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  • Reeve Batstone

Argos from Adversity to Diversity: Part Deux

Photo courtesy: TSN (The Greatest Team That Never Won)

Last week I wrote about the leadership role that the Argonauts have played in supporting diversity on the playing field and on the bench, with particular reference to quarterbacking. This week I am going to look at diversity in the front office and ownership for your venerable, beloved and sometimes beleaguered Toronto Argonauts. These “beautiful uglies” are the granddaddy of all professional football teams and their history is possibly the richest in the game both before and after the introduction of the forward pass.

Unlike the President, GM, Head Coach and QB roles, the Argonauts have never had an African American or Black owner. Surprisingly, for a league known for its role in the acceptance of diverse QBs the CFL had its first non-caucasian owner in 2021 with the purchase of the BC Lions by Amar Doman. Moreover, the Lions also had the first Indo- Canadian co- founder as Jas Sidhoo was one of the original community members that established the Lions in 1954. Prior to that the closest a non-caucasian came to being an owner was Normie Kwong who as President of the Calgary Stampeders oversaw the sale of the club to Larry Ryckman, in 1991. It also marked the transition of the club from a community owned to privately owned team. This was two years after the BC Lions followed the same path and were privatized under the ownership of the colourful mining stock promoter, Murray Pezim.

From their founding in 1873 the Argonauts were a non- profit community owned team until 1956. In these 83 years of community ownership, they had 29 coaches, and won 10 Grey Cups (from 1909). They averaged a Grey Cup every 4.7 years and had a stellar winning percentage of .581 under community ownership. They weren’t just the beasts of the east; they dominated the Dominion. In terms of success, they were the Montreal Canadiens of football. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and following their sale to John Bassett and partners in 1956 the Argonauts embarked on the most protracted period of mediocrity in their history. In the next 27 years they made it to only one Grey Cup, a heartbreaking loss to the Calgary Stampeders in 1971. In the last 66 years the Argos have had 16 ownership groups, 19 General managers, 39 Head Coaches, (an astonishing average tenure of 1.67 years).

Given the high churn rate at all levels predictably the average winning percentage dropped to .474 under private ownership but a surprisingly respectable seven Grey Cups, or an average of approximately one per decade. Like a skipping stone the Argos landed occasionally on a Grey Cup but spent most seasons in suspension.

Their entirely caucasian ownership groups were nevertheless colourful. They just had diversity more broadly defined. The Argonauts have had several owners and GMs of Jewish ancestry. Whether this qualifies as diversity anymore is for you, not me, to decide. But in terms of nationality only two of the nineteen GMs during the private ownership era, Paul Masotti, and Michael Clemons (naturalized) have been Canadians.

John Bassett, a Canadian broadcasting heavyweight, was a larger-than-life personality who ushered in the era when the Argos and their GMs recruited out of Sports Illustrated. This began in 1971 with the signing of Joe Theismann and continued with Anthony Davis (1976) Terry Metcalf (1978), Rocket Ismail (1991), Doug Flutie (1996) and Ricky Williams (2006). Not all of them achieved success on the field, nor did all of their teams. The prevailing thinking was that in order to achieve success on the field and at the gate the Argos needed an American star. The facts do not bear this out.

Prior to Theismann the Argos had already had success with Tom Wilkinson at QB, and Heisman trophy runner up, Anthony Davis, was a bust. And while Ismail had an impressive 1991 Grey Cup game Flutie had by far the greatest impact on the field. People forget, however, that the Argos also had a sensational defence during his Toronto years. Ironically, the player who arguably had the greatest effect on attendance was Davis (the Argos attracted 44,000 to their intra- squad game in 1976). None of the other Argos players increased attendance appreciably in their time. In fact, the biggest regular season crowd the Argos drew during Ismail’s two-year tenure was 41,000 for his debut, 9,000 short of a sellout. It was all downhill from there. The notion that a superstar can change the trajectory of attendance in Toronto is a myth. Tom Brady could come out of retirement and start for the Argos and they would not sell out. The issues are deeper and broader than that. Its about brand and long standing under investment in amateur football relations. All politics is local and so are the Argos.

Larry Tanenbaum is not the first owner who has mused about going to American rules or an American league. John Bassett threatened to take the Argos to the NFL in 1974. Ostracized by his fellow owners he sold the Argos to Bill Hodgson the following year. Will history repeat itself? Private owners have different objectives and priorities. Ironically, with the exception of the Premier League the CFL has more in common with the ownership and governance of European football than American. That is to say that it’s dominated by community ownership. More on that later.

Who could forget the short-lived ownership of Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky? The candle that burned twice as bright lasted half as long. Candy was the personification of the ideal private Argo owner. He played high school football at Neil McNeil High school in Scarborough, loved the Argonauts with all his heart and was the quintessential Canadian entertainer; a Hollywood star who had not forgotten from whence he came. Tragically, his tenure was cut far too short.

