Just got the latest edition of Sportsnet magazine in the mail today and I immediately turned to the back page, enticed by the tagline “Brunt: Why Doesn’t Football Work in Toronto?”. I myself am I little miffed at the lack of support the CFL sees in this city, what with the uniquely Canadian take on my favourite sport drawing more fans to the stands in nearby Hamilton (population 520,000) than in the Big Smoke (population five-million). I attended the Argos home opener a couple weeks back–in Calgary colours, mind you, complete with cowboy hat–and was a little bit shocked at the low turnout, reported at 20,682 for a beautiful Saturday-afternoon contest. Not to mention that, as the game went down to the wire, several people left early–and these weren’t Stamps fans, either! Mind you, I have seen worse. Last October, the official attendance for the Flames and Leafs at the ACC surpassed that of the Stamps and Argos at Rogers Centre the night before. In case you didn’t know, Rogers Centre holds a lot more people than the ACC does.
But it’s not just the Argos that are getting snubbed in this city. As Brunt writes, the International Bowl, pitting NCAA schools from the Big East against the Mid-American Conference, “died a quick and unlamented death” after four contests, and while the annual Bills in Toronto Series games tend to (eventually) sell out, I’ve seen more enthusiasm in the stands for the Argos–where, as previously stated, there are far fewer people in attendance. When Brunt says that “Toronto doesn’t much like football,” he certainly has a point. I can’t dispute that, but I am going to attempt to explain it. Bear with me here, this could take a while…
First of all, I must say that I am a major exception to this rule. I do like football, very much so. In 2008, I didn’t think twice about taking the trip to Montreal for the Grey Cup after the Stamps won the CFL West Division Final, and their ensuing victory was one of my most memorable moments as a sports fan. A couple years later, after some deliberation, I flew all the way out to Seattle for the Seahawks’ season opener in 2010–hey, it was the beginning of the Pete Carroll era–and it was another amazing weekend, worth every penny. (I balked at the higher prices for their Wild Card game against the Saints that season–not to mention the cost of a flight booked one week in advance–but went completely nuts watching it on TV.) But my love of the game extends beyond the two teams I worship. I estimate that I’ve seen 10 to 12 Argos games at Rogers Centre since I moved here in ’05, including a handful where they weren’t even playing against Calgary. I’ve also been to every single International Bowl, and have the programs to prove it–as well as every single game of the Bills in Toronto Series, including pre-season contests. I initially purchased the four-game ticket package at those elevated prices, and when they dropped ‘em this year, I upgraded my 500-level seats to the best non-VIP section on the visitors sideline, without hesitation. Of course, it helps that the Hawks are coming to town this time around. (Did I mention that I’ve already got my new Nike 12th man jersey–purchased in person at the Seattle Pro Shop?)
I could go on to mention that I’m the self-proclaimed president of the Seahawks Eastern Canadian fanclub (the team’s unofficial message board won’t even approve my registration cuz I live in the Eastern Timezone–they must think I’m a spy) and that I wear my Seahawks gear to my local sports bar on Sundays when I can’t get the game on Rogers digital cable. Generally speaking, if there’s more than a handful of people at the bar for the 4 o’clock kickoffs, it’s only because the Leafs or the Raptors are playing a Sunday matinee. But I think I’ve made my point. I am not your typical Torontonian–in more ways than one, mind you–because I really, truly love the gridiron game. Then again, in a city so large and culturally diverse, it’s really hard to call anyone a typical Torontonian. There are many different ways you could break this city’s population into segments and fit them into neat little boxes, but as a general rule, I’ve found there are three types of people in TO:
1) People who immigrated here from other countries. Let’s face it, as the biggest city and more-or-less-official cultural capital of Canada, Toronto still sees the lions’ (no, not the BC Lions) share of immigration from other countries. Vancouver gets a large chunk of new Canadians from Asia, while some of the economically savvy are choosing to head west to Calgary, or even Saskatoon, but if you were to dig up the numbers, you’d surely see that Toronto has the highest proportion of residents that were born outside of this country.
2) People who moved here from other parts of Canada. I myself fit into this category. I came here from Calgary for university and never left. I also know plenty of people living here who grew up in other parts of the country, from Windsor to Chicoutimi to Halifax, Vancouver and small-town Saskatchewan. Let’s face it, if you aspire to make in in the Canadian entertainment industry, Toronto is the place to be. It’s also the home of most national English-language magazines, all three national sports networks–not to mention the head offices of the country’s Big Five banks and most of its major insurance companies. I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog that there isn’t much demand for bilingual jobs in Calgary–but there are enough openings in Toronto’s national head offices that I’ve been able to find employment in the financial industry in my second language in spite of my rough-hewn Alberta accent (which would never fly in Montreal, I’m sure).
