TORONTO — It seems a Grey Cup rematch is resonating with Toronto Argonauts fans.
The Argos have sold approximately 16,000 tickets for their home opener Saturday night with the Calgary Stampeders, who Toronto upset 27-24 in last year’s Grey Cup game in Ottawa. BMO Field has a seating capacity of about 26,500 for football but that’s been reduced to 18,000 with the temporary closing of the upper-east balcony.
“It’s a very encouraging start and we’re excited about it,” said Dave Haggith, the senior director of communications for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, which owns the CFL franchise.
MLSE added the Argos to its sports portfolio in January. The CFL club joined the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL), Toronto Raptors (NBA), soccer’s Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies (AHL), Raptors 905 (NBA G-League) and TFC II (USL) as MLSE properties.
It also owns the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Square and operates five other local sports facilities, including BMO Field. The purchase was seen as a boon for the Argos, given MLSE’s financial clout and experience operating multiple sports entities.
The company faces a big challenge repairing an Argos brand that’s been taking it on the chin for some time. Last year, the franchise averaged under 14,000 spectators at BMO Field.
“We knew it was a challenge but it’s one everyone has embraced,” Haggith said. “You look at the history behind it and our marketing team has really had a lot of fun, putting together this ‘Pull Together’ campaign and being able to use some of the history with the excitement around last year’s Grey Cup win.
“You’ve also got players like James Wilder Jr., S.J. Green and Ricky Ray and a very recognizable coach in Marc Trestman. The on-field product is very exciting and our group has had a lot of fun with it.”
This off-season, MLSE reduced the average ticket price 23 per cent. So about 2,600 tickets will be sold for as low as $15 per game for season’s seat holders and $19 per game for single-seat buyers.
“A family of four can get to a game for $100 for both admission and food,” Haggith said. “Once they get in there with a winning team, hopefully, and an exciting environment the hope is they’ll come back.”
Another positive is the Argos have boosted season-tickets sales by 25 per cent, to 6,000 currently. And that small bit of good news is welcomed by Ray, who’s entering his seventh season in Toronto.
“It (attendance) is something that in my time in Toronto has been a hot topic,” said Ray. “In my opinion, I think there has been so much negativity around it, people talking about, ‘Why aren’t people going?’
“People hear it and then they don’t want to go to a game because it sounds like it’s a bad experience. It’s a great product, it’s a great stadium, great atmosphere. I think if we start talking more about the fun our fans can have going to a CFL game rather than always harping on why it’s not happening I think we can kind of change that perspective of going to a game.”
The fans’ familiarity with players like Ray certainly helps as Toronto’s roster features over 40 players from last year’s championship squad. So too does opening at home against the Grey Cup finalist.
This year, the Argos will hold pre-game rallies on the Exhibition Place grounds. On Saturday, the first 6,000 supporters attending the rally will receive a replica of Toronto’s ‘17 Grey Cup ring.
“I don’t know who planned the schedule but it’s going to be fun with a Grey Cup rematch and replica rings being handed out to fans,” Haggith said. “Let’s have fun with this moment, it’s a great environment for football.
“We’re taking a long-term view on this. It’s about sustainability and making sure we’re delivering a good crowd for every game.”