Conversely, McNall went to prison after declaring bankruptcy. It was not like he was the only CFL owner who had brushes with the law. Harold Ballard also did prison time while Murray Pezim, Larry Ryckman, and former Montreal Alouettes (and almost BC Lions) owner Nelson Skalbania were found guilty of other legal violations. Not exactly a club that anyone would be bragging to their banker about belonging to.

All CFL clubs were at one time community owned. Correlation is not causation but the historical winning percentage of community owned teams like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatchewan is higher than the privately owned teams. Community owned teams dominate the west and the west dominates the east in winning percentage year in and year out. They have less turnover at the executive and coaching level, generally make an operating profit and are worth more (the Riders are estimated to be worth between $60 and 100 million). When they do make coaching changes, they are also less likely to make an impatient coaching change mid season. Presidents of community owned teams report to a Board of directors from across the community. They don’t report to a singular owner who can be more easily swayed by a charismatic “football expert”. If Montreal was a community owned team would Khari Jones be fired after 4 games? I’m guessing not.

The reality is that private owners sometimes have different metrics for success. The Argos don’t align with the community teams. Franchise value is apparently paramount to Larry Tanenbaum. Meanwhile the Argo’s operating deficits amount to peanuts to MLSE as they are roughly equivalent to the cost of a house in Willowdale in today’s market. There are two solitudes between Argo owners and community owners (meanwhile Bob Young and Amar Doman play the role of caretakers and are very supportive of local amateur football). Gary Stern is new at this game and trying valiantly, by passionately supporting his club on social media. It was sad to see his endearingly naïve tweet, (about killing the Argos), go ignored and unanswered by Larry Tanenbaum. It was a perfect opportunity for the Argos owner to get engaged and show he cared about his club by defending them with a clever, tongue in cheek response. The ensuing silence revealed the huge distance that exists between the Argos ownership and other owners. Stern tossed him a softball which begged a clever and good-natured response to draw attention to the game. What player would not want an owner like Gary Stern?! How disappointed the Argos must have been that their owner was MIA.

Tanenbaum compares the Argos asset value to TFC which is now reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. There is a great deal of irony in this. The CFL is the second best forward pass football league in the world and the best Canadian rules league in the world. MLS is likely no better than the 20th best soccer league in the world, however, it is US based and its roster rules favour Americans, even more than the CFL does. Nevertheless, the CFL draws comparable viewership on ESPN to MLS. To add insult to injury the fledgling Canadian Premier League (CPL) has begun to beat teams in the MLS in Nations cup play. Ticats owner Bob Young owns one of these teams. They are reported to be worth approximately $6million. So why are the TFC worth $600 million and the Argos and Hamilton Forge of the CPL worth $6 million? Good question. Its not about quality of play, its about brand. An American brand has a much higher ceiling, its just that simple. A larger market with more money at play. Look at what happened to franchise values after the NHL moved its headquarters from Montreal to New York. The CFL and the Argos brand have consistently and longitudinally sabotaged itself in Toronto. The Argos are a team without a country.

In contrast most of the CFL teams care far less about franchise value than operating deficits. Their franchise value is more diffuse and influenced more by the place that Canadian football holds in their community and the relationship and growth with amateur football. That is where Canadian football lives, at the nexus of community and amateur football. Many CFL teams know and invest in this, the Argos and CFL do not, and have squandered this low hanging fruit for so long that it’s starving the club. A case in point; twenty years ago, Bobby Ackles returned from the NFL to revitalize the moribund BC Lions. In short order he created the Waterboys, a large group of community leaders who advised and assisted the club in building and growing football and the Lions in the community. It was very successful and soon attendance grew from 12,000 to 35,000. Years later the Argos copied this idea with the Double Blues, however, when MLSE bought the club, it was cashiered. It never had a chance to succeed with long term leadership and support. The longstanding Argos churn killed it. Self sabotage instead of long-term strategic thinking. The Argos attendance has suffered from long term neglect. MLSE bought the results. There are no quick fixes. Its not complicated but it will take a ‘caretaker’ who loves Canadian football enough to do the work and invest in it for the long term. They need to believe our league is the best football game in the world.

MLSE is a corporate entity which, notwithstanding the Leafs, buys assets and watches them grow with the help of an overarching American brand. They are not built to promote community assets whose brand is essentially Canadian (and non -profit), or at least invisible to Americans. They buy and hold for capital appreciation; operating deficits are sometimes less important to them. Contrast this with Harold Ballard who used the Ticats losses to offset some of his profits from Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Canadian Football League needs to reconcile MLSE’s ownership of the Argos with its own name and stop sabotaging its own brand and Canadian players. It’s an existential imperative. They must invest in a positive long-term relationship with Football Canada while the Argos ownership does the same with amateur football in the GTA. Both must do this much better before they can successfully go Global.

Diversity is strength and the beauty of successful “community” ownership is that it reflects the diversity inherent in the community. They are inextricably linked. Success will inevitably follow authentically diverse governance.

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