Like most sports fans in the Toronto area, I watched with pride as the FC won the MLS Championship last weekend. It was the second game I’ve watched in it’s entirety the previous 12-months, with the other being last year’s heartbreaking loss to Seattle. Obviously not a big soccer fan, I am a Toronto fan and cheer for all our teams. The Leafs are the number one favourite sports team in the city by an insurmountable margin over the others, but I wonder if we could see the order of preference shift?
The obvious number 2 and 2A falls to the Jays or Raptors depending on the sport of choice; bundled in the third tier has the FC, Argos and Rock. It’s extremely difficult in a large city like ours to gage the popularity of teams besides attendance. But maybe the numbers do lie? The Raptors sell out most of the season but while still working (2 years since retired) it would be a rarity for a client of mine to request seats to a Basketball game. As a matter of fact, when Miami with the loaded LeBron lineup played in Toronto the first time seven-years ago, a client took me to the game. At half time I remained in the Chairman’s Lounge bar and watched the Leafs playing in Buffalo. I wasn’t alone.
The consensus is the Raptors have a good team but is that really the case or rather the abundance of inept talent throughout the league? Toronto’s next six opponents have a combined won/loss record of 53/101 and won’t play a 500 team until a back-to-back set with Philadelphia just before Christmas (the Sixers are exactly 500).
The Jays temporarily won our hearts with some great baseball after the blockbuster trades in August 2015, but the bumbling ways of management are threatening to set the franchise back a number of years. The Blue Birds painstakingly won back the fan base after a twenty-year absence and they rewarded us with a 17% ticket price increase after a 75-win season. After 9 years as season ticket holders (we attended 50 games a season), Deb and I didn’t renew for the upcoming season. The troubling part is that no one from Jay’s management bothered to ask us why we cancelled.
The Argos during my youth was everything to all Toronto sports fans, because next to the Leafs they were the only game in town. With the emergence of new professional teams and unlimited access to games every night, they have become an after thought. True, they won the Grey Cup this year and made the front pages for a few days, but even a 50% increase in ticket sales next year will still register attendance below 20,000 a game. How many people do you know after the exciting Cup win a few weeks ago said they would buy tickets next year? I haven’t found one.
The Toronto Rock took the city by storm almost 20-years ago filling the ACC regularly and increasing interest at the youth level exponentially. Today they receive minor coverage and are barely mentioned in sporting circles.
That brings us to the Toronto FC who currently holds the distinction of “The Team” basking in the aftermath of a MLS Championship.
Before you shoot me down with the obvious “band wagon syndrome,” lets recognize an individual whose barely been mentioned yet put in place the foundation for the successes we are enjoying. Tim Leiweke. Remember him?
With complete autonomy, Leiweke joined the MLSE Management Team in 2013 and immediately made a lot of noise with at times, reckless abandon. But he got things done!
His mandate was to solidify management starting with hiring of Masai Ujiri to revamp a struggling Raptors franchise coming off a 5th place Atlantic Division finish in 2012-13. Under the rule of Ujiri the following year they improved from 14 games below 500 to 14 games above, winning the Division.
Next on the agenda was the tough task dealing with the jewel of the MLSE family, the Maple Leafs. With names like Wayne Gretzky being tossed around as possible candidates to lead the recovery of this broken franchise back to respectability, he settled on unproven ex-player Brendan Shanahan. The last time the Leafs chose the route of inexperience to operate in a pressure cooker environment like Toronto, it failed miserably. John Ferguson Jr. while respected in the hockey world, was unceremoniously tossed to the wolves and the predictable poor results surprised no one.
Both teams haven’t looked back since, although the honeymoon appears to be over for Raptors with weak post season play the last few years. The natives are getting restless.
The feather in Leiweke’s cap was the handling of FC and using a phrase from the investment world, he took a “bottom up” approach towards the fledging club, which was once voted the worst soccer team in the world.
Signing Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley to $100 million worth of contacts seemed at the time ludicrous but that was only the beginning. Leiweke fought for the expansion of BMO field to make it the exclusive home of the FC. With Teflon like resistance after the Defoe failure, Leiweke coaxed Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore into FC uniforms. Even a casual fan (like myself) understands the monumental contribution these two along with Bradley have made the past few seasons capped by finishing the greatest season in MLS history this year.
The real carrot in all of this is the message I believe Leiweke was sending to the sporting world. Everyone loves a winner in any sport but if a major organization like MLSE can spend mega-dollars on a team down the chain (FC), then the sky must be the limit for the core teams of the group? It reassures players that anyone under the MLSE banner will be not only be rewarded for exceptional performance, but treated as equals. It not only brings league recognition but also gives the city and fans hope.
The recent successes of the Leafs, Raptors and now FC, are attributed to strong management teams defining what’s expected of players, coaches, staff or anyone associated within the organization. Strong Leadership is the common denominator the most successful companies in the Fortune 500 strive to attain.
The Raptors played in Memphis last week and with Toronto trailing by 17 points a Grizzlies player decided to showboat a dunk and missed. He was benched and his idiotic antics lite a fuse under the Raps who rallied to win. People will say its “basketball culture,” but that’s a lame excuse for selfish, non-caring play and the said player sitting on the bench laughing while his team coughed up another loss is just plain disrespectful to the fans. The point is people are getting sick of spending money on spoiled athletes that for the most part, don’t care unless it’s self-serving.
It’s refreshing to see raw emotion from a player like the FC’s Bradley who appreciates the support from the people in the stands and doesn’t take the game he loves to play for granted.
Similar passion from players in the CFL and MLL exists but unfortunately for the Argos and Rock, they are missing the key ingredient for consistent success, Leadership.
The Jays baring a miracle at the winter meetings have another losing season in store for us fans this year, although they have rid the organization of numerous administrative personnel that must be the reason for team’s failure on the field.
Toronto fans appreciate hard work and dedication, so is it time we gave the lesser teams the opportunity to challenge for the number 2 spot in the pecking order?
Fans attending Raptors, Jays or even Leafs games, are they there because they really root for the club or because it’s the fashionable thing to do? I’m not referring to the “real fans” in the upper sections spending their own money and not on a corp boondoggle or business night out. The Jays proved in the summer of 2015 that the fan base would come in droves if the end product were worthy.
The Argos founded in 1873 is the oldest sports team in North America still using its original name and the Rock play our National sport of lacrosse.
There’s no reason the Argos and Rock cannot join the FC and become relevant again.
They just need the right leader to find the winning combination.
PS. After I wrote this piece it was announced that MLSE had purchased the Argos.