Toronto sports fans are celebrating their highest profile playoff victory in years, but the precarious state of the city's professional franchises came into sharp focus Monday as team executives vowed to spend more time wooing fans and less time building condos.
As the economy stumbles and consumers reconsider their spending habits, the executives tasked with running the city's most storied teams said they have spent too much time with off-field distractions and need to start fielding contenders if they are going to prosper in a fast-evolving social media world.
Take Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It has spent the last decade building a sprawling real-estate complex next to the Air Canada Centre that includes condos and restaurants, all intended to make going to Maple Leafs and Raptors games more exciting.
It needed the help; its teams have been awful for the better part of a decade.
But as newly appointed president Tom Anselmi settles in, he said he's heard loud and clear from sports fans that the company needs to pay more attention to winning and less attention on infrastructure.
"Where we are going next as an organization is to step back a little bit and really focus on the core business – the teams, what they are doing, our relationship with the fans and what we are doing in our community," he said. "The passive two-way relationship we're use to with the fans of yesterday is long over, so that creates all kinds of opportunity."
The executives from MLSE, Rogers Media, the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Argonauts were taking part in a panel discussion at a conference put on by PrimeTime Sports and Entertainment. They said the city has a rich history of taking its franchises for granted, but fans are finding other things to do (and aren't shy about saying so on social media).
A day after the Argos crushed the Edmonton Eskimos in a convincing victory that brings the team one win away from a hometown Grey Cup appearance, Toronto Argonauts chief executive officer Chris Rudge said the team has a long way to go if it's going to be a permanent fixture in the country's most crowded sports market.
"I'm not silly enough to be seduced by one win and feel like this is going to turn around the franchise," he said, adding that 30 years ago the Argos were among the city's most popular draws.
A self-described corporate turnaround specialist who is best known for his time running Quebecor World Inc., Rudge said he's never faced a challenge as great as getting Torontonians excited about three-down football after years of waning interest.
"You have a highly mixed cultural environment that is probably unlike any other market in the world," he said. "Look at our fan base – we have too many people who are older white guys whose tickets have been in the family for many years."
His comments come two weeks before the city plays host to the 100th Grey Cup, a key pillar in the team's plan to reinvigorate its lagging fan base.
"This is a city that sees itself as world class and likes things to be first class," he said. "We are fighting hard to get back on the A-list in a town that likes A-list things. It filters many things through the prism of its own arrogance in some ways."
Rudge said the only way to convince fans the team is worth investing in is to instill a winning culture that goes beyond the short-term goal of a Grey Cup, and that "a big thing in our organization is we need to stop making excuses for failure."
Rogers Media president Keith Pelley, whose company is a part owner of MLSE and also owns the Toronto Blue Jays, said it is increasingly important for teams to focus on making their teams "fashionable."
"There are only four types of fans," he said. "But the group which I think is most important are the people who just come because it's fashionable. And social media can make something fashionable or not. As well as winning."