Chris Rudge took over as the CEO and executive chairman of the Argos in January, 2012. (CP)Chris Rudge knows there's still work to be done. While there's been plenty of buzz around Toronto this week with the city getting set to host the 100th Grey Cup Sunday, the Argonauts executive chairman and CEO understands that hosting one major event, isn't what's going to put a passion for the CFL back into the hearts of Toronto sports fans.
"I think the biggest challenge for anybody that's been engaged with the Argonauts franchise in really the last 10-15 years is trying to find a way to get the brand and the team re-engaged with the population of Toronto to the extent that [people] are prepared to come down and buy a ticket," Rudge said in a phone interview Friday.
"Part of that is having a winning team, part of that is playing exciting football and then doing things for the people while they're down there that makes them want to come back to the stadium."
Success on the field is not something that's come often for the Argos in recent seasons. In the four years prior to the 2012 campaign, the Argos made the playoffs just once, had a combined 22-50 record and saw their attendance numbers take a dive. If you look at their attendance over the last seven years, there's proof to Rudge's point that consistent success on the field will help bring fans to the stadium. According to stats.cfldb.ca, in 2005 when the Argos finished first in the East division, their attendance numbers were fourth in the CFL with an average of 30,196 fans per game. That was also coming off a season in which the double blue won the Grey Cup.
But after another first place finish in the East in 2007, things began to go sour. Damon Allen retired after an injury riddled season leaving the Argos offense without a star at quarterback, and they finished 4-14 in 2008. From there, attendance continued to dip year-over-year and in 2011 they averaged just over 20,000 fans per game at the Rogers Centre while finishing last in the East at 6-12.
General manager Jim Barker decided to try and turn things around. He stepped down as head coach to focus more on his role as GM, hired rookie head coach Scott Milanovich and orchestrated a trade that has proved to be the key to the Argos improvement.
Barker sent quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a first-round pick to Edmonton in exchange for two-time Grey Cup champion and future hall of fame quarterback Ricky Ray.
And alongside the 2012 CFL's most outstanding player Chad Owens, Ray has led the Argos back to the Grey Cup. Their average attendance numbers — 23,690 — though nothing to cheer about, are higher than last season and if they can pull off a win at the Grey Cup Sunday there's no reason to think that their attendance numbers won't continue to climb back towards an average of 30,000.
"It's like any other business, it starts with the product," Rudge said. "If the product isn't good then it doesn't matter how much marketing you do, how much you cut prices, promote it or whatever you do, at the end of the day people won't buy it… Winning is hugely important and that's why we've made such an investment this year."
And in Toronto it's harder to draw consistent crowds than in other other CFL cities because of the abundance of professional sports teams in the city, especially now with the Jays expected to be serious contenders in 2013 after completely reshaping their lineup.
So the Argos are doing their best to get creative with how they draw fans to the brand. Rudge knows with a large number of season ticket holders aging, it's important for the organization to reach out to the new communities around the city and try and get them engaged with the product. For example, the Argos held a pair of "Football 101" sessions in October to help new Canadians learn about the team, football and the CFL.
The franchise is also trying to attract a younger fan base through the use of social media.
"We've brought on board a number of people on a volunteer basis, we call them the Admirals, who live in the Twitter world and engage people out there and create the kind of debate that make the team relevant," Rudge said. "I think that's a huge opportunity for us."
So while he acknowledges that in some ways being a based in a major sports city like Toronto makes it harder to draw people to CFL football, he also thinks that excuse has been used for far too long.
"Yes it's easier to be the big dog in town when there aren't many other dogs and we've got an awful lot going on in this city, but on the other hand we've got a population of five million people in this Greater Toronto Area," he said. "We only need 30,000 every two weeks and I guess what I've said to our staff is 'stop making the excuse that there's too much going on and let's provide a reason for people to come and see us.'
"People put shows on Broadway because that's where the theatre goers are, they put shops in malls because that's where the shoppers are, they don't say there's too much competition. The shoppers for good entertainment are here in Toronto. They want good entertainment and they want it to be a brand that they are proud to be associated with and therefore we have to give them that opportunity."