president Bill Manning became Argos president in January, making the takeover complete. That gives MLSE three championship clubs; Major League Soccer winners TFC, the Argos and the Toronto Marlies, who captured the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup on Thursday night.

Whatever you say about MLSE now, you can’t say they don’t have any winners.

The Argos are different, however, in that they are the one MLSE franchise — the only team in town, really — that is doing horribly at the gate. Last season, the team averaged a pathetic 13,914 customers at BMO Field, a decrease from 2016 and a particularly discouraging total given the belief in many quarters that moving from the Rogers Centre would make more people want to attend CFL games in Toronto, not fewer.

So while getting another Grey Cup would be great, the measure of this Argo season will have to be whether, with MLSE muscle now fully behind it, the CFL squad can make any headway at all with a sporting public that seems to look at the league and the team with either disdain or indifference.

In a town with five pro teams, the Argos are No. 5. So the only way to go is up.

The official line will be that winning a Grey Cup should help the Argos at the gate, except it really hasn’t in the past. It didn’t make a lasting difference in 2004. Or 2012. The reasons are many and varied. Ownership at one point was enthusiastic, but then, under David Braley, completely lost interest and basically seemed willing to let the football team wither on the vine.

MLSE, naturally, is betting that putting the full weight of its promotional, ticketing and sponsorship operations behind it will make a massive difference. During the winter, you saw Argo players start to pop up in rinkside interviews on regional Leaf games broadcast by Bell-owned TSN, the kind of cross-promotion that could make a difference.

It’s been easy for a while now to feel hopeless about the plight of the Argos. That said, once upon a time, there was no shortage of people who said minor pro hockey would never work in Toronto. But MLSE has plugged away and the Marlies are now a solid, consistent draw, regularly filling Ricoh Coliseum.

If MLSE can sell AHL hockey and MLS soccer, shouldn’t it be able to sell the CFL, with all its history and traditions?

Well, maybe. For years now, the popularity of the Argos and the CFL has been difficult to measure in Toronto. The threat of the Buffalo Bills endangering the Argos in any way, shape or form is gone, so that’s not part of the equation. The NFL is, however, although television numbers seem to generally indicate interest in the Argos, if not the CFL.

Putting a consistent winner on the field has to be part of this puzzle, but quite obviously it has to be more than that, and that’s what MLSE has to figure out. TFC was built on a foundation of a relatively small but fiercely dedicated band of supporters. The Marlies were able to create a different feel at Ricoh and cultivate a fan base that wasn’t just Leaf fans who couldn’t afford tickets for NHL games, but rather embraced the Marlies on their own.

The Argos have now built a team on the efficient combination of Marc Trestman and Jim Popp, the duo who brought so much success to the Montreal Alouettes. But it’s hard to sell coaches and executives.

One element that would definitely help would be if the East plays much better football as a group. Last season, as demonstrated by the Argos finishing first with a .500 record, was pretty much a disaster. Hamilton and Montreal were dreadful, while Ottawa, Grey Cup champion in 2016, stumbled and bumbled and never got on the same roll.

By contrast, the West had four teams with 10 wins or more, suggesting a much higher quality of football and overall competition. It’s pretty much been that way except for the odd blip in the East for decades, and there’s only a limited chance that will change significantly this season.

What MLSE can try to do is develop more recognizable players and find a way to keep them. DeVier Posey came out of nowhere to be the Grey Cup MVP last fall and make the longest TD reception in the history of the big game, but now he’s gone to the NFL before he really became known in town. That’s frustrating.

Ray is well-known across the country, and players such as Marcus Ball, S.J. Green and James Wilder have some profile in the GTA. But the Argos need to at least double that number of recognizable players, and quickly. Ray’s 38 years old and he can’t play forever … probably. With TSN and their other more popular sports teams, MLSE in theory has the tools to do what’s necessary.

One day, this conversation could be strictly about football. Right now, however, it’s about yet another attempt by yet another new ownership structure to breathe life into this franchise. That will be interesting to watch. But it’ll be much better if and when it doesn’t feel like a death watch.

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