No. 20 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: TorontoAugust 18, 2014
No. 20 Best City to Be a Sports Fan: Toronto
How much does where you live matter as a sports fan? The short answer is: It depends.
If you're an Alabama football fan, there's no better place to live than Tuscaloosa. If you're a Red Sox fan, there's no worse place to live than New York City.
But what if you were a free agent, so to speak? What if you loved sports but didn't have a specific affiliation to any team? Say you're moving to a new city. What city would have the most to offer you as a sports fan? What city would give you the best overall experience?
That is what we're here to find out. We took 25 of the best writers from Bleacher Report and beyond to objectively look at their cities and come up with a ranking. To get a better understanding of the categories and grading criteria, click here.
Toronto comes in at No. 20.
In the realm of professional sports in the United States and Canada, Toronto is—rather quietly—the third-largest market, behind only New York and Los Angeles.
What makes a city with a metro population of over 5.5 million so inconspicuous in the world of sports? The international border that separates its three major teams from everyone else in the NBA, Major League Baseball and the majority of the NHL certainly plays a role. But it also doesn't help that T-Dot lacks a full-time NFL franchise and hasn't produced a winner in hockey, baseball or basketball since the Blue Jays captured their second consecutive World Series title in 1993.
But regardless of all the agony Toronto's teams have given fans on the field, court and ice, the city certainly has its charms if you're a sports lover. Here's how we rate Canada's largest municipality in terms of its sports culture.
Number of Teams/Events: 16/20
Basically, we're docking Toronto four points because it doesn't have a National Football League team. The NFL is the king of the North American sports world. Sure, the Buffalo Bills have played six regular-season and two preseason home games at Rogers Centre since 2008, but until Toronto lands a team it can call its own, it'll be lacking a key component.
Aside from that, Toronto is extremely well-represented in Canada and the United States. The city obviously has the Maple Leafs in hockey, the Raptors in the NBA and baseball's Blue Jays, but it wouldn't be fair if we didn't give it credit for the Argonauts (Canadian Football League), the Rock (National Lacrosse League) and Toronto FC (Major League Soccer).
In fact, those teams have quite strong reputations within the city and throughout Canada. The Argos are the oldest football franchise in North America and have won a record 16 Grey Cups. The Rock are one of only four pro lacrosse franchises that average more than 10,000 fans per game and have won six championships in the last 15 years. Toronto FC is a legitimate title threat in MLS following an offseason spending spree.
Unlike cities such as Chicago, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles, Toronto doesn't have college teams to cheer for (at least not in the NCAA), which is unfortunate. College sports aren't as popular or extensive north of the 49th parallel, so there aren't a lot of non-professional options outside of the Canadian Hockey League (which doesn't draw well in the Greater Toronto Area).
The city does, however, embrace the Champ Car World Series Honda Indy—held on a downtown street circuit—which draws tens of thousands of spectators each summer. The PGA Tour stops by routinely for the RBC Canadian Open, which has been held in Ontario 33 of the last 39 years. And the world of professional tennis hits Toronto every summer for the Rogers Cup.
Oh, and for what it's worth—probably not much—the Pan American Games will be held in Toronto next July.
So sports fans in the city have a wide array of options, including an occasional taste of NFL football—which is less than 100 miles away in Buffalo anyway.
Success of Teams in Last Five Years: 7/20
Those peripheral teams—the Rock and the Argos—have at least given the city some solace in recent years. At home in 2012, the Argos won the 100th Grey Cup, while the Rock, who won a championship in 2011, continue to be perennial contenders.
But beyond that, it's ugly.
The Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and haven't won a playoff series since 2004. In their only playoff appearance of the last decade, they choked on a three-goal, third-period lead in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Boston.
The Raptors also lost their most recent first-round playoff series in excruciating fashion, falling by a single point to the Nets in Game 7 of this year's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Only twice this century has an NBA Game 7 been decided by a single point, and the Raptors were the losing team on both occasions. The first of those came back in 2001, which was also the last and only time Toronto's 19-year-old basketball franchise won a playoff series. Prior to this past season, they hadn't even been to the playoffs since 2008.
The Blue Jays entered 2013 with scary-high expectations following an offseason of splurging, only to fall on their faces with a second consecutive campaign in which they finished double-digit games below .500. They haven't made the postseason since winning the 1993 World Series and have finished with a winning record just once since 2009.
