An Open Letter to MLSE

Dear MLSE,

Having just purchased the Toronto Argonauts at possibly the height of their popularity in recent memory, you find yourselves in a peculiar position. The CFL had a great year in terms of its “Diversity is Strength” campaign, which was led by the new commissioner Randy Ambrosie.  The biggest question facing the league right now, is if the biggest market in Canada can ever sustain a CFL fan base.

That will be left up to you. You have the outdoor stadium, and you have the winning culture. The hirings of Marc Trestman and Jim Popp, will allow for years of continued success on the field. Only one question remains… how will you fill the stadium?

That can only be done through a winning culture and a unique fan experience.  I will take a look at a couple examples for you to entertain.

Exhibit A – Bills Mafia

Our neighbours to the south have it right. Buffalo is home to the Pegulas, Jack Eichel, and Bills Mafia.  The Bills have been a bit of a joke in terms of NFL performance throughout the years.  However, their fans are one of a kind. They are so special, I have even entertained the thought of taking the journey down the QEW, just to catch a glimpse.  My disdain for Buffalo runs deep, so that is saying something.  Every home Sunday for the Bills my social media feed is filled with Bills fans breaking tables at tailgates, chugging beers, and just being overall insane. Their reputation precedes them. These are the same fans that sat outside last week through a blizzard, to watch some of the worst football in history.

The best part is that the product on the field has been mediocre at best.  However, the culture and fan experience around their games has created continued success and ticket sales. It is something to look to and emulate.

Are you writing this down?

Exhibit B – Blue Jays 

I don’t know how it happened but the Blue Jays, became the hottest ticket in town over the past 5 years.  The Jays led the American League last year in attendance largely based on the impact of millennials. That’s competing against the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox.  This was also a year where they were less competitive and a disappointment on the field.

We youngsters want to embrace Toronto sports, however we can’t all rely on daddy’s season tickets. That takes Leafs games pretty much out of the equation, not to mention the 20$ beers. So we watch baseball.  On any given night the 500 level of the Rogers Centre is filled with drunkards and hooligans. It is an environment to enjoy the weather, have a couple beers and take in a game. It has become an essential part of summer in Toronto.

Exhibit C – University Football 

When I lived in Quebec City, University of Laval football was the biggest thing in town. Games would attract around 13,000 fans on average. In comparison to the level of the CFL or NCAA, USports football can be considered an inferior product, as well.  The Rouge et Or created a culture around dominance. The fans would go to games not wondering if they would win, rather how much they would win by.  This coupled with the buzz and civic pride around the team led to arguably the greatest program in USports history.

You seemingly have the pieces now to create this same level of fandom. The organization is finally stable and seems to have a winning culture from the top to the bottom. You saw enough potential to take over, so now let’s work together to make the Argos relevant.

Let’s start off with the first and most obvious problem with how to create a unique fan experience. It starts with your pricing. You need to draw in more young people because that will ultimately draw more attention from older generations in this city.  When crazy teenagers were standing out in Jurassic Park, that grabbed people’s attention and brought the Raptors to a whole new level. I know you’re going to hate this idea, but lower ticket prices, offer student discounts at the gate or concessions.  Most importantly, get rid of the current tailgating structure. Patrons are not allowed to bring in their own alcohol to the official tailgate, instead they are being charge 4$ per beer. Give us a reason to come out.  Football culture is heavily reliant on tailgating culture so just embrace it.

The second is more of a suggestion. University students in Toronto are constantly fleeing to McMaster, Queens, Laurier, or Western for homecomings. We Toronto students lack these sort of events. Take advantage of this and create a stir around the Labour Day game, and pitch it as a homecoming of sorts. This is perfect as it aligns with U of T frosh and Ryerson frosh, which is a great partnership to create. Having the game as one of the frosh events would be huge, and based on how bad Toronto frosh is, this would be a welcomed addition.

The third is my personal favourite. A couple years ago they tried to market the Argos as a team for the youth, by showing young diverse people wearing Argos colours in “grunge” areas like Parkdale. This was completely unsuccessful, as evidence by the attendance over the last couple years.

The best way to market the team to this generation is through word of mouth advertising. I mean this in a traditional and non-traditional sense. Traditionally, it would be telling your friend “wow, I had so much fun at the Argos game last weekend”.  Non-traditionally, it would be posting videos from the tailgate on your snap story, having videos from Argos tailgates on Barstool Sports, or even having Instagram photos from the game. This is the new word of mouth. Every post coming from that fan experience is like a referral to a friend, and sometimes that could mean thousands of friends. It is really quite simple, but you need to bring those people in first.

These suggestions for making the Argos popular might be unsavoury to you, but think of it in the long term. A 5 year plan, per say. Make the experience so crucial to a summer in Toronto, that you slowly bring price points up. The Jays have done it and they haven’t faltered.

The CFL is distinctly Canadian, and it would be a shame to see them continue to fail in this sports-crazed market.

Yours Truly,

Aaron Dutra

P.s. We all found it super weird that Larry Tannenbaum received the MLS Cup before Michael Bradley.


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