History shows Argos need sustained success to capitalize on Grey Cup win

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Last month, the Toronto Argonauts did the seemingly impossible when they defeated the heavily-favoured Winnipeg Blue Bombers to win a record 18th Grey Cup title. Overcoming the odds and toppling giants is what the Argos seem to do in championship games and it is something they have done for quite some time.

The Argos have won their last seven trips to the Grey Cup, having not tasted defeat on the league’s biggest stage since a 38-36 loss to Edmonton in the 1987 Grey Cup. To put that in perspective, the next closest undefeated streak in the Grey Cup is three by Edmonton, who won in 2003, 2005 and 2015 and haven’t lost since the 2002 game against the Montreal Alouettes.

But all those championship victories haven’t amounted to much where it matters most for the Argos and that is the ticket office. Incredibly, attendance has actually dropped for the Argos following four of their six previous Grey Cup wins.

In 1991, the team was a juggernaut with players like Matt Dunigan and Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismail becoming must-see television. But following a season where they went 13-5 and beat the Calgary Stampeders to win their first Grey Cup since 1983, attendance fell by over 4,000 fans as the Argos stumbled to a fourth-place finish and missed the playoffs with a 6-12 record.

While the drop was not as precipitous, the same thing happened following Toronto’s win over Edmonton in the 1996 Grey Cup. Attendance fell by over 2,000 fans for the 1997 season despite Doug Flutie leading the way to another stellar regular season that ended in a second consecutive Grey Cup victory. Bizarrely, attendance jumped in 1999 before falling again in 2000 and 2001.

Following a victory in the 100th Grey Cup in 2012, a game that was held at a sold-out SkyDome in Toronto, attendance once again dropped despite the Argos posting a better regular season record in 2013 (they finished 11-7) than they had the previous year at 9-9.

The Argos winning the 100th Grey Cup on home soil was considered by many to be the elixir the team needed to right its attendance woes (yes, we have been discussing Argos’ attendance for this long). There was even a conspiracy theory that the league forced Edmonton to trade Ricky Ray to Toronto in order to help their chances of winning the Grey Cup that year. It’s a ridiculous notion with no evidence to support it, yet it’s one that is still propagated by a small number of fans over a decade later.

It was after their Grey Cup win in 2012 win that attendance at Argos games really began to drop. It went from over 23,000 in 2012 to 21,000 in 2013 before falling off a cliff in 2015 due to the team playing “home” games in four different stadiums, three of which weren’t in Toronto.

There are two relatively recent exceptions, however, where attendance actually grew following an Argos’ title win. The first came in 2004, which we will get to in a second, and the other is, surprisingly, 2017. It was not a monstrous rise in 2018 over 2017 but it was a slight one. Unfortunately, Argos’ attendance has fallen even further significantly since then.

That brings us to the one massive outlier, the one championship victory that actually saw the Argos’ attendance increase and remain stable for a decent period of time: the years following the 2004 title win over the B.C. Lions.

What happened that made this championship victory different than all the others? It’s pretty simple, really.

The Argos kept winning.

From 2004 to 2007, Toronto won 10 or more games every year, made the East Final four times and won that single championship. This is arguably the most successful four-year period the franchise has ever had on the field.

The Boatman had never won 10 or more games four years in a row before and has not won 10 or more games four years in a row since. In fact, Toronto has won 10 or more games in a season just three times since 2007.

The Argos also made four straight appearances in the division final, something the team had never done before and hasn’t done since.

It wasn’t championships that helped increase attendance but the continued belief by the fan base that the Argos could win. The team kept winning in the regular season and that gave their fans reason to believe another championship was possible, even if they ultimately failed to win it again until 2012.

Providing a consistent winner gave fans a reason to put their money down and come to the stadium to watch a game.

Making a mark in the sports landscape in Toronto in 2023 isn’t the same as it was almost 20 years ago but the path for the Argos to return to some semblance of relevance in a crowded market seems pretty straightforward: just keep winning.

We know Argos’ attendance has seen a steep decline over the last few years, especially since moving to BMO Field in 2016. The Argos average the fewest fans for home games by a wide margin and have sold more than 20,000 tickets to a game just four times since they made BMO Field their home.

History shows their title win in November won’t be enough to get fans back into the stands. It could help slightly, but what the franchise ultimately needs is a period of sustained success. Not even post-season success, just regular-season success. The Argos need to field the type of team that fans in the city believe can win a championship even if this year’s victory ends up being the only one this group wins.

The team’s recent championship celebration was well attended and the organization needs to do everything it can to take advantage of the momentum that has been organically built this year.

The past has shown us the path forward to making the Argos mean something again. Now it is up to the front office, the players and ownership to build a team that can compete and take advantage of this moment.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.