In a shock to nobody who follows the league, the CFL season starts with problems in the country’s biggest city.
The decades-long mess that is the business of the Toronto Argonauts was laid out for all to see by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum in an interview with The Globe and Mail last weekend.
When Simon Houpt of The Globe asked Tanenbaum if there is a solution to the league’s challenges, Tanenbaum said: “Yeah, I thought so, and I was working on it, but I’m not sure there’s alignment among (some of) the other ownership groups of the other eight teams. The community-owned teams seem to be satisfied with what’s happening in the CFL, so we’re working to see how the Argos fit into that scenario. I’m not happy with it. I’m not happy with the structure of the league.
“My concern is, in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it’s not attracted the younger fan engagement. You look at value creation and, you know, quite unfortunately, these teams are not worth that much money. The hockey, basketball or soccer teams are trading at hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases billions of dollars. And you see the Argos, you know, a 106-year-old league, and what value creation are these franchises trading at? You’ve got to look at that and say, is that success?”
Safe to say the owners of the Argos aren’t exactly brimming with excitement as the first full CFL season since 2019 kicks off on Thursday night — fittingly, the Argos have a bye in Week 1.
These comments also make clear that all is not fine and dandy for the league in the aftermath of reaching a seven-year CBA with its players in the pre-season.
In the interview, Tanenbaum did not specify his potential solutions – so people can only wonder if it had something to do with the league’s flirtation with going to four downs or joining forces with The Rock’s XFL, both of which never materialized.
Interview requests to speak to the presidents of the three community-owned teams — the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Elks — were either declined or not returned this week. (It is a bit of a CFL tradition for there to be friction between community-owned teams and others).
As for the Argos, things started slipping badly in terms of market interest under the late David Braley’s ownership (though one can argue he did save the team by purchasing it) and have, arguably, gotten worse under MLSE despite being in a more fan-friendly stadium for the CFL at BMO Field.
Similar problems exist in B.C. and Montreal, though at least those franchises have newer owners who might have more enthusiasm about the product — and there are some promising signs emerging in Vancouver, where the upper deck has been opened for the first time in years due to strong sales for Saturday’s home opener against Edmonton.
MLSE continues not to have a sole president for the Argos — Bill Manning runs Toronto FC and the Boatmen — and the CFL team is barely visible in the market.
So what’s the answer?
Maybe, sadly, there isn’t one — though it would be nice if big-money MLSE made a significant push to market the team and try out some new ideas (IE school or camp day games). Currently, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Argos are much more than an afterthought for a company that also owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and Marlies.
If MLSE gives up, there will not be a long lineup of potential buyers. And if the Argos cease to exist, that’s big trouble for the CFL.
WEEK 1 PICKS
Montreal Alouettes at Calgary Stampeders (-3.5), Thursday, 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT
It wasn’t a great pre-season for Alouettes starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. or Stampeders counterpart Bo Levi Mitchell. With the Stamps at home and the line relatively small, it’s hard to bet against them at this stage. PICK: Calgary
Ottawa Redblacks at Winnipeg Blue Bombers (-9.5), Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT
After a radical makeover of the team in the off-season, new Redblacks GM Shawn Burke gets to see his club in action for the first time against the two-time defending Grey Cup champs. New running back William Powell is out with a hamstring injury, but the Redblacks are capable of staying competitive. PICK: Ottawa
Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Saskatchewan Roughriders (-2.5), Saturday, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT
Could this be a potential Grey Cup preview in the Grey Cup venue? Entirely possible, considering the state of both teams. This is the best matchup of the opening week. PICK: Saskatchewan
Edmonton Elks at B.C. Lions (-3.5), Saturday, 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT
Canadian Nathan Rourke has a perfect stage for his debut as the Lions’ No. 1 quarterback — at home against a rebuilding Elks outfit. PICK: B.C.
• Odds from FanDuel as of Wednesday night
1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Two-time defending champs have to be considered the team to beat until they prove they’re not worthy.
2. Hamilton Tiger-Cats: Dane Evans finally is the undisputed No. 1 quarterback. It’s his time to shine.
3. Saskatchewan Roughriders: They’ve been knocking on the door for the past two seasons. They need to get over the hump now with the Grey Cup game in Regina.
4. Toronto Argonauts: Made big free agency splash, but we’ll see if some older players can stay healthy. If they avoid injury problems, Argos have a real shot.
5. Calgary Stampeders: If Mitchell struggles, Jake Maier seems poised to take the reins. Big year for the Stamps, who are unaccustomed to not being the class of the West.
6. Montreal Alouettes: Adams Jr. is back from injury — and needs to hit top form. Surprisingly, the team re-signed veteran Trevor Harris as a backup. Would not be surprising to see both quarterbacks play important minutes.
7. Ottawa Redblacks: Jeremiah Masoli is the man in the capital after the Redblacks decided to put him at the front of their rebuilding effort.
8. B.C. Lions: Most CFL fans will be rooting for Rourke, the first Canadian opening-day QB since 1983, to play well and become a big name. A strong Canadian quarterback would be a big boost for the league.
9. Edmonton Elks: GM/coach Chris Jones makes his return, but he inherits a team in rough shape. However, Jones has proven he can get programs turned around in a hurry.