CFL Pass

Reported NFL interest in Toronto market: Cause for panic?

If the medium-term financial future of the Toronto Argonauts – and likely the entire CFL itself – is in doubt, all the more worrisome becomes a single sound bite from the

NFL owners meeting going on in Phoenix, Arizona, this week.
News of one or more NFL franchises relocating to the Los Angeles area may already be considered old hat by now, but over at the big league’s website runs the mortifyingly-titled piece “Buffalo Bills owner not opposed to franchise in Toronto.”

Reports Kevin Patra in part: “… Toronto hasn’t been completely crossed off the list of potential landing spots in the future. 

“With new Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula keeping the team in Western New York permanently, it seemed to have closed the door on a franchise moving to Toronto. However, Pegula [said] he has no qualms about another team moving into his neighborhood.

“‘I don't think I would have a problem with it if they could support the team. … [Toronto] is a big enough market.’”

So nothing too apocalyptic there, perhaps; Pegula’s taking a diplomatic tack, emphasizing his support while not necessarily stating that he’d actually vote in favor of such a franchise move at future owners’ meetings. Heck, he might simply have been, um, bending the truth a bit to clear a silly hurdle on the way to NFL ownership.

Fair enough, we suppose.

Except.

Pegula goes on to state that “I believe I was asked that question when I was approved as an owner, and it was an affirmative answer to the league.”

Hammering this potential nail into the coffin is Patra’s affirmation to said affirmative that “What the NFL’s question to Pegula during the purchasing process and his ultimate response about having a team in Toronto tells us is that the league still has the Canadian city on its list of possible relocation sites after L.A. ultimately gets settled.”

How long has Toronto been enumerated thusly? Since 2013, when the reality of the Bills leaving first surfaced, at very least. Further, the NFL clearly sees the sale of the Buffalo franchise and the relocation to Los Angeles are mere signposts on the road to entering the Toronto market.

And now a dismal game of connect-the-dots begins.

When Jeffery Orridge was named CFL commissioner earlier this month, he quickly identified the elephant in the room, i.e. the city in which the announcement of the appointment was held. After noting that every team’s financial health was crucial, “[Toronto] is vitally important to the health of the league.”

The immediate concern facing the Argonauts is the team’s 2017-expiring lease. (Incidentally, ’17 would be the first season for which an extant NFL franchise could relocate to Toronto – not at all unlikely with at least the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars probably still looking for new host cities by then.) The general public’s knowledge of the situation is currently limited to former CFL commissioner’s comment that talks between Argos ownership and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment regarding use of BMO Field “are ongoing.”

Naturally, Toronto-based media argues that the Argos’ future is the first priority for Orridge. As the Star figures it, “If the Argos don’t flourish, there will be a big question mark over the league’s future. As John Tory, the Toronto mayor and a former CFL commissioner himself, said recently, the league might be able to survive without the Argonauts ‘but it would not survive in a strong kind of way.’ That’s an understatement.”

(Random thought: The demise of the Argonauts would be a bit of a political embarrassment for Tory, wouldn’t you think?)

With what the Star editorialist paints as uncaring ownership in Toronto perhaps enough to bring the franchise to its knees, the NFL temptress lurks.

Every year we are reminded that Canadian viewership of the Super Bowl is on the increase, but more significant are a fact or two found by independent polling company Angus Reid around Grey Cup time last year.

In the online poll – the medium is significant – Angus Reid found that the majority of CFL fans were 55 years of age and up, a finding that led one pollster to deduce that “the long-term popularity of the game could be in trouble.” (Except in Saskatchewan, apparently.)

Further, “About two-thirds of Canadians in that really crucial 18- to 34-year-old age bracket were the ones [preferring the Super Bowl to the Grey Cup] … It’s the same in terms of preference among younger Canadians when it comes to Canadian football versus Canadian hockey — much stronger affinity for and much stronger following among younger Canadians for professional hockey than for professional football.”

Uglier still about Angus Reid’s results is the generally lower internet use rate by the 55-and-older set, implying that the majority found by the pollsters could yet be larger.

More proof of Toronto’s support for NFL *though not necessarily CFL – football comes in the statistics that the NFL and/or Buffalo Bills ownership have trotted out over the years: Four of the six games the Bills have played in Toronto drew over 50,000; while the past couple years have “only” drawn 38,000-plus, possibly indicating that Canadians show the same level of disinterest at losing-and-limping franchises as do Americans.

In any case, that 38,000 for the so-so Bills is 7,000 more than the standard seating plan at Rogers Centre and over twice the attendance per game for the Argonauts last season – and this team won the Grey Cup as recently as 2012!

Ironically, the standing business agreement between the CFL and NFL based on a loan issued by the latter back in 1997 was ultimately not renewed 10 years later, broken off by the CFL over Rogers Communications signing a deal for the aforementioned Bills games hosted in Toronto. The CFL should therefore by expecting no sympathy for the Argonauts and/or their market’s plight from the NFL over matters of relocation.

Unfortunately – possibly incredibly, depression-inducingly unfortunately for the CFL – the sports world revolves around the bottom line. And NFL interests must be thinking that an impressive-looking bottom line could be had in Toronto.

Is it time to panic yet?