TORONTO - At one point during the first half of Thursday night’s CFL pre-season game between the Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes at the Varsity Centre, mayor Rob Ford got up from his seat near the 50-yard line and began walking towards the stadium elevator.
A group of fans began to applaud, Ford stopped and waved, and then a Montreal reporter stood up in the press box and yelled: “Hey Mayor. You’ve got my vote!” explaining later that, as far as civic corruption goes, Toronto is minor league compared to his town.
Which may be true.
And while the Varsity Centre — with it’s 5,000 seats for football (though they squeezed in 6,204 for Thursday’s game with a standing room only crowd on the west side) — is technically minor league compared to the Argos regular home, the Rogers Centre, the feel of Thursday’s pre-season game certainly had a better vibe than most Argos pre-season games, even though there was no beer for sale, the concessions quickly ran out of soft drinks, there was no water and the sun blinded the fans for most of the first half.
Still, even with the hardships, the atmosphere reinforced the long-held notion that the Argos belong anywhere other than big, old Rogers Centre, and if this franchise wants to become relevant again, the club has to make a move to a place like the Varsity Centre sooner rather than later, though with more seats and a license to sell booze.
The Argos played at the old Varsity Stadium for 50 years, until 1958, when the franchise moved to the old Exhibition Stadium. And all these years later, it still seems like an ideal spot for CFL football.
Hours before the game, passersby gathered along the fence on Bloor St. W and in the parkettes on the southwest and southeast corners of the stadium to watch the players warm up. Instead of huge traffic jams lining up to get into barren parking lots, fans filed out of St. George’s subway station and gathered at the restaurant and bars on Bloor, with no worries of driving home half in the bag. As Argos slotback Andre Durie said on Wednesday, there was a “city vibe” to the game, one that you don’t get at cavernous Rogers Centre.
“You look at the buildings around here, you look at how nice and intimate the seating arrangement is here. It’s nice,” Durie said.
It certainly had an intimate feel, though, without beer, much of the rowdiness you usually get at CFL games was missing, though not on the field. Because the teams were situated on the same side of the field, there were frequent shouting matches between the players — all of which could clearly be heard by the fans. And once the sun had finally set, and the fans cooled off, it was quite comfortable.
Still, the fact that there was no beer was unexpected and mortifying for many fans, including two old neighbourhood buddies of mine, Brian Stinson and Fred Aulich. Sure, it was only a pre-season tilt, but pro football without beer is unfathomable. Brian and Fred were last seen mugging some hobo on Bloor St. for his Lonesome Charlie (which is probably not what you think).
With only 5,000 seats, the atmosphere at the Varsity was cozy, though not exactly big-league. Still, if the Argos could ever find a stadium to play in with the urban feel of Varsity, but with perhaps 15-20,000 more seats, they’d hit paydirt. It really is a shame that the Argos continue to play at the Rogers Centre. Even when they get 25,000 for a game, the place is like a morgue, especially if the dome is closed. Rogers Centre is just too big.
There were talks to bring the Argos to Varsity Stadium a few years ago, but those talks fell through. There were also discussions to reconfigure BMO Field or build a stadium at York University or at a location in Downsview for the Double Blue. But nothing worked out and the Argos continue to play at Rogers, and are negotiating to play there for a few more seasons to come, at least until grass is installed.
The Alouettes were in the same predicament as the Argos a few years ago, playing at the even more cavernous Olympic Stadium, before moving to Molson Stadium at McGill University. Molson Stadium is not only a great place to watch a football game but the change revitalized the franchise. That’s what the Argos need. Desperately.
Yes, the Rogers Centre has a roof and fans are dry and warm on wet and cold nights, but football is meant to be played in miserable weather. The Argos don’t need a roof. They need a place where, when 20-25,000 fans show up, there’s a party atmosphere.
If the Argos can’t find a smaller, more intimate place to play, then David Braley should sell the team to someone who is willing to build a new 20-25,000 seat facility somewhere. The longer the Argos wait to make a move, the further they’ll fall into irrelevancy.