How the CFL Got Revived in Toronto

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIMarch 9, 2010

One day, a Canadian football fan who lived in Toronto invited his friend over to his house.

“Look what I got,” he said, “Four tickets to see the Toronto Argonauts.  I was wondering if you would like to go?”

“Oh God,” replied his friend, “They’re bush league.  They’re not real football.  Now if you were talking about the NFL...”

“Please come.  I’ve got two other friends coming, and I need a fourth person.”

“Well... all right.”

The person who had got the tickets looked out the window and saw a car pull up.

“Oh here they are now.  They’re from Buffalo.”

“Why would they come all the way up here to watch a Canadian football game?” thought the second Canadian.  “They’ve got the NFL.  They don’t need this bush league stuff.”

After greeting each other at the door and making introductions, the four friends took the TTC down to the Rogers Center.

Eventually the second Canadian said to the two Americans, “Look, I hope you don’t mind watching this.  This is only the CFL.  It’s not as good as what you’ve got with the NFL.  Why do you want to see this?”

The first American shook his head and replied, “Well at least it’s better than nothing.  At least you’ve got a team.  We don’t have one any more.  A couple of years ago, old Ralph Wilson, before he kicked the bucket, sold the Bills to a Los Angeles group who wanted an established football team instead of an expansion one so that they could build a $1 billion luxury stadium.  They stole our team despite over five decades of fan loyalty, and the NFL allowed it, just like they did with Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, and those other teams that got moved.  And they don’t plan to come back very soon.  The Bills are now the Los Angeles Screen Dreams.  So now we’ve got nothing to watch.”

“Actually, it wasn’t that good even before that,” said the second American.  “The team sucked for over a decade.  We’d draft bad players, the quarterbacks especially.  Then the recession hit and ate away at the local fanbase, and the team had to play some games up here in Toronto.  Wilson wouldn’t make a commitment to keeping the Bills in Buffalo after he died, and that made things more uncertain.  We wanted top coaches like Bill Cowher to come and save the team, but they wouldn’t come and coach because the situation wasn’t good.  Then the team got sold.”

“But I love football,” said the first American.  “So I’m willing to give this a chance.  We could probably go to New York, Boston, or Cleveland, which are the nearest NFL cities, but I’d rather die than cheer for the Patriots or the Jets.  The Browns maybe.  You say they are called the Toronto Argonauts?”

They arrived at the Rogers Centers and went inside.

“This is the first time, I’ve seen a football game inside a domed stadium,” said the second American.  “And the tickets are a lot cheaper than the Bills used to be.  There’s high unemployment and tough times now in Buffalo.  At least the tickets are affordable for most people.”

“Well, this is the CFL,” said the first Canadian.  “It’s much more modest and low key.”

“How come there is nobody in the upper deck?” asked the first American.

“They don’t sell enough tickets,” said the second Canadian.  “It’s not very trendy.  At one time Wayne Gretzky and John Candy used to own the team, and they got much bigger crowds.”

“After the Blue Jays won the World Series, support dwindled,” said the first Canadian.  “We had won the big one in baseball, and now we wanted to win the big one in football, the Super Bowl.  We’ve wanted an NFL team of our own, but they won’t come.  The closest we came was the one Bills game a year.  The CFL has made a bit of a comeback since, because that’s all we’ve got, but it’s not the same.”

So the friends settled back, and they watched the Argonauts beat Calgary 30-27 on a last play field goal.

“You know, that wasn’t bad,” said the first American when they left the Rogers Center.  “The crowd could be a lot noisier.  They could use some American cheering.  They’ve got to support their team.  I thought the cheerleaders were sexy, though.”

“I enjoyed it too,” said the second American.  “I’d come again if you could get some more tickets.”

When the Americans got home to Buffalo, they discovered they could watch CFL games on TSN directly from across the border.

So the next weekend, they invited a lot of their friends over for a party to watch the CFL game.

Everybody enjoyed themselves, and they continued to follow the league the next week.  Some of the people had come from Rochester, Syracuse, and Erie, Pennsylvania, and they too had parties to watch CFL games.

Eventually, enough people got together to organize the first American bus trip to an Argonaut game.  A few weeks later, there were three buses.

Meanwhile, Nielson decided to do a TV ratings survey of northern New York State.  The results were startling.

“We’ve got a problem here, Chief,” said the surveyor.  “Most people were watching a football game on a Canadian channel, TSN, which we can’t count in our ratings.”

“That screws up everything,” said the president.  Nevertheless, they passed the results on to the four major American networks.

At ABC, which was seeking to make a comeback in professional football since dropping Monday Night Football, the president of the sports department stared at the figures.

“There’s no way we can get the NFL back.  Fox and CBS have the two conferences between them, and NBC has all the night games.  But we’ve got to get some football to boost ratings.  Let’s try this CFL thing and see if it works.  We’ll get Chris Berman, who’s big on the CFL to be the host, and we’ll get one of our top announcers to pair with Joe Theismann, who’ll do the color commentary.  He used to play in Toronto, and one of his children was born there.”

So ABC broadcast a few games, and the ratings were good.  More Americans decided to go across the border to watch games and not just to Toronto but to Vancouver, Calgary, and Hamilton as well.

Some Americans tried to see a game in Regina, but the tickets were all sold out.  Soon the upper decks in the domed stadiums of both Toronto and Vancouver had to be opened.

Meanwhile, the natives from the north turned on their televisions to watch their usual favorite American programs.

“What’s the CFL doing on an American network?  How come they’re watching it?”

“I didn’t know it was that good.  Look at all the Americans in the stands.”

“Well, it beats me what’s going on.  But I’d better get some tickets for next week’s game.”

So not willing to be left out and embarrassed because they wouldn’t watch games in their own league, Canadians jumped on the bandwagon too, and the games were sold out.  They even made some noise like the Americans did.  And the trend continued...


CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon came into work the next morning.

“I had the strangest dream last night,” he told his staff.  “Some Americans from Buffalo started to watch the Argonauts, and it got trendy.  So many Americans started watching that Canadians wanted to watch too.  They were selling out the domes in Toronto and Vancouver.  They got big American TV ratings.”

He shook his head.

“Then the mayor of Toronto started bidding for the Grey Cup game again.  We didn’t have to worry about Toronto losing the Argonauts ever again.  London, Kitchener, Windsor, and Victoria all wanted expansion teams.  It was incredible... nah, it couldn’t happen.”


    Johnny Manziel Fails to Sign CFL Contract by Deadline

    CFL logo

    Johnny Manziel Fails to Sign CFL Contract by Deadline

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report

    Redblacks Beat Stampeders 39-33 to Win Grey Cup

    CFL logo

    Redblacks Beat Stampeders 39-33 to Win Grey Cup

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report

    Scouting Best NFL Prospects from CFL and Canada

    CFL logo

    Scouting Best NFL Prospects from CFL and Canada

    Kevin Seifert