Guelph Calling: A new city looks to embrace the Ticats, but how will the fans and players respond?

55 Yard Line

The CFL isn't exactly known for intercity relocations, as all eight of the league's current clubs were around* in the league's inaugural 1958 season. It's a league with a lot of history and a lot of continuity, and that makes the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' move down the road to Guelph for games in 2013 (thanks to the demolition and rebuilding of Ivor Wynne Stadium this year in preparation for 2014) a highly unusual one. That move gets its first real test Sunday in the Tiger-Cats' regular-season home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos (5 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN3). The Tiger-Cats' temporary relocation may work out well, and the University of Guelph's renovated Alumni Stadium that will host the Tiger-Cats drew mostly-positive reviews during a preseason game this year, but it's going to be a significant change for both the Tiger-Cats' players and for their fans.

Guelph itself is trying to do what it can to attract visiting fans from Hamilton beyond just the game, and the city's partnered with the Tiger-Cats to deliver a launch party in Guelph's tomorrow. As Tony Saxon writes in The Guelph Mercury, it's going to be a pretty significant undertaking:

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The game starts at 5 p.m., but the action off the field gets underway at 1 p.m. with a downtown street party in front of city hall on Carden Street, which will be closed to traffic for the afternoon.

"A lot will depend on the weather, but we're hoping to get around 2,000 people to the street party," said the Ticats' Dave Watkins, senior director of data analytics and social marketing with the Tiger-Cats and the man behind the event.

The free event includes performance by Canadian rockers Hollerado, a beer tent, food, splash pad, street buskers, Ticats cheerleaders and the mascot. Hollerado is scheduled to go on stage at 3 p.m.

Bobby O'Brien's bar will be running a 14-metre-by-26-metre beer tent in front of old city hall.

Watkins said the party is all about generating excitement for the football team, bringing some out-of-towners to downtown Guelph and building the Ticats' brand.

After that, though, it's going to be interesting to see how players and fans react to Alumni Stadium. With a maximum capacity around 14,000, Tiger-Cats' games are going to feature one of the smallest CFL crowds in recent history, and that could hurt their home-field advantage. Passion always helps, and it's going to be many of the most hardcore and passionate fans who are regularly making the 40-minute-plus trek up to Guelph, so the crowd may be louder than you'd expect based on numbers alone. They may not be as loud as the larger numbers visiting teams are used to facing at Ivor Wynne, though: the Tiger-Cats regularly drew over 23,000 fans last year and surpassed 30,000 on Labour Day against the Argonauts. Some players have spoken favourably about the Guelph atmosphere, though, with quarterback Henry Burris telling Steve Milton of The Hamilton Spectator that it stacks up well compared to the relocation he and the rest of the NFL's Chicago Bears took to the University of Illinois during Soldier Field renovations in 2002:

"But I think the biggest difference is the three-and-a-half-hour drive we were away from every home game," Burris recalls of the '02 season. "We flew down there to play games, so that made it always feel like an away game. We'd fly down the night before, but this year we're going to be able to sleep in our own beds the night before a game, so from that aspect it's still somewhat like home."

The 2002 Bears actually performed better at "home" than on the road, recording three of their four victories at Champaign, and Burris thinks that the smaller confines of Guelph's Alumni Stadium can be turned into some kind of home-field advantage. That'll please Kent Austin because that'll be his pitch to his players, probably starting during mini-camp in mid-April.

"It'll be more of a home for us, " Burris said, comparing the Guelph and Champaign universities. "I think the feel of the college atmosphere will help. In Champaign we had the college setup too, and the crowd was right into it. But we were never in Champaign for anything, but games.

"In Guelph, I think they'll have us doing functions there and maybe we'll even practice there. And it's more on the outskirts of Hamilton, maybe only a half-hour drive away.

It obviously will help the Tiger-Cats if their players like the conditions in Guelph and are able to adjust to them, but what may be even more important for the franchise overall is how fans react. If games in Guelph turn out to be a great experience, this relocation could help the team solidify its presence in that city, and it could also help them keep existing fans happy during this season away from home. There's a significant chance that things won't all go smoothly, though, especially when you consider that Alumni Stadium only seated 7,500 before this: almost half of the seating there is temporary, and that may pose some issues. Parking and transit have proven to be significant issues at Winnipeg's new stadium too, and that's within the city: it's going to be very interesting to see how that goes in Guelph, especially with large numbers of fans expected to be coming all the way in from Hamilton. This relocation is never going to be ideal for the Tiger-Cats, but it could carry some positives and only marginal negatives, or it could turn into a significant problem. Sunday's game will be well worth watching not just for how the team plays on the field, but also for how their fans react to the new atmosphere and how things go at the new stadium.

*Technically, the current Montreal Alouettes are a relocated team. The original Alouettes ran from 1946 to 1982, but they then went bankrupt and were replaced by a new Montreal team called the Concordes. The Concordes collapsed one day before the 1987 season, and there was no CFL football in Montreal until the current team relocated there from Baltimore after CFL USA went south before the 1996 season. However, the current Alouettes have embraced earlier versions' history. Similarly, the Ottawa franchise entering the league next year (Rouge et Noir or Redblacks, but ">not REDBLACKS unless you're yelling) is a new entity, but it's following a long history of CFL football in Ottawa, including the Rough Riders (around from 1876 to 1996) and Renegades (2002-2006). The other seven teams have continuously existed since 1958, though. Thus, the nine teams in the CFL in 2014 will be in exactly the same cities as the nine teams in the league's inaugural season, and other than Ottawa, they'll carry exactly the same names they used back in 1958, further demonstrating how unusual the Guelph move is.

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