TORONTO – After staving off a rousing rally by the Ottawa Redblacks, the Toronto Argonauts moved into a tie for first place in the CFL’s East Division while upping their record to 6-2 for the first time since 1997.
They did it before just 14,748, the team’s smallest draw for a Rogers Centre regular-season game since 2003.
Sunday’s attendance was the lowest in the league this season, barring the 4,900 Toronto drew for a one-off game in Fort McMurray, Alta., in June.
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Don’t blame the weather. It was a glorious summer day, with sunshine streaming in through the open roof.
“I know I live downtown and I don’t even know how many people even knew we had a game today,” veteran defensive lineman Ricky Foley, a native of Courtice, Ont., in his second stint as an Argo, said after the game.
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Foley, noting he’s a football player not a businessman, wasn’t pointing fingers. But he said the team’s marketing department isn’t getting much help.
“They’re up against it right now. Their budget’s a little low right now and it has been all off-season. They didn’t have much to work with,” he said. “I’d say they’re doing as good as they can with it, but the PR and the marketing – I don’t even know if they do have a budget.”
Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and Bell have bought the 142-year-old CFL franchise from David Braley. The old and new owners are working together this season, prior to the new regime taking over in 2016.
The Argos drew 20,642 in their only other regular-season home game under the dome this season, a Saturday evening win over Saskatchewan on Aug. 8.
“We had a terrific turnout of more than 20,000 enthusiastic fans to our home opener earlier this year,” Argos CEO Chris Rudge said in a statement after Sunday’s 30-24 win over Ottawa.
“We expected a lower-than-normal attendance for today’s game against Ottawa, due to a number of reasons, and despite that we were treated to another enthusiastic crowd. We already expect a larger crowd for our next home game on Sept. 11 against Hamilton.”
A club spokesman said Rudge was unavailable Sunday evening to explain what those reasons were.
The empty seats come in stark contrast to the Blue Jays, the dome’s prime tenants who also lead their division. The surging baseball team drew 46,792 for its last Rogers Centre outing – which is 6,000-plus more than the Argos’ two games at the dome this season combined.
Foley pointed to the omnipresent ads promoting the Blue Jays, owned by the Rogers media conglomerate.
For some, the Argos’ planned 2016 move to the more fan-friendly BMO Field can’t come soon enough. Foley, for one, believes that the new ownership and home could up attendance by 5,000 to 10,000 a game.
“I think it will be a huge difference,” he said.
“I think it will be a great environment for everybody,” echoed quarterback Trevor Harris.
But social media suggests some believe the move is too little, too late for a franchise that faces plenty of opposition for the Toronto entertainment dollar. The Pan American Games did not help, with the team out of sight and out of mind.
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich’s post-game news conference Sunday drew a handful of reporters.
Like Foley and Harris, Milanovich paid tribute to the fans who did come Sunday.
“We have a loyal fan base and they love the Argos,” he said. “How many showed up today and why, I don’t know. We really don’t concern ourselves with it. Our players have done a great job responding to that.
“We’ve played in front of small crowds before,” the coach added, referencing the Fort McMurray game.
“I think we all believe that as time goes on and the changes that are going to take place here with moving to BMO, I think we all have faith that our atmosphere will get better.”
As for ways to induce more fans to come to games, he said that was not his job.
The Argos averaged 47,356 in their heyday in 1976 at Exhibition Place. In 2014, the average Rogers Centre regular-season crowd was 17,791 – down from 21,926 in 2013 and 23,690 in 2012.
There have been valleys before – 15,083 in 2003 (when they went 9-9-0 and were taken over by the league) and 15,804 in 2001 (when they needed to win four of their last six games to go 7-11-0).
Toronto isn’t the only city worrying about attendance. The B.C. Lions have drawn little more than 20,000 recently.