Canadian university football … meet popularity on a big, big stage.
That appears to be what's in store for the McMaster Marauders and Laval Rouge et Or at Rogers Centre on Friday, as the two top teams in the country meet in a Vanier Cup rematch.
Organizers announced Tuesday that the game has already sold north of 30,000 tickets, putting it on track to easily surpass the 23-year-old attendance record of 32,847 that witnessed the Western Ontario Mustangs win the 1989 title at then-SkyDome.
That unprecedented level of interest has led to Canadian Interuniversity Sport opening up large sections of seats in the 500 level of the stadium, between the 30-yard lines.
"We have developed this game to its highest level in its history," Marauders head coach Stefan Ptaszek said, "and we want to continue to do so with 40,000 people getting a real eye-opening experience of the quality of play and the quality of our athletes."
"I think it's going to be one of the best student-athlete experiences maybe ever," Laval counterpart Glen Constantin added.
The Vanier Cup hasn't always been an easy sell. The game drew as few as 8,200 fans at the 55,000-seat stadium at one point (1997), before bouncing to a series of other facilities in Hamilton, Saskatoon, Quebec City and Vancouver.
Friday marks the first time the title game will be played at Rogers Centre since 2007, and only the second time since 2003, a year that ended a stretch of 15 consecutive Vanier Cup games in the building amid sagging attendance.
Making the figures for Friday even more impressive is the ticket prices. Face value for 100- and 200-level tickets are priced at an impressive $58, and there remain only a few hundred available.
The price way up in the upper bowl isn't a steep discount either, at $40, including taxes and fees.
Two factors have been working in the game's favour the past two years.
One, is pairing the Vanier Cup with the Grey Cup, as it was last season in Vancouver and again this year in Toronto, in a bid to woo Canadian football fans to take in both games.
Two, is the fact that last year's championship nail-biter is considered one of the best CIS football games ever.
In the 2011 game, McMaster took a 23-point lead into halftime, only to allow the Rouge et Or back to into a tie by the end of regulation. The sides traded touchdowns in overtime before a field goal by the Marauders gave them their first national title.
While a repeat performance may be difficult, there is no shortage of compelling storylines this time around: McMaster has a record 21-game unbeaten streak, while Laval would land its CIS-record seventh championship – in only its 17th year of existence – with a win.
Ptaszek, who played four seasons in the CFL as a receiver between 1995 and 2000, is hoping for more than simply a temporary boost from 35,000-plus taking in the game.
After watching the two starting quarterbacks field a question from reporters about who they admire in their sport – the Marauders' Kyle Quinlan picked Aaron Rogers of the Green Bay Packers and the Rouge et Or's Tristan Grenon chose Tom Brady of the New England Patriots – Ptaszek remarked how he hopes bigger audiences will ultimately mean more awareness and opportunities for skilled Canadian players in the CFL.
"Maybe 10 years from now, when they ask the two quarterbacks who they look up to, they'll talk about Canadian kids starting in the CFL, as opposed to NFL players," he said. "Honestly, I don't know if the CFL is ever going to want Canadian quarterbacks.
"They need to change that rule … or one of the best players who's ever played university sport [Quinlan] has nowhere to go from here. I hope it does change. He's a gifted, gifted kid."