Can Argos buzz last for more than a week?

An Argonauts fan cheers on his team during the CFL East semifinal game against the Eskimos at the...

An Argonauts fan cheers on his team during the CFL East semifinal game against the Eskimos at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., Nov. 11, 2012. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:26 PM ET

TORONTO - Up until now, there had been almost complete separation between those making preparations for the 100th Grey Cup and those running the Toronto Argonauts.

Many of the people may be the same. The organization and ownership of the game may be the same. But Grey Cup Week was going on, more ambitious than ever, larger, richer and full of more events than have been attempted before, with or without the Argos in the game.

And then the best thing that could have happened to Grey Cup Week happened on Sunday. The Argos won the East. The great celebration, in the largest market in the country, suddenly had a home team, a real home team -- the very team we haven't known how to feel about for years.

As the Week kicked off Monday with a superb Mud Bowl recreation at WA Porter High School, an Argos front office man talked about the possibility and probability of Grey Cup week: "A lot of people are going to jump on our bandwagon," he said. "Our job is to try to corral as many of them as possible and make them fans."

That is, and for too long has been, the great Argonaut dilemma: Howard Sokolowski, who so-owned the team prior to David Braley's purchase, once told me the Argos were a fine business, so long as you could have a home Grey Cup every year. "We made money one year," he once told me, "the year we hosted the Grey Cup."

All the other years: "It's impossible to make money owning the Argos any other way."

So here we are, in a town starved for a winner, drooling over the Blue Jays' machinations of the past week, wondering who the Argos are, how popular can they be, and if there is ever a chance for full recovery to what some of us once knew them to be. Or are those days gone forever?

Or are they just memories disappeared like Sam The Record Man, CHUM-AM and afternoon Marlies games at Maple Leaf Gardens. All of them wonderful: All of them not gone.

The Argos sales people ask that same question regularly: How do you step back and step forward all at the same time? How do they become something other than a niche in Canada's largest city? How can a player like Marcus Ball be this great and this unknown all at the same time?

It is a fight that has gone on for so long, perhaps a fight without any kind of conclusion. We all have own views, our timeframes for what happened to the Argos. Almost everyone I talk to has a different story: It's the stadium, the Jake Gaudaur blackouts, the lost generation, the NFL, Canadian rules, the Toronto wannabe thing -- and on and on the stories go.

Here's mine: I grew up at a time when there were only two teams in this city, and there was liittle to distinguish between the Argos in the summer and fall, the Maple Leafs in the winter and spring. We were a two-team town. If you were a sports fan, you followed both, cared passionately about both, cried, like Stephen Harper did, when Leon McQuay fumbled in 1971 and still can't forgive Dick Thornton for cutting the wrong way on the interception that should have won the Grey Cup.

The Argos, then, were more lovable than the Harold Ballard Leafs, more talented and just as fallible. And they were part of daily conversation; There was Mel Profit on television, Dick Thornton on the radio, everywhere you tuned there were Argos.

And they never won anything until 1983, and for some reason that date seems important on the Argos calendar. They won their first Grey Cup in decades, the city celebrated, and one year later the Blue Jays started to contend. It was like a passing in the night on some invisible stock graph. Jays were on the rise: Argos on the decline.

The decline happened to coincide with the Jays becoming more relevant, more a part of Toronto sports, television blackouts preventing non-sold out games from being shown on TV, and an increased number of NFL games being available on TV, as well.

And that was before sports radio invaded the market in the early 1990s, somehow diminshing the Argonauts further. Yes, the Argos were hot in 1991 when they won a Grey Cup when John Candy and Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky owned the team and Rocket Ismail was stolen from the NFL, but that proved to be momentary. The Jays won a World Series in 1992 and 1993. The Leafs, with Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour, were Stanley Cup contenders. Sports radio, and sport television for that matter, found out at the time that people wanted to talk hockey and baseball all the time.

There wasn't a similar appetite for those to talk CFL. The more talk there was of Jays and Leafs, the more the Argos fell from favour. And over time, with increased radio coverage, increased television coverage, the Leafs ended up dwarfing the Blue Jays as well.

It was interesting that on the Monday of Grey Cup Week, talk show icon Bob McCown opened his Prime Time Sports program on The Fan 590 and spoke primarily of the Blue Jays trade getting approved, and otherwise treated the Argos advancement to a championship game as "in other news..." Across the dial on the drive home show on TSN1050 radio, host James Cybulski on Cybulski and Company was talking about the NHL lockout and the upcoming negotiations. The Argos have trouble winning the market, even when they win.

No doubt in Calgary, it was all Stampeders talk and nothing more.

And the local contradicition remains: The ratings on TSN, even with the game involving Montreal, which will reduce the total because of the French audience, will be strong. I believe it was my late friend Jim Hunt who once compared the CFL in Toronto to pornography: People won't leave their homes to watch it, but they will watch on television, and they won't tell anyone they're doing so.

Greg Cup Week for the Argos is really about two things: On the football front, it's about winning a championship. On the business front, its about increasing opportunity. Chris Rudge, who was hired first to run the Grey Cup, then put in charge of the Argos also, has talked often about Toronto, the event town. He was confident he could pull off a successful Grey Cup and certainly had the resources to do it, some of them courtesy of the federal government.

The buildup to this week, even before the Argos pulled off the Sunday upset, was strong. In concert with the CFL and media partners, there were Grey Cup stamps issued, coins issued, a documentary series, a train ride across the country for the Cup itself: Enough to entice some kind of interest, no matter what the age. You walk around Toronto this week, you should know Grey Cup is going on.

That's the event side. The local team has the more difficult job. The Argos, for years, have had trouble selling tickets, the kind of tickets necessary to make Rogers Centre feel like a vibrant home. Had they created the kind of demand Montreal was able to do because of the size and atmosphere of a tiny venue, their audience might have grown more rabid. Instead, they struggle, game to game, year to year, not selling Grey Cup tickets -- Rudge told me he could have sold 70,000 if he had them and he said that before the Argos were the East representatives. Since the game ended Sunday, the push to find more Grey Cup tickets has been considerable.

But the truth is, there aren't many available -- unless you want to pay and then pay some more. This is probably the hottest Grey Cup ticket in years -- and it hasn't hurt either that the young or old of the halftime show includes the odd pairing of Justin Bieber and Gordon Lightfoot. Toronto loves nothing better than a good party.

We indulge in the film festival every year, sell far more tickets for tennis tournaments and car races than we should, because for some reason this is an event town. And the 100th Grey Cup was fashionable with or without the Argos and is more fashionable now.

Whether it can get people talking, about football, about Ricky Ray, about the Chads, Owens and Kackert, about Marcus Ball and Armond Amstread, that's the real test that begins after Sunday's game. Is there still Argo buzz to create in this town, still a chance for the least of likely of Argo comebacks: The one on the balance sheets?

Or is this just a week to enjoy, get involved, have a drink or two, check out the Spirit of Edmonton room, and wait for the next event to come our way?


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