And if you want to include the Bills, who are locked in the NFL's longest playoff drought, it only gets worse. Toronto's quasi-adopted American pro football team has just one winning season this century and hasn't won a playoff game since 1995. Do you know how hard it is for a team to finish with a losing record in 10 consecutive seasons? If things don't change dramatically this fall, that's exactly what'll happen to the Bills.
Air Canada Centre, which houses the Leafs, Raptors and Rock, is a state-of-the-art, 15-year-old facility located smack dab in the heart of Toronto's downtown core. It is flanked by the renowned Real Sports Bar & Grill—which features a famously gigantic screen and in 2010 was named the best sports bar in North America—as well as a massive public square in which fans can gather to watch games free of charge.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Leafs and Raps, couldn't ask for a better venue in terms of comfort, style, sightlines and location.
The same can't all be said for Rogers Centre (nee SkyDome), which in its infancy was widely billed as the "eighth wonder of the world"—what with its Goliath size and fancy retractable roof and all—but has quickly become an antiseptic concrete relic taking up valuable real estate in the center of a tourism hub.
The ACC and Rogers Centre are separated by less than half a mile geographically and only a decade in terms of age, but the latter was built at a bad time.
Just a few years after the SkyDome was unveiled to an amazing amount of fanfare—just check out this video in which CBC's Brian Williams, wearing a tuxedo in a helicopter, hypes up "the opening of the world's first multipurpose, state-of-the-art dome stadium with a fully retractable roof"—retro-style venues were built in Chicago, Baltimore, Texas, Cleveland and Colorado.
Those have aged much better than the hollow Rogers Centre, which feels empty even when it's full. The roof is no longer unique, the hotel in center field is no longer a novelty and the carcasses of once-bustling restaurants are reminders of better days.
No wonder the stadium, which according to CBC cost more than $900 million in 2014 dollars to build, sold to Rogers Communications in 2004 for only $25 million, per TSN. There are houses in this city that cost nearly as much.
Toronto regains some points for BMO Field, which is home to Toronto FC and may actually steal the Argos away from Rogers Centre in the near future. Also owned by MLSE, the 21,566-seat, open-air venue features beautiful views of the Toronto skyline and is located in a cool neighborhood just west of the downtown core. Despite being only seven years old, it has a lot of character.
Fan Passion: 8/10
This isn't exactly quantifiable, so you'll just have to trust a sports writer who has lived in the city his entire life but has also had the ability to travel and experience sports fandom in cities throughout the United States and Canada.
Maple Leafs fans are supremely dedicated. You see them every day in this city, and you feel their pain. They follow that team's every move in similar fashion to Yankees, Red Sox or Canadiens fans. And although Air Canada Centre crowds are sometimes dull due to obscene ticket prices in a white-collar town, a season-ticket waiting list of approximately 20 years is proof that the Leafs' fanbase is top-notch.
The Raptors generally draw solid but not spectacular crowds, as do the Blue Jays. But the city deserves its reputation for possessing a lot of fair-weather fans, because they sure know how to come out and show their support when those teams start getting hot.
I know that's the case everywhere, at least to a degree, but Toronto loses points for sometimes bailing hard on teams not named the Leafs.
Toronto FC and the Rock have been successful, so that hasn't been a factor there yet, but the Jays have been the true victim of the city's vacillating sports fanbase. Last year, with hype surrounding a revamped roster, they drew a very strong 31,315 fans per home game, according to ESPN.com. But during a lame 2009 campaign, they averaged only 23,162.
But overall, an extremely multicultural city has embraced the young Raptors quite strongly. And you can't walk 100 feet in this city without spotting a Jays hat or jersey. These fans can be fickle, but in their defense they've been tortured time and again by losing teams and their Fortune 500 owners. And yet most of them won't give up.
General Fan Experience: 10/15
Leafs games are a little stale, and Jays games are garden-variety, but Raptors games are a party, and Toronto FC games will blow your wool socks off.
The club has several extremely passionate independent supporter groups, each as loud as the next. As a result of their presence, along with the 10,000-plus passionate soccer fans around them, the electricity within that stadium is usually off the charts, with a nonstop chorus of chants complementing the action.
