Rudge's game face is on

Toronto Argos CEO Chris Rudge stopped by the Toronto Sun to chat with its editorial board, March...

Toronto Argos CEO Chris Rudge stopped by the Toronto Sun to chat with its editorial board, March 23, 2012. (CHRIS DOUCETTE/QMI Agency)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:17 AM ET

TORONTO - In one sentence, Chris Rudge summed up the risk-reward opportunity that awaits the Toronto Argonauts, a potentially make-or-break moment that has taken 100 years to arrive, a rare moment in time that simply must be seized.

A master salesman who has defied the odds by turning businesses no one figured were salvageable, let alone profitable, Rudge made his passionate pigskin pitch Friday in front of the Toronto Sun’s editorial board, expressing words that cut to the very core of the CFL’s core event.

“If we can’t capture the excitement of the Grey Cup to resurrect the CFL brand and the Argos brand, we will have lost the greatest opportunity that’s ever been presented to this franchise in its history,’’ Rudge said.

In the history of North American pro sports, no franchise has endured longer than the Argonauts, a franchise that has experienced its share of hardships and hardware.

In the history of North American pro leagues, no loop has been written off as dead more often than the CFL, whose appeal and appreciation can only be fully appreciated when one ventures outside Toronto.

It’s under this backdrop that Rudge must make the Argos relevant in a marketplace where three-down football has lost a lot of its lustre and cache for reasons that would require way too many words and far too much time to explain.

While there’s no quick fix and no obvious solution to all that ails the Argos, the 100th Grey Cup, and the attendant pomp and ceremony, presents the team and the CFL a stage that will never be duplicated.

As Rudge readily admitted on Friday, and it’s a position he has maintained from the day owner David Braley made Rudge the team’s top executive, the goal is to build a brand that will be sustainable for years to follow.

Moments of greatness have been fleeting in Argoland and even in those times of high-end football, it hasn’t exactly translated at the turnstile and on the bottom line.

The Argos aren’t exactly throwing all their eggs into the Grey Cup basket, but at the same time the CFL’s marquee event must serve as a catalyst.

In typical Rudge fashion, he spoke with an air of confidence and credibility to an audience accustomed to the hot air spewed by politics, in front of a gathering whose roots to the CFL date back to their days as a youth when their fathers would accompany them to football games.

When Rudge speaks, people listen because he has way of captivating an audience, an approach he’ll continue to embrace as he steers the Argos, from a business side, in this all-important time.

With so much on the line and at stake, the Argos and the CFL have teamed up to pursue every conceivable angle in trying to ensure that every stakeholder gets sufficient bang for their buck.

At the end of the day, though, no one stands to win more than the Argos.

Even if the CFL doesn’t see an Argos turnaround, the CFL brand is so strong outside the 416 and 905 area codes that it can survive and will survive.

In essence, what’s at stake for the CFL is that rarest of moments when its biggest market may actually embrace three-down football.

As he said on Monday when the Argos held a town-hall meeting with their season-ticket base, Rudge is under no illusions of the challenges the team must tackle.

He’s thinking big and will not buy into excuses others have presented.

“I’ve never seen any business move forward by setting the bar low,’’ said Rudge. “You got to stretch yourself continually.”

With the Winter Olympics, Rudge recalls the naysayers when the goal was to emerge from Vancouver with the most medals.

That’s how high Rudge has raised the bar for the Double Blue, a club he believes can be in the black by 2014.

It starts, though, with the on-field product, which history in this area has shown does not necessarily translate into winning over fans.

Everything from improving the in-game experience will be explored as the Argos enter a critical stage in their evolution, a time when it’s imperative to develop a business model that will one day prompt an owner to take over from Braley, whose goal is to get out of football in three years.

“This town is dying for a winning team,’’ Rudge added. “And I’d like us to be the first at the gate.”

'STADIUM IS WHAT IT IS'

Everywhere one looks across the CFL landscape, one sees renovations to stadiums, new playpens that will soon be completed, including new stands in Ottawa.

Everywhere, that is, except in Toronto, where the stadium issue remains an impediment that clearly must somehow be overcome.

“The stadium is what it is,’’ said Argonauts chief executive officer Chris Rudge, who will also oversee this year’s Grey Cup festival.

It’s a situation where the Argos have little to no say in dates, which has the club playing on every day of the week this coming season.

It’s a situation where the team is treated like a second-class citizen, where the fan experience isn’t exactly ideal.

With no plans to build a stadium for the Argos, Rudge has been working very closely with Blue Jays president Paul Beeston.

The two met over breakfast on Thursday as the Argos work out a lease deal that will expire this season.

“Our challenge is to make that stadium an exciting place to be,’’ added Rudge.

An exciting on-field product can’t hurt and a compelling game-day experience will certainly endear the Argos to their fans. And when Rogers Centre is teeming with fans, the atmosphere can be electric.


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