Despite recession, fans still buying Argos tickets

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:55 AM ET

Not once in Bob Nicholson’s media guide bio does it mention he carried a football.

But if the Toronto pro sports marketing landscape was drawn up like a running play, Nicholson and his Argos might look like a lone O trying to plough through a dozen Xs. The first hurdles are the lousy economy, which likely means lower season’s tickets renewals and related revenue, on top of last year’s 4-14 turn-off season.

Then there’s the Bills, Leafs, Blue Jays, Raptors, TFC, two pro lacrosse teams, plus an Indy race that’s driving right through tomorrow’s home opener against Saskatchewan.

Nicholson, the Argos returning president and CEO, doesn’t sugarcoat the task of making an impact amid such company, pointing out that festivals such as Just For Laughs and Luminato are now part of the competition for a shrinking entertainment dollar, too.

But Nicholson, who was born and raised in Toronto, oversaw the Jays’ coffers for almost two decades and was part of two Grey Cups in the 1990s in his first term as president, says the team is adapting to these new realities.

“We survived last year,” Nicholson said with a laugh, a reference to dire predictions of Double Blue doomsday when the NFL Bills gained a toe-hold at the Rogers Centre.

“We haven’t heard as much about that this year, but it’s interesting that we had our biggest walk-up for a game right after they played here. So we know there’s football interest.”

In 1976, just before the Jays arrived, the Argos drew an average of 47,356. After a steady decline to 15,083 in 2003 — when the David Cynamon-Howard Sokolowski partnership rescued the team from bankruptcy — attendance was almost 31,000 in ’07. That’s considered a good number in this day, one the team hopes to retain after last year’s awful record and two coaching changes cost them about 50,000 fans.

Ultimately, Nicholson hopes for Glory Days’-type crowds, but the new owners concentrated on populating the 100 and 200 levels and filling the upper gaps with giant banners of Argo greats.

Tickets this season are between $20 and $79, with season’s seats ranging from $300 to $749.

With the recession killing so many jobs, Nicholson is forecasting a slight downward trend in overall crowds for ’09, but a spike in group sales (10 or more).

What the Argos can control is putting a better product on the field, hence new coach Bart Andrus and a roster shake-up.

“We’re going to surprise some people,” Nicholson predicted of his 1-0 squad.

Like many, Nicholson wants to re-connect with the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ of Argo fans, who kept a candle burning for the team in the lean years.

But with the Leafs and Raptors feeling the financial pinch — and trying to make a dent in the ethnic community with changing demographics — the Argos are also diversifying.

“We want to build up an interest in football in areas where it hasn’t been strong,” Nicholson said. “We want to win over a new generation.”

The Argos have shows on Sun TV and the Fan 590 radio and benefit from the continuing popularity of televised CFL games.

Nicholson said there have been no actual discussions about a move to an expanded BMO Field with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., though it could get interesting as the Argos enter the last of their current five-year deal at the Rogers Centre with an option for another.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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