The hard sell

Can the CFL ensure its biggest game ever lives up to the hype amid Toronto’s crowded pro sports market?

David Rosenberg recalls with pride how he attended every single Toronto Argonauts home game between 1977 and 1984. So it’s no great stretch to use the words “labour of love” to describe how the partner and creative lead at Bensimon Byrne feels about his agency’s relationship with the Canadian Football League.

Having worked with the CFL since 2001, the agency is the creative force behind the league’s last decade of marketing efforts. And never have those efforts been more prominent than this season’s 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup. The league has embarked on its largest-ever promotional effort for the marquee event – bolstered by an estimated $5 million from the federal government – with activities planned coast-to-coast prior to the game in November.

The problem for the league showcasing its centennial milestone is that it’s slated to be held in the one Canadian city that stubbornly refuses to embrace the CFL with the same zeal as elsewhere in the country.

“Toronto does present a unique challenge that has to be seen as an opportunity,” says Sara Moore, VP of marketing, CFL.

Both the CFL and its local franchise struggle to stand out in the crowded sports market that is the Greater Toronto Area. While the Argonauts are arguably North America’s oldest pro sports team, no other CFL team competes with hockey, basketball and baseball all in one market. Not to mention the relatively recent arrival of pro soccer in the form of the TFC and the niche-but-loyal following of the lacrosse team, the Toronto Rock. And if that’s not enough, there’s the ever-looming spectre of an NFL franchise colonizing the city.

It’s all a far cry from the glory days in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Rosenberg attended games that regularly attracted crowds of more than 50,000 to the old Exhibition stadium; the Argos now struggle to draw half that number on a regular basis, ranking consistently as one of the lowest-drawing gates in the league.

“The Argos have not been on the radar and have struggled to attract attention,” says sports marketing consultant Bob Stellick. He does PR work for the NFL in Canada and says the CFL’s marketing efforts in Toronto are often stymied by the fact that sports fans in Canada’s largest city can be a fickle bunch.

Both the CFL as a whole and the Argonauts struggle to attract younger fans, says Stellick. One of the biggest drivers in the popularity of the NFL south (and north) of the border is the huge-selling videogame series Madden NFL. So when Canadian kids reach for their Xbox or Playstation, it is American football stars they idolize, not Canadian ones.

A quick glance at the Argonauts’ Facebook page offers a hint at where the brand sits within the social media hierarchy: about 10,000 Facebook Likes at the start of August, compared with 95,000 for the Montreal Alouettes and more than 120,000 for the wildly popular Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Toronto Maple Leafs have 620,000.

However, the anniversary is a chance for the Argonauts to bask in the larger CFL glory and grow profile. The league is making a major effort to ensure that everyone across the country is well aware of the centennial match by the time it happens. Via Rail and Rona will sponsor a coast-to-coast, 100-stop train tour bringing the Grey Cup to communities that have never seen it in person. The tour will also give Canadians the chance to mingle with ex-players and media personalities. TSN, which owns sole Canadian broadcast rights for the CFL, has spent what the league says is “millions” on eight documentaries covering different periods in the league’s history, while Canada Post has created its largest-ever collection of stamps to commemorate the 100th game.

Bensimon Byrne helped produce a Grey Cup pride video featuring music from The Tragically Hip and a voiceover from Kiefer Sutherland called “It Reflects Us All.” Set against a backdrop of footage from games past and recent, the video (which debuted on TSN on Canada Day) illustrates the CFL as a heritage brand and tugs at the heartstrings of those tens of thousands of Torontonians who attended Argonauts games 30 years back.

“It struck us that the Grey Cup, as a symbol, really did reflect all of Canada. So this rallying cry was that the Grey Cup really does reflect us all. Not just the players who won it, but all Canadians,” says Rosenberg.

Challenges in Toronto aside, the CFL remains a marketing success story. It engineered a complete turnaround from the early 1990s when the league was on life support and many franchises were close to bankruptcy. A five-year, exclusive television deal with TSN signed in 2008 entrenched the CFL as the country’s second-most watched TV sports property after the NHL, and the Grey Cup annually battles with the Super Bowl for the title of most-watched sporting event.

Moore says that media buyers in Canada’s largest market may not see people walking around Toronto in CFL jerseys, but the league remains a strong property in southern Ontario.

“The opportunity exists here to engage Torontonians who might be lapsed fans, or new to Canada and our game; so we’re doing a tremendous amount here,” says Moore. The festivities that normally precede the game will be “the biggest ever” she says, expanded to 10 days from the regular five.

Measured in terms of one important benchmark, the game is already a success: it’s sold out.

The Argos will host downtown festivities promoting the Cup, such as a family-focused anti-bullying rally and an “interactive football area” to educate Torontonians about Canadian football. The Grey Cup festival will partner with the Cavalcade of Lights to produce concerts, fireworks and the lighting of Toronto’s Christmas Tree. Like last time Toronto hosted the Grey Cup in 2007, downtown streets around the Rogers Centre will host parties prior to the game and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre will host individual parties thrown by each team.

The Argos themselves are making a concerted effort to reach various ethnic groups in the GTA, and that effort extends to Grey Cup promotional activities, such as holding editorial board meetings with South Asia-focused media and “football 101″ programs to educate people about the basics of the game.

The challenge, according to Stellick, will be to create momentum from the game that breathes life into the Argonauts brand moving forward. He calls the success of all the ancillary events surrounding the game the true measure of its success.

“Everything’s going back to the Argos,” says Beth Waldman, the team’s VP marketing and communications. “If something
like this festival doesn’t boost interest in [the Argos] that’s a missed opportunity.”