If you aren't a soccer fan and want to stick to the major sports, you could have problems. Leafs and Raptors tickets are expensive and/or hard to come by, and the experience is capped by the fact both teams have sucked for the majority of the current century. Watching the Leafs at a local establishment is actually a pretty cool experience, though, especially if you find a way to get a reservation at Real Sports.
The Olympics and the World Cup don't come frequently enough to count in a major way, but there are few cities that are better for such events. Toronto is one of the most diverse cities on the planet, so the vibe is unmatched for any sort of international tournament or event.
Still, overall, there are much better cities in which to be a sports fan.
Toronto benefits from being the media capital of Canada. Leafs games are featured every Saturday on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, and the Raptors and Jays get nationwide treatment while being considered "Canada's Team" in their respective sports. All 162 Jays games air on Rogers Sportsnet, while it's easy to find every Raptors, Leafs or Argonauts game, usually on national television.
On Saturdays, Toronto sports fans are greeted by the delightful Ron MacLean and his infamous partner, Don Cherry. Jim Hughson, who calls Leafs games on CBC, is a legendary play-by-play man in the making. He has almost fully relieved undisputed legend Bob Cole. And the rest of Toronto's hockey games are handled by the best TSN and Sportsnet have to offer.
The Raptors have longtime pros Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong doing play-by-play and color commentary, respectively, and the well-reputed Buck Martinez is easy to listen to in the Blue Jays' booth. None are broadcast Hall of Famers per se, but they aren't annoying homers and do a quality job.
And you really can't ask for more coverage. This city has four daily newspapers and holds headquarters for all of the national news and sports networks. Despite the fact that Canada is about one-tenth the size of the United States, Bell Media and Rogers have a combined six national sports cable channels, with three more apparently on the way.
Much to the chagrin of the rest of the country, those outlets and networks spend a disproportionate amount of airtime on Toronto teams.
Star Power: 3/10
Toronto hasn't really had an A-list sports star since Vince Carter left town in 2004. I mean, Jose Bautista, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan carry some weight, but Mayor Rob Ford and rapper Drake continue to be the city's most famous residents, and neither plays sports (unless this counts).
However, Drake has at least become an official global ambassador for the Raptors as well as the team's version of Jack Nicholson. That might not be enough to bring fans to games, but it certainly helps put the Raps on the map in new places.
Finally, back to soccer. Internationally, it's kind of a big deal.
You could argue that the three most famous athletes in the city this year were actually Toronto FC stars Jermain Defoe (who has starred for the England national team), Michael Bradley (who played a major role on the American national team at this year's World Cup) and Julio Cesar (who was the starting keeper for the Brazilian team at the World Cup). Although Cesar, who was on loan, is heading back to the Premier League, those three have some serious soccer star power.
Aside from that, though, there isn't much to be found in Toronto.
The Leafs and Argos are old. Very old. So while one hasn't won in nearly half a century and the other isn't familiar to most American fans, the fact is they have a lot of history.
The Leafs were once a powerhouse who won five Stanley Cups in a seven-year span coming out of World War II. All in all, they've got 13 championships on their resume and have had a record 60 players inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. As a result, the rafters at the Air Canada Centre are a beautiful sight.
Again, the Argos are the oldest football club in North America and have a record 16 titles in their history. And while the Blue Jays were never able to reach dynasty status in the early 1990s, they came pretty damn close with back-to-back titles—something only one team has been able to do since.
Those were the good old days for Blue Jays baseball, back when they became the first-ever franchise to draw four million fans in a single season.
Essentially, three of the four major pro teams in this city have stellar backstories. And you can't blame the Raptors for barely being of legal drinking age (in Canada).
Final Tally: 65/100
This has little to do with the fans or the culture or the history and almost everything to do with how poorly the majority of this city's teams have performed for at least a generation.
In fact, you could make the argument that no city this size has had a rougher go of it when it comes to sports in the last 20 years.
Dating back to 1994, New York has a total of eight championships in basketball, hockey, baseball and football. Los Angeles also has eight, as does Boston. Chicago has six. Detroit and Miami have five, while Denver has four. Dallas, St. Louis and Pittsburgh have three, as does San Francisco. Houston has two.
Toronto? Zero. And it's not even close: not one championship appearance.
No wonder it's tough to be a sports fan in T-Dot. But because the fans won't give up, this remains an underrated sports city.