‘If that’s your problem, fix it’: B.C. Lions owner Amar Doman rips MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum for criticism of CFL, lack of investment in Argonauts

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum may not be happy with the current structure of the CFL but he’ll find no support from the league’s newest franchise owner.

Nearly a year after taking over the team, Amar Doman of the B.C. Lions joined popular Vancouver sports talk show Sekeres and Price on Friday to talk about the state of the franchise. When asked about Tanenbaum’s recent comment criticizing the CFL and the financial status of the Toronto Argonauts, Doman made his displeasure clear.

“It’s certainly not helpful,” he said frankly. “They run everything in Toronto and I understand their strategies might be a little bit different on maybe where they want to go with the CFL but certainly, there’s no one to blame except ourselves when you talk about a lack of fans coming.”

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has owned the Argonauts since 2015, taking over full control of the team in January of 2018. The oldest continuously existing professional sports team in North America joined an MLSE portfolio that includes the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, and Toronto Marlies.

The team has struggled to find success since, averaging a league-worst attendance figure of 8,603 fans per game in 2021 — dead-last in the CFL for a sixth consecutive season. The figure also marked a 31.1 percent decrease in ticket sales from 2019, though some games were affected by Ontario’s COVID-19 regulations.

In June, Tanenbaum expressed his dissatisfaction with the league’s current state of affairs in an interview with the Globe and Mail, complaining that the Argonauts had not increased in value like his other sports properties.

“My concern is, in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it’s not attracted the younger fan engagement. You look at value creation and, you know, quite unfortunately, these teams are not worth that much money,” Tanenbaum said at the time.

“The hockey, basketball or soccer teams are trading at hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases billions of dollars. And you see the Argos, you know, a 106-year-old league, and what value creation are these franchises trading at? You’ve got to look at that and say, Is that success?”

MLSE was widely speculated to be in favour of a potential merger with the XFL and Tanenbaum went on to complain that the CFL’s community-owned teams — Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg — were too satisfied with the status quo.

Doman took issue with that assessment, as well as Tanenbaum’s attempt to lump the Lions in with his approach.

“There’s nothing wrong with the stuff that’s going on in the midsection of the country, the fans that have been built up over the years. We’re going to build that here in B.C., starting with the youth,” he insisted.

“Everything we’re doing, me being on the sidelines, helping children get into football, and rebuilding the fan base, I don’t hear any of that in Toronto. I hear someone blaming the fans and blaming something else, except blaming internally. I think you’ve got to take responsibility for your fan base. You have to take responsibility for your lack of attendance. If that’s your problem, fix it.”

Fans have long complained of a lack of effort from MLSE in marketing their CFL team, something that Doman can not be accused of in B.C. The Lions drew more than 34,000 fans for their 2022 season opener, making it the largest crowd in eight years. While attendance numbers have not spiked that high since, a slow build has been evident.

MLSE has achieved similar grassroots success with their soccer franchise, Toronto FC, which shares a team president with the Argos, but the CFL franchise has not received the same amount of attention.

“TFC has done well there and the Argos, it feels like a faceless team,” Doman said. “I have a lot of friends in Toronto. I went to last year’s road game where we had the kicking issues. It was a very dull vibe in there.”

Many owners have tried and failed to bring stability to the CFL in Toronto, but it’s clear from Doman’s comments that fans are not the only ones who believe MLSE is doing the bare minimum.

If nothing else, his passionate rebuttal of their approach should make for some tense moments at the league’s next board of governors meeting.