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HomeNewsboxC.F.L.’s Grey Cup Gets Lost in Toronto’s Crowded Sports Scene

C.F.L.’s Grey Cup Gets Lost in Toronto’s Crowded Sports Scene

The host Toronto Argonauts and the league seemed to misread the market by setting ticket prices between $189 and $899. By October, when half the seats remained unsold, they slashed the prices of the lowest-cost seats to $89.

A sellout is now expected at the open-air stadium, which was expanded to about 35,000 seats for the game, thanks to a spike in sales on Monday after the East and West finals sent the Ottawa Redblacks into the Cup against the Calgary Stampeders. The Grey Cup Festival Committee announced Wednesday that fewer than 2,000 tickets remained.

If any team can make this game a success, it is the Stampeders. After all, in 1948 Stampeders fans transformed a football game into a weeklong national festival in Toronto, complete with 10-gallon hats, horses, chuck wagons and pancake breakfasts.

To most Americans, the Grey Cup is not much more than a curiosity. But it was curiosity that led Ray Ratto, a Bay Area sportswriter, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, last year to find out for himself what the frigid fuss was all about.

“It is the perfect counterpoint to the Super Bowl,” he told a radio station at the time, “because the Super Bowl is basically a massive, rigid, bloated trade show with a football game tacked on to the end of it.”

The Grey Cup, it appeared to him, “is a series of mobile taverns running without liquor licenses with a football game tacked on to the end of it.”

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The 2014 Grey Cup between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Calgary Stampeders at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. More than 50,000 attended, but only after tickets were reduced in price or given away.

Credit
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Even with a sellout, the game is nearly irrelevant in Toronto, which is wrapped up in the Blue Jays’ off-season moves and the fates of the Maple Leafs, the Raptors and Toronto F.C., which is in the M.L.S. playoffs.

Brian Cooper, president of the sports marketing company S&E Sponsorship Group and a former president of the Argonauts, said he thought the Grey Cup’s history and heritage would overcome the malaise, but they have not.

“C.F.L. football’s relevance in this market is slipping, and I don’t know how you turn it around,” Cooper said.

In a city with marquee names like Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays, Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors, the C.F.L. cannot come close to matching that kind of star power.

“The Raptors were in the N.B.A. playoffs competing against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals,” Cooper said. “And then all of a sudden, the Saskatchewan Roughriders come into town? For some, that doesn’t have the same appeal or cachet.”

Another sports marketing expert cited the “Americanization” of sports across southern Ontario as a reason for the failure of the C.F.L. to flourish in Toronto.

“I think the Americanization of Canada’s big cities, especially Toronto, is a culprit,” said Vijay Setlur, 42, a sports marketing instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“We’re faced with a heavy diet of New York, Boston and Chicago,” Setlur added.

It did not help the local market that the Argonauts were so bad (5-13) that they failed make it to the postseason. But it is debatable whether their appearance would have mattered, as the team played mostly to a half-filled stadium all season.

The attendance woes continued even after the Argonauts left the 50,000-plus-seat Rogers Centre to play at Toronto F.C.’s stadium, BMO Field. Unable to fill 50,000-seat stadiums, many C.F.L. teams have, in recent years, settled on providing a boutique experience in stadiums of 25,000 to 35,000 seats.

The C.F.L. was big when it was the only game in town, and it remains the only game in town for Hamilton, Ontario, and Regina, Saskatchewan. Not so for the other seven teams, which have direct N.H.L. competition.

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Doug Flutie, left, after winning the Grey Cup as a quarterback with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996. Flutie bolted for the N.F.L. two years later.

Credit
Boris Spremo/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

“When you talk about the good old days, the Grey Cup will never be what it was,” said Bob Stellick, president of Stellick Marketing Communications Inc.

Before the 1970s, and before the Buffalo Bills joined the league, viewers in Toronto who wanted to watch the N.F.L. could only get the Cleveland Browns, which, Stellick said, “was a huge benefit to the C.F.L.”

The Grey Cup game is not the hot ticket it once was — even in small-market cities like Winnipeg, which hosted last year’s Grey Cup.

It did not sell out until two days before the game, but the crowd of 36,634 was the second smallest for the championship since 1975.

Two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Grey Cup game was not a sellout, but it drew more than 50,000 after some late price cuts and giveaways.

In Toronto, the question is: How does the game get noticed in a city with a metropolitan population of more than six million?

“There are so many other distractions in this city,” said Lori Bursey, president of the Friends of the Argonauts fan club. “The Grey Cup kind of gets buried here.”

Cooper, who said he thought the Argonauts should have delayed hosting for at least a couple of seasons while rebuilding their brand, was skeptical of Toronto’s ability to host future Grey Cups after this year’s tepid reaction.

“I don’t think the Grey Cup game will come back here for a long time,” Cooper said.

Next year, the Grey Cup host will be Ottawa, which has warmly embraced the C.F.L. since the Redblacks came aboard in 2014.

Strength in the East, where Hamilton is also drawing well, is important for a league in which fan support was traditionally concentrated in small- to midmarket Western cities like Regina and Edmonton, Alberta.

Attendance is a challenge in larger cities where the N.H.L. is dominant, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver.

The B.C. Lions drew only 19,176 inside 54,500-seat BC Place for their West semifinal against Winnipeg on Nov. 13.

There is a correlation between the arrival of the Blue Jays, who began play in 1977, and the Argonauts’ declining attendance in Toronto.

In 1976, the Argonauts’ average crowd was 47,356, the highest in franchise history. Within 10 years, it had plummeted to 26,171.

The Canadian league once paid millions to lure stars like Raghib Ismail and Doug Flutie.

But after Flutie bolted for the N.F.L. in 1998, the C.F.L. eliminated the marquee player rule, which had allowed each team to exempt one player from the salary cap.

The league, which has a salary cap of only $5.1 million and a league minimum salary of $52,000, is now stocked with mostly no-name players. Many of them have been pulled from the N.F.L. scrap heap and given a crash course in 12-man football, a game with three downs instead of four — along with other quirky rules — that is played on a longer and wider field.

Despite its box-office struggles, the Grey Cup game, which will be shown in the United States on ESPN2, is perennially among Canada’s most-watched sporting events on television.

The high point came in 2012, when an average audience of 5.4 million watched the Argonauts win the 100th Grey Cup at home before a sellout crowd of 53,208 at Rogers Centre. Last year’s Grey Cup averaged more than four million viewers.

The C.F.L.’s West and East division finals last weekend averaged 1.1 million viewers, which is about half of Hockey Night in Canada’s national average of 2.1 million this season.

Appointed in 2015, C.F.L. Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who was born and raised in Queens, not far from Shea Stadium, is trying to position the league for a younger generation. But it is those fans in the 18-to-34 age group who say they prefer the Super Bowl to the Grey Cup.

Frank Cosentino, 79, a two-time Grey Cup-winning quarterback in the 1960s who has written extensively on the C.F.L., said that like the railroad that united west and east, the Grey Cup game has always been important for “national identity.”

“I don’t think it’s going to disappear,” he said. “But it’s going to need a lot of cultivation.”

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