Unless they get a new stadium, Argos are doomed

The crowd, if you can call it that, takes in the Argos-Roughriders tilt at the Rogers Centre in...

The crowd, if you can call it that, takes in the Argos-Roughriders tilt at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., Aug. 18, 2011. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:07 PM ET

TORONTO - Some weeks back, as the Beezer Express made its way from Nelson, in the British Columbia interior, to Vancouver, we noticed an ever-increasing number of Saskatchewan licence plates on the road.

By the time we hit Hope — home of the world-famous Hope Chainsaw Woodcarving Competition — every second car seemed to be from Saskatchewan.

I asked my friend Carole Chalmers, who had hitched a ride with Bubba, Crazy and myself, to check her Blackberry and see if the Roughriders happened to be playing in Vancouver that weekend.

“You hit the nail on the head,” Carole said, a couple of minutes later. “They’re playing the Lions tomorrow night.”

Proving again just how loyal fans of the Green Riders are.

Our drive from Nelson to Vancouver, all of 91/2 hours, almost killed me. And here were all these good Prairie folk making a much longer drive for a regular season CFL game.

One of the refreshing parts of leaving Toronto for a few weeks every year and heading out west is being reminded of the fact that CFL is still cherished in many places, the best example being Saskatchewan, a province with an entire population about a third of Toronto’s.

Riders fans don’t bat an eye if the temperatures fall below freezing, or if the skies open up over Taylor Field. And they’ll travel great distances to watch their team play.

As Wild Bill Hunter, the former owner of the WHA Edmonton Oilers, who once tried to bring the NHL to Saskatoon, told my colleague Steve Simmons a few decades ago (Sy’s much older than me): “People from Saskatchewan will drive five hours to go to a movie.”

And that’s the truth. Thursday night at Rogers Stadium, green jerseys and T-shirts were sprinkled throughout the stands, despite the fact that the Riders are a miserable 1-6 going into the game against an equally miserable 1-6 Argos.

It’s hard to imagine what the crowd would have been like if not for the turnout by the Saskatchewan faithful.

Still, I’m a firm believer that, given the right atmosphere, Argos football could be great again in this city.

Everybody knows a few years ago, the Montreal Alouettes were dying playing inside the lifeless Olympic Stadium, and actually left Quebec for a few years.

But a couple of years ago, the city, province and team owner Robert Wetenhall spent $29 million to refurbish Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, and now it’s a great venue to watch regular season CFL football. Just big enough (25,000 seats) to give it a big game feel, but cozy enough that if 20,000 show up, it’s still rocking.

That’s what the Argos need.

Thursday’s crowd was 20,482, but, even with the roof opened, the atmosphere was pretty stale, even with the Saskatchewan fans.

A move to a 25,000-30,000- seat stadium, with all the bells and whistles, would put the Argos back on the map. I truly believe that. The Argos are tenants at the Rogers Centre and it really shows.

But the problem is, where would they play?

Even if they moved into BMO Field — and that’s probably not going to happen — they’d have to drop millions to change the dimensions of the field. Failing that, the team’s owner, David Braley, would have to drop some major coin to build their own stadium. But it’s not certain if Braley is willing to pony up that kind of money.

BMO Field cost close to $62 million to build and it’s no bargain. The atmosphere at BMO Field is great because of the crowd, not because of the stadium.

The crowds at the Rogers Centre for Argos game are some of the smallest in the CFL and the atmosphere at the 52,000-seat stadium, particularly when the roof is closed, is not great.

Something’s got to give, or I’m afraid the CFL in Toronto is doomed. It’s just a matter of time, in my opinion.


Videos

Photos