2 teams, 2 leagues, 1 city

Howard Sokolowski bought the Argos

Howard Sokolowski bought the Argos "not to make money, but not to lose money, either." (SUN MEDIA/Dave Abel)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:33 AM ET

Howard Sokolowski asks the question rhetorically, partly because it is, and partly because he constantly is seeking opinions.

"What happens to the Argos if the National Football League comes to Toronto?"

It is the question the Argos co-owner puts out there in private conversations with friends and those whose opinion he values. And by extension he asks: What happens, in turn, to the Canadian Football League?

"I grew up with Joe Theismann," Sokolowski said, speaking like a fan of the 1970s. "I cried for a month after the Leon McQuay fumble. That's part of who I am."

It's part of who a lot of us are.

But memories don't make for sound business decisions and Sokolowski who, along with partner David Cynamon, bought the Argos "not to make money, but not to lose money, either."

So the question without answer is: Can the CFL and the NFL co-exist in Canada? And locally, can the Argos and the Toronto Bills, or whatever they eventually will be called, co-exist in this market?

This much we know: Canadians adore football. A record number of television viewers -- more than five million -- watched last week's Super Bowl. The number, somewhat surprisingly, trounced the strong Grey Cup numbers from November.

And more Canadians watched NFL playoffs on television this season than watched CFL playoffs. That's not necessarily a commentary on either league, but an understanding that more than nine million Canadians (some of them the same people, no doubt) watched both the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup.

This is how large football has become: Those one-day audiences are the equivalent to 70 televised Raptors games.

That means there is an audience large enough and strong enough for both brands of football in this city, if not, this country. The trouble for Sokolowski may not come from maintaining interest in his Argos -- where he has a small but passionate group of ticket-holders -- but from the rest of the league getting buried in the largest city in Canada.

Consider what has happened to the Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders since their victory. The coach left. The quarterback and league MVP wants to try out in New Orleans. The former all-star running back has been released.

Were this a CFL market rather than an Argos market, this would be huge news.

Were it Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Randy Moss, think of the headlines. But it's Kent Austin and Kerry Joseph and Corey Holmes. It is that CFL disconnection from city to city that doesn't penetrate mainstream media or much of the general public here. Toronto is not a CFL town; for football, it's an Argos town and an NFL town.

Toronto has changed so much as a sporting city from the romantic times of Theismann, Leo Cahill and McQuay. The Maple Leafs have become King Kong. The rest of the sporting franchises play David to the Leafs' Goliath.

The Raptors sell tickets but do terribly on television. The Blue Jays have an older, smaller audience than they've had in the past, and mediocre television numbers nationally. Every year is a fight for them. The Argos, in recent years, have been on the upswing in both attendance and television audience, but still it's a fractured, older audience and doesn't translate to the mainstream either.

A NFL team in Toronto would dwarf the Raptors, Jays and Argos. If their audiences are niche now, they will become even more niche in the future. The NFL, with its marvellous television package, it's everyday sell of news, is made for consumers at home. My kids, ages 20 and 18, eat this up. They live NFL. I suspect many of yours do also.

It never has been a question of which game is better to watch. It's a question of what's inevitable. The key for the long-term survival of the Argos and the CFL in this market may be to do what Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young has encouraged. Make a deal that works for both the NFL and the CFL.

The Raptors may never have got off the ground at the Air Canada Centre without many Leafs ticket-holders being forced to buy Raptors seats. A similar kind of situation would be in the best interest of all parties here.

There are enough football fans here to find a way to sustain an audience for both the Argos and the Bills.

No doubt, it will be a challenge. But considering the history of both the CFL and the Argos, when hasn't it been a challenge?


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