3) Born and raised Torontonians. I know these people are out there, but I don’t know too many of them. A good deal of my co-workers come from other countries, while a lot of my friends are originally from other provinces. I do know plenty of people who grew up here, mind you, but they came to Toronto from elsewhere, whether it was India, Korea or Yugoslavia, at a young age. As first-generation Canadians, they grew up amidst our cultural institutions, but with a traditional upbringing from their parents. Which doesn’t make them any less Canadian, mind you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for multiculturalism. On any given week, I can sample cuisine from five different countries on Yonge Street, and I must say, some of my favourite foods are ones I had never even tasted before I left Calgary (case in point: shawarma). I also find that interacting with people from a variety of backgrounds on a daily basis has greatly expanded my world view; instead of just reading about the Balkans in the newspapers, for instance, I’ve spoken to people who’ve come out of that area, and it’s given me a whole new perspective. And that brings me to my point: Toronto is not your typical North American city. It’s no coincidence that the Raptors attract more international free agents than American-born players; this city offers up a little slice of home to them, wherever they come from. Having lived elsewhere in this country, I know that you’d be hard-pressed to find outstanding Greek cuisine in Calgary, much less Ethiopian or Nepalese. Let’s face it, there isn’t another city in Canada where the Euro Cup final is a bigger event than Canada Day. (I’d say maybe Montreal, but replace Canada Day with St. Jean Baptiste, and that’s definitely not the case.) And that brings me back to football.
In his piece, Brunt makes the case that football is North America’s most popular sport. There’s no denying that; it’s huge in the States, both college and pro, and has found a niche in every other CFL market except for Toronto–where a good chunk of the population comes from outside of North America. Don’t get me wrong, football is big in other countries too, except what they call football isn’t played with helmets, pads and yardsticks. It involves kicking a ball into a goal, and there are no hands allowed. Up here, we tend to call it soccer, and there’s no doubt that it’s huge in Toronto. In the past few months, I’ve listened to French and Italian colleagues discussing the state of their country’s sides, chewed my burger in silence as an Irishman and a Ukranian contemplated their teams’ slim chances in the Euro Cup at the pub, even overheard a native New Zealander on the subway mention how he was getting up early to watch the Rugby World Cup on weekends–but I’ll be damned if wearing my Stamps jersey elicits any kind of response anywhere more than 500 feet from Rogers Centre. Y’see, all these people grew up watching soccer, not football, and they’ve seen no reason to make the switch.
On the other hand, many of my Group 2 friends who came here from other parts of the country do like the CFL. They may not be as passionate as me (few people are), but they still care about how the Riders or the Bombers or the Als are doing. In fact, if you go to one of those sparsely-attended Argos games and sit behind the visitors sideline, chances are you’ll be surrounded by fellow fans of the opposing team–even when you’re from Calgary. But since their teams only come to town once or twice a year, these CFL fans aren’t Argos season’s ticket holders, and often won’t attend more than one game per season. There have been years when I’ve done this myself; I mean, who wants to watch Cleo Lemon pass the pigskin? Ugh.
As for the native Torontonians, well, let’s face it, they’ve got a lot more entertainment options than they did back when the Argos were winning all those Grey Cups. (The only Argos fan I know likes to point out that his team has won it 15 times, to which I counter that while they won all those rings before he was born, most of the Stamps’ Grey Cup wins came during my lifetime.) In the years since Doug Flutie roamed the Skydome turf, Toronto FC has sprung up in the summertime, attracting an instant fanbase despite their lack of success on the pitch. Hell, the Raptors franchise was still in its infancy back in ’97; they’ve since established a solid fanbase of their own, starting their season during the CFL’s home stretch. Then there is, of course, the Leafs. If you don’t know the impact the Leafs have on this city’s sports scene, you’ve obviously never been to Toronto. Nuff said.
Alas, while the Raptors and FC appeal to Toronto’s multicultural communities, and the average Toronto sports fan has several choices when it comes to spending his hard-earned cash, the Argos have gotten the short end of the stick. And it doesn’t help that they haven’t been winning lately, either. According to the team’s official attendance figures (which, interestingly, they seem to have stopped tracking after 2007), they averaged 31,597 fans a game in 2005, the season following their last Grey Cup victory. Through two games this season, that number’s closer to 21,000. Face it, those fairweather fans are a lot less likely to support a losing team when there are other games in town. Did I mention that the Argos kicked off their 2012 season on Honda Indy weekend?
Likewise, the Bills haven’t made they playoffs since they inexplicably benched Flutie for Rob Johnson in the Music City Miracle way back in 2000, and those International Bowls, aside from the inaugural edition, were all blowouts, the Big East teams making mincemeat out of their MAC opponents. Hey, if I came to Toronto from, let’s say, Columbia instead of Calgary in ’05, and my exposure to North American football was the Argos, the Bills on local TV and in town once a year, along with the annual bowl-game blowout, I’d probably stick to fútbol, myself.
On that note, I’m actually heading out to Hamilton for a slice of CFL history tomorrow. I’ve never been to Ivor Wynne, so I figured I’d see a game there before they tear it down at season’s end–and I also plan on visiting the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, which resides in Steeltown as well. I’ll probably have some pics to post when I get back on Sunday–for all you non-Torontonian Canadian Football fans out there. (For the record, when I asked the only Argos fan I know if he’d ever been to a Labour Day Classic game in Hamilton, he said, “No way man, who wants to go to Hamilton!?”)