Chris Rudge strides into the park in downtown Toronto that has been transformed into a mini-Canadian Football League playground and immediately gets to work spreading the gospel about all that is good with the three-down game.
Nattily attired – as always – in a jet-black suit, Rudge glad-hands with anybody who catches his eye as curious onlookers duck footballs that are being hoisted through the air during the lunch-hour break on Wednesday.
“Doesn’t that look great?” Rudge proclaims to one bystander, motioning to a huge Toronto Argonaut inflatable football player that dominates one end of David Pecaut Square at Metro Hall.
Although not too many people who happened by realized it, Wednesday marked 100 days until the beginning of the 100th Grey Cup Festival that will descend on Toronto in about three months, culminating with the historic game itself on November 25 at Rogers Centre.
As chairman and chief executive officer of the festival, as well as executive chairman and CEO of the Argos, Rudge has a lot riding on the success of the festival.
Not only does he want to put on a good show to commemorate a significant CFL milestone, Rudge also hopes to prove that Canadian football is also alive and well in the country’s biggest market.
Reinvigorating an Argonaut football franchise that has fallen on tough times is undoubtedly the bigger of the two challenges.
While tickets to the Grey Cup sold out five months before the game – some 54,000 seats – the Argos continue to struggle to attract fans to their home games, averaging 22,002 through three home dates so far this season.
That’s a far cry from the 40,000-plus that the Argos used to enjoy during the 1960s and ’70s when the football team rivalled the Toronto Maple Leafs as the hottest sporting ticket in town.
Rudge will always accentuate the positive and notes that attendance this year is actually an increase of just under 2,000 per game when compared to Toronto’s first three games of the 2011 regular season.
That’s a start, he said.
So too, he said, is Toronto’s 3-3 record that places the Argos in a tie for first place in the East Division with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes.
While organizing the Grey Cup is a one-off event, Rudge said that returning the Argonauts to their former glory is more than just a one-year project.
“We’re not rebuilding the team just to win a Grey Cup [this year] or get into the Grey Cup,” Rudge said. “I’ve said we have to think as an organization with a longer perspective.
“We’ve spent a lot of years trying to fix a business by trying to put a Band Aid on a wound. And you don’t build an organization by doing that.”
The Argos made a couple of big steps that they hope will help turn the fortunes of the franchise.
The first was the hiring of Scott Milanovich, considered one of the game’s bright young offensive minds, to coach the team in place of Jim Barker.
Barker, who directed the team to a 6-12 mark a year ago, will now be free to concentrate solely on his job as the Argos’ general manager.
And then you bring in Ricky Ray, one of the CFL’s top quarterbacks, in a lopsided trade with the Edmonton Eskimos.
“We still have a long way to reestablish this franchise to where it was in the ’60s and ’70s when it was either us or the Leafs,” Rudge said. “There’s a lot going on around this town and things slip. And we’re clawing our way back up to the top of that list.”
Running back Cory Boyd, who leads the CFL with 447 yards rushing, was one of several Argonauts – both past and present – on hand for Wednesday’s festival kickoff.
Receivers Andre Durie and Chad Owens were also there along with several former players such as Charlie Bray and Mike Eben, who all helped flip burgers for a noon-time lunch.
Boyd said it would be great if the Argos advanced to the Grey Cup this year.
“Not too many of the sports teams in Toronto are having success right now,” he said. “And I think our fans deserve it.”