July 24th, 2024

Argos president Manning has plenty to be happy with, on and off the football field

By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press on October 20, 2023.

President Bill Manning has plenty to be happy about regarding the Toronto Argonauts. Toronto (14-2) boasts the CFL's best record and could tie the league's single-season record by winning its final two regular-season contests. Manning speaks during a press conference at the BMO Training Field in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO – President Bill Manning has plenty to be happy about regarding the Toronto Argonauts.

Toronto (14-2) boasts the CFL’s best record and could tie the league’s single-season record by winning its final two regular-season contests. Another victory would match the franchise best established in 1996-97 when late head coach Don Matthews and all-star quarterback Doug Flutie guided the Argos to consecutive Grey Cup titles.

This year’s squad is also chasing a second straight CFL championship after edging Winnipeg 24-23 in last year’s Grey Cup.

But Toronto’s on-field success is impacting its fortunes off it. The Argos’ average attendance is 14,655, up significantly from 11,433 last year and 8,603 in 2021 when play resumed after the global pandemic forced the CFL to cancel the 2020 campaign.

“There’s a lot of positive momentum for the Argos right now,” Manning said in a wide-ranging interview. “With any organization, you obviously want to win on the field but when you do, you want to be able to capitalize on that.

“We’ve seen over the last two seasons just such a surge in popularity with our tickets, merchandise and TV viewership. It’s really exciting that things are progressing in the right way, both on and off the field.”

On Saturday night, Toronto drew 13,888 spectators to its 40-27 home win over Ottawa despite the contest having no playoff implications. What’s more, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs were also playing the Minnesota Wild at Scotiabank Arena, a scenario that not long ago would’ve resulted in substantially less than 10,000 fans at BMO Field.

Manning said Toronto’s group-ticket sales are up 42 per cent over 2022 while season and single-game figures have both increased roughly 15 per cent. But he added Argos merchandise sales have increased 43 per cent, with the franchise leading the CFL in that category on a per-capita basis.

Toronto fans are reportedly spending over $7 per game on merchandise compared to $3-to-$5 on average across the CFL. It certainly hasn’t been hard to notice at home games the abundance of Argos fans donning first-year starter Chad Kelly’s No. 12 jersey.

“(Two) years ago I was at a game with my oldest son, John, and he said, ‘Dad, you know you have a problem when all the jerseys in the stadium are of your GM,'” Manning said in reference to the No. 31 current general manager Mike (Pinball) Clemons donned as a player. “It was an interesting observation.

“Now we have a legitimate star (in Kelly) and people are getting into it. The thing I always respect about the Argos is we have this diehard group of fans that’s followed this team for decades, but what we’re starting to see now is new fans coming into the building and that’s what’s most exciting for us.”

Manning said Toronto’s television viewership is up a whopping 164 per cent in the crucial 25-to-54 age demographic within Ontario and 46 per cent nationally.

Toronto fans have had plenty to cheer about in 2023. The Argos have a 9-0 home record, which includes a 31-13 victory over Saskatchewan in Halifax on July 29.

Toronto has scored 30 or more points in seven-of-eight contests (and 40 or more three times) at BMO Field. Both of its losses have come on the road (20-7 to Calgary, 31-21 to Winnipeg) but the Argos clinched first in the East Division for a third straight year under head coach Ryan Dinwiddie with a 23-20 victory in Montreal on Sept. 15.

Toronto finishes its regular season on the road (versus Saskatchewan on Saturday, Ottawa on Oct. 28). But Manning is very upbeat about the East final being at BMO Field on Nov. 11.

“We’re already up to 17,000 tickets sold for that game,” he said. “We’re going to open up the upper bowl.

“Our goal is to have a bigger crowd for that game as we’ve seen in a long time.”

Toronto also celebrated its 150th anniversary with a 35-12 home win over Edmonton on Oct. 6. Argos alumni, including many from the ’83 and ’91 Grey Cup-winning teams, attended both the game as well as a luncheon at BMO Field.

In May, the Argos kicked off their anniversary campaign by teaming up with the MLSE Foundation to donate $150,000 to the Daily Bread Food Bank and GTA grassroots football.

A big key to Toronto’s on-field success this season has been its ability to play complementary football.

Toronto’s offence – spearheaded by Kelly, the nephew of former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly – stands second overall in offensive points (29.8 per game) and TDs (51) while allowing just 15 sacks and committing 21 turnovers – both league lows. Kelly, who’s 14-1 as a starter this year, stands fourth among CFL passers with 3,848 yards but has fewer attempts (369) than the three quarterbacks ahead of him – B.C.’s Vernon Adams Jr. (475), Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros (406) and Calgary’s Jake Maier (542).

Kelly has also run for 248 yards and eight TDs on 40 carries. His efficiency rating of 109.9 trails only Collaros (112.4), the CFL’s outstanding player the last two seasons.

Kelly has many weapons around him. Rugged A.J. Ouellette (959 yards in 14 games) anchors the ground attack while DaVaris Daniels (46 catches, 925 yards, eight TDs) and Damonte Coxie (34 catches, 20.1-yard average, four TDs) lead a receiving corps that’s been without Canadian Kurleigh Gittens Jr. for much of the year.

Defensively, Toronto stands second behind Winnipeg (18.5) in fewest offensive points allowed (20.3) and is tops against the run (84 yards per game). But the Argos are eighth against the pass (291.3 yards), seventh in TD tosses allowed (27) and last in completion percentage (71.3).

However, the unit leads the CFL in sacks (63), turnovers forced (46), interceptions (23) and fewest big-plays allowed (24). Linebacker Adarius Pickett is second overall in total tackles (110)

Punt-returner Javon Leake has a CFL-high/club-record 1,080 yards (14.8-yard average) and four return TDs (another Argos mark, one short of CFL record). Veteran kicker Boris Bede has made 35-of-37 field goals (league-high 94.6 per cent) while averaging 47.9 yards on punts in place of injured incumbent John Haggerty.

That’s not to suggest Toronto has been flawless on the field. However, when one or two phases struggle, the others can still deliver to not only kick-start the squad but ultimately secure the win.

Toronto has also worked to keep key figures with the franchise. This season, it has signed Kelly and Canadian offensive lineman Peter Nicastro, Clemons, Dinwiddie, defensive coordinator Corey Mace and special-teams coordinator Mickey Donovan to extensions.

Kelly’s three-year deal was significant as the reported $1.865 million stipend makes him the CFL’s highest-paid player.

“With Chad, that was a big message for us to say, ‘He’s our guy long-term,'” Manning said. “But it’s been very important for us now from a front-office, coaching and player standpoint to have some stability and keep this group together.

“Can we get on a good run like Winnipeg has done over the past few years (three straight Grey Cups, two championships)? I think we’ve raised some eyebrows, people are looking at the Argos and MLSE and saying, ‘OK, they’ve got things going on over there now,’ and we’re proud of that. And I think that’s going to continue, I really do, because we’re going to continue to build this team and our popularity within the market.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2023.

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