Argos succeed on the field, struggle off it: will that change at BMO Field?

Argos succeed on the field, struggle off it: will that change at BMO Field?

In terms of what happens on the field, this season has gone remarkably well for the Toronto Argonauts. Despite offseason attrition, despite starting quarterback Ricky Ray beginning the year on the six-game injured list (and recently being placed on it again), and despite a road trip from hell to begin the season (thanks to the PanAm Games and the Blue Jays), they're 6-2 and tied for first in the East Division. In terms of what happens off the field, though, it's been a disaster, especially on the attendance front. Are the Argos' attendance struggles temporary, and will they turn around next year with the team's new ownership and move to BMO Field, or is the team in deeper trouble off the field?

It's worth considering just how bad the team's attendance has been. They drew just 14,478 fans in Sunday's win over Ottawa, the lowest regular-season crowd in the CFL this season at a regular stadium. (The Argos' first "home game" in Fort McMurray, AB, only drew 4,900 fans, less than half the 11,825 who came for a preseason game there between Edmonton and Saskatchewan the previous week.) Their previous home crowd, 20,642 for the Aug. 8 home opener against the Roughriders, was below their season averages in 2012 and 2013. (2014 saw them average just 17,791.) Drawing 20,000 fans is bad enough; drawing 14,000 is downright terrible. If that's an accurate reflection of the interest in this team despite their stellar on-field play, their future might well be in question.

However, there are reasons to think that this season's poor attendance so far in general, and this past week's performance in particular, may not clearly indicate what this team's future is. First, it's notable that this year is an odd lame-duck season for the franchise; it's the last under owner David Braley, and the last at the Rogers Centre. (New owners Bell and Larry Tanenbaum take control in December and will move the team to BMO Field ahead of next season.) That sparked fears that the team wouldn't invest much in marketing or promotions this year, especially as Braley was accused of penny-pinching last season, and comments defensive end Ricky Foley made to Neil Davidson of The Canadian Press after Sunday's game would seem to support that theory:

"I know I live downtown and I don't even know how many people even knew we had a game today," veteran defensive lineman Ricky Foley, a native of Courtice, Ont., in his second stint as an Argo, said after the game.

Foley, noting he's a football player not a businessman, wasn't pointing fingers. But he said the team's marketing department isn't getting much help.

"They're up against it right now. Their budget's a little low right now and it has been all off-season. They didn't have much to work with," he said. "I'd say they're doing as good as they can with it, but the PR and the marketing — I don't even know if they do have a budget."

A lack of a marketing budget is one thing, but there are also factors beyond the team's control. One of the biggest is playing at the Rogers Centre. The stadium is generally poor for football, and has been for a long time, but what's even more troubling about it is the scheduling; the Argos have received exceptionally poor dates this year thanks to the Blue Jays (which, like the stadium, are owned and operated by Rogers) and the Pan Am Games. That hasn't even been the worst part of playing at the Rogers Centre this year, though; that would be the stadium management's bizarre decision to start enforcing new Major League Baseball security rules for Argos' games and understaff and undertrain security personnel for the home opener, causing lines that had some fans waiting for more than an hour to get in. Things apparently went more smoothly Sunday, but that may have been thanks to the lessened crowd, and some of those fans may have stayed away because of the miserable security experience at the opener, which is far more about the Rogers Centre and its management than about the Argos.

The Rogers Centre will also likely cause further problems for the Argonauts this season. The Jays are doing so well (probably another factor in the Argos' attendance woes; Sunday's game went head-to-head with a televised Jays' game, and some fans are certainly choosing to use their money and time on Jays' tickets instead of Argos' ones) that they're in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and that could cause plenty of scheduling conflicts, perhaps moving up to five Argos' home games to another facility. Doing that would avoid the particular headaches of games at the Rogers Centre, but it wouldn't be any better for the team, as the most likely alternative is playing in Hamilton, where they'll have a much harder time attracting fans (and even less of a home-field advantage and familiarity than normal). Thus, the Rogers Centre's impact on the team is far from over.

Things may well get better for the team, though. For one thing, the security issues and lineups seem to have been at least partly fixed, so that should remove one reason why fans aren't coming. For another, the Argos have only played two real home games so far (not counting the one in Fort McMurray); it can take time to build excitement, and the team's playing so well that fans may start coming out. The biggest change may happen next year, though, especially if new ownership heavily invests in marketing and promotion and if the BMO Field scheduling and game-day experience proves to be superior. The Argos may be struggling off the field this season, and that may or may not continue, but at least there are some promising signs for the future. They're not guaranteed to be a grand success under new ownership and in a new home, but they should at least have to deal with less venue problems than they currently do.

Related: Argos issue letter of apology to fans after security problems at home opener: