Naylor: Argos hope Grey Cup game eases challenges ahead

Dave Naylor
11/21/2012 11:04:39 AM
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It's been a long time since anyone has really considered Toronto a football town.

That would be back in the 1970s, when the Argonauts were just a notch or two behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the local sporting consciousness, when the signing of Heisman Trophy winner Anthony Davis out of USC was enough to bring tens of thousands out to an intrasquad game at Exhibition Stadium.

And certainly no later than 1983, the year the Argos ended Toronto's 30-year Grey Cup drought, an achievement celebrated by a massive crowd that jammed downtown Toronto for the victory motorcade to City Hall.

That event, however, also seemed to be the jumping-off point for a a whole lot of Torontonians who simply stopped caring.

The reasons for the CFL's great decline in the Centre of The Universe have been widely discussed - the rise of the Blue Jays, arrival of the Raptors, fascination with the National Football League and a sense that Toronto had simply out-grown an eight (sometimes nine) team, all-Canadian league, are all part of the puzzle.

And then of course there is the Rogers Centre, the cavernous stadium that makes it feel as if a football game were being played in some kind of super-sized shopping mall.

But what no one has figured out over the past 30 years or so is how to make the Argos matter to more than a hard-core of CFL fans in a market of six million people.

And Lordm there have been those who've given it their best shot: with everything from marquee football names such as Rocket Ismail, Doug Flutie and Ricky Williams, to pre-game parties aimed at families, playing the nostalgia card, superstar ownership, filling the roster with as many ex-NFL players as possible, pushing affordability, the presence of local players, community involvement, etc.

You name it, they've tried it.

But none of it has had much impact at making the team more relevant to the average sports fan.

True, the Argos have been less than stellar on the field for most of the past 30 years. But even two of the very best Argo teams ever - the 1996 and 1997 Grey Cup winning editions - barely moved the needle at all.

Meanwhile, the Argos have become marginalized in daily conversation. Most Toronto sports fans, if asked during any point in the past 10 years, could perhaps come up with the quarterback's name or the result of that week's game.

But the conversation would likely end there (One Toronto newspaper even recently ran an article about the city's four pro sports teams - the Leafs, Jays, Raptors and Toronto FC).

All of which raised the question of how Toronto would respond to the Argonauts being part of the Grey Cup? And whether whatever noise the team makes this week will have any lasting affect after Lord Grey's mug is handed out on Sunday.

On the first matter, there seems a genuine sense of welcoming the Grey Cup to Toronto - at least if you judge by the local media and the general feel in the city thus far.

It would be difficult not to know the Grey Cup is happening, the game is sold out and tickets are incredibly scarce, and even a downtown Argo pep rally - which might seem like a bit of a risky proposition given that most of the team's fans are suburbanites - drew a more-than-decent crowd on Tuesday night.

The second question is a much tougher to answer.

The biggest challenge the Argos face is that a whole generation of fans has grown up without them being top-of-mind. And that generation is now raising another generation which presumably thinks the same way.

That isn't going to change in a week.

But what chance the Argonauts do have to improve their standing comes in linking themselves to a larger experience, to being part of one big national celebration that is being recognized from coast to coast as an important part of our nation's culture.

Being a sports fan is at its core a tribal experience, the sharing of a passion that results in a feeling of belonging or oneness with others.

That's a feeling the Argos have had trouble providing for the last 30 years. So attaching the Argonauts to a uniquely Canadian experience certainly seems to be the play here this week.

Let Torontians hear and feel and taste that and see if in some small way it can make the Argos and the CFL more meaningful to them. The CFL has certainly had some things break it's way for this week, with a match-up full of great storylines and the sense that Sunday's contest could be very competitive to the very end.

The NHL has co-operated nicely by keeping its doors shut, the Raptors are off to an awful start and even the Blue Jays got their big moves out of the way ahead of Grey Cup week really heating up.

This Grey Cup didn't need the Toronto Argonauts to be in it.

It would have been just fine with or without them.

But the Toronto Argonauts very much needed to be in this Grey Cup.

Not for what it means this week but for whatever it might mean beyond it.

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