After several seasons on the road in anywhere but southern Ontario, Grey Cup organizers are ready to put their fear of failure to rest.
By the time it gets to Rogers Centre in 2007, the Grey Cup festival will have spent 15 years away from the city which was once its permanent home.
In a story first broke by the Hamilton Spectator, insiders around the Canadian Football League reluctantly confirmed over the weekend the Toronto Argonauts have been awarded the rights to play host to the Grand National Drunk in November, 2007. Vancouver has this year's game, Winnipeg the 2006 affair, and then it's the return to Hogtown.
This is a throbbing beacon of positive symbolism for the CFL, which for years had been terrified to return the Grey Cup game to southern Ontario, for fear it would fall flat on its face, get lost in the rich smorgasborg of entertainment options along Lake Ontario and embarrass the league and its sponsors. But, with the CFL still on the rise, and about 90 per cent of its major corporate sponsors and partners headquartered in or around Toronto, the league couldn't keep avoiding the money capital of the country. To do so would have given the CFL the appearance of self-doubt, mixed with fear.
As has been the case in most of the purchases of troubled, or expansion, franchises in recent years when Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon bought the Argos were promised a Grey Cup Game by the end of the decade. But the assumption was the Toronto Grey Cup would be played in the CFL's modern answer to Fenway Park, a tiny jewel of football stadium -- likely Varsity, where so many of the Grey Cup's early legends were created -- which the new Argo owners were trying to build. When, first Varsity, then York, then everything else, fell apart the Argos returned to Rogers Centre; in what was widely viewed as a booby prize.
But surprise, surprise. Even in the cavernous downtown dome the Argos have managed to maintain the momentum they have been building for a year, momentum most observers felt was based primarily on the promise to move to more intimate digs. True, there are still many disgruntled fans who bought season tickets for this year, in anticipation of gaining the inside track for seats on the Varsity 55, but they're still going to the games, and the complaints are down to a whisper.
So, the Argos had their Grey Cup date moved up. Montreal probably would have had the 2007 game, and Toronto 2008 or 2009 because the new stadium wouldn't have been ready until then. With the CFL front and centre, Rogers Centre a little more intimate for football than it used to be, relations vastly improved between the landlord and tenant since Rogers bought the concrete crucible, and the Argos defending Cup champions and one of the favourites to win it this year, the time was right for a Toronto Grey Cup game. The weird aspect is how reluctant the CFL was to have the story come out, partly because as Argo president Keith Pelley said, the contracts aren't yet signed. But this past weekend -- when the Spectator and Toronto Star fleshed out the story -- was the final weekend (out of 73) that the CFL did not face formal NHL competition. This would have been the time to proudly proclaim, rather than sheepishly concede, that the league had made great use of centre stage during the NHL lockout, and was now strong enough and confident enough to return to the city where "major league" is not just a preference, it's a whining obsession.
There was a time when the Grey Cup was held only in Toronto. The first 10 games after World War II were at Varsity, and seven of the next 11 were held there or at Exhibition Stadium, with the other four going to Vancouver's Empire Stadium. Even when the CFL decided, starting with the 1967 centennial in Ottawa, to start moving the game around the country a bit, Toronto still had the game every second year.
But then the Blue Jays arrived in 1976, the spectacularly short-sighted CFL lost a generation of TV viewers, and the CFL began being regarded as minor league in the oh-so-hip Greater Toronto Area. In the last 23 years, the Grey Cup has been held in Toronto only twice: in 1989, when the SkyDome was just five months old and still the engineering gem of North American stadia, and in 1992. The latter had the smallest audience of any Grey Cup in 17 years. In the only other southern Ontario Grey Cup since 1982 (Hamilton,1996) the crowd was only 38,595 and the week got little coverage in the major Toronto media, so the CFL got extremely cold feet. Why not keep the ultimate game where it mattered, and would make money -- in Regina, and Edmonton and Winnipeg and Calgary, with the odd Montreal and Vancouver thrown in?
But things have changed in the CFL. The league is becoming more centralized, and franchises -- while still generating the majority of their income locally -- are starting to get increased returns from the head office. There is a realization if the CFL is to maintain its new foothold in the national sports psyche, it must be a presence in the richest, most populous area. If the Grey Cup can make a huge splash in Toronto in two years, the ripple effect will be felt from Vancouver to whatever Atlantic city wins the coveted tenth franchise.
To that end, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will be helping the Argonauts market the 2007 Grey Cup. And they'll expect the return when the Cats get a Cup for Hamilton, in perhaps '09 or '10.
"We're desperate for the Argonauts to be successful," says broad-thinking Cat owner Bob Young. "We want to beat them on the field, but we want their business to succeed."
And a successful Toronto Grey Cup would be incredibly good for business. Not just for the Argos and Ticats, but the entire CFL. With Rogers, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and God knows who else, starting to move toward bringing the NFL to town, the timing of Lord Earl Grey's triumphant return could not be any better.