Posts Tagged ‘Air Canada Centre’
On September 1st, 2000, Canadian communications giant Rogers Communications moved into professional sports ownership, agreeing to purchase 80% of the Toronto Blue Jays from Interbrew SA for $112 million. Rogers brought in former Toronto Sun publisher and CEO Paul Godfrey to run the club as Blue Jays President.
Meanwhile, Godfrey’s 27-year old son Rob Godfrey had sports ambitions of his own for Toronto. Godfrey and partners Ronnie Strasser and Keith Stein approached Arena Football League (AFL) Commissioner David Baker in the summer of 2000 about the possibility of acquiring an AFL expansion franchise for Toronto or purchasing and relocating an existing club. Baker and his staff brokered the purchase of the nomadic New England Sea Wolves franchise for a reported price of approximately $7 million. Toronto would be the fifth stop for the luckless franchise, which traced its history to the formation of the short-lived Cincinnati Rockers (1992-1993), and subsequently failed in two separate stints at the Hartford Civic Center and in a demoralizing two-year run at Madison Square Garden in New York. Just five years earlier, the moribund franchise sold in a league-brokered fire sale for only $200,000.
The Godfrey group’s purchase of the Sea Wolves received preliminary approval during Arena Football League governors meetings at Arena Bowl XIV in Orlando in August 2000. In early September, just as Rogers Communications bought the Blue Jays and Paul Godfrey took over the baseball club, Rogers also agreed to take a reported 51% majority stake in the Toronto Phantoms Football Limited Partnership. League officials and team execs introduced the Phantoms to Toronto at a press conference on October 17th, 2000, marking the first expansion of the Arena Football League outside the United States.
The Phantoms derived their name from a not-so-frightening source: co-founder and minority partner Ronnie Strasser’s Toronto-based Phantom Industries, North America’s third largest manufacturer of women’s hosiery. Nevertheless, at least two people found Arena Football’s arrival in Toronto quite terriying: Canadian Football League President Jeff Giles and Sherwood Schwarz, owner of the CFL’s struggling Toronto Argonauts. The Phantoms’ April-August schedule would overlap by two months the the Argos’ June-November outdoor season at Skydome. In addition, the two clubs would spent the winter months competing for the same local sponsor and season ticket accounts.
“I’m disappointed in the arena league because they said they wouldn’t do anything to harm or hurt the CFL,” Giles told Canadian Press in October 2000. “I think it is extremely naive to say that it (arena football) won’t hurt the CFL.”
The Phantoms debuted at the Air Canada Centre on April 14th, 2001, a 61-54 loss to the Buffalo Destroyers in front of an announced crowd of 10,023. The Toronto Star did few favors for the new franchise with its inaugural game coverage, published under the nasty headline “Obscure Phantoms Kick Off”. Star beat writer Mark Harding used his story lead to cast doubt on the club’s attendance figures.
On the turf, the 2001 Phantoms posted an 8-6 record with a mostly unheralded roster. Former University of Southern California quarterback Pat O’Hara, a two-time Arena Bowl winner with the Orlando Predators, led the team offensively, along with Offensive Specialist Damian Harrell, a Sea Wolves holdover. In the postseason, the Phantoms defeated their divisional rivals the New York Dragons in the Wild Card round before falling to the Nashville Kats in the AFL quarterfinal.
Any fears that the Phantoms would sink the Toronto Argonauts and the CFL at the box office proved unfounded. The Sherwood Schwarz-era was a dark time for Toronto Argos fans, but the damage was largely self-inflicted. The Phantoms announced attendance of 48,448 for an average of just 6,921 over seven home dates. The figures ranked 16th out of 18 AFL franchises in 2001, better only than the New Jersey Gladiators and the Florida Bobcats and worst among AFL markets that returned for the 2002 season.
The 2002 Phantoms got off to a 5-5 start before dropping their final four games to finish at 5-9 and out of playoff contention. Attendance remained flat at 6,975, which ranked 14th in the 16-team league. In September 2002, the Phantoms owners dropped out of the league after 24 months.
Phantoms President Rob Gregory cited several factors in the decision in a September 2002 Sports Business Journal article, including larger than expected losses, the unfavorable exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollar and the impending move of the Arena Football League’s 2003 season to a February (instead of April) start to accomodate the league’s new national American broadcast television contract with NBC. The Air Canada Centre already had three winter season tenants in the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League, which made attractive home dates scarce as the AFL became a winter/spring sport to appease its broadcast partner.
The Arena Football League never returned to Canada after the failure of the Phantoms. The original AFL folded and filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after 22 seasons. A group of former AFL owners subsequently bought the name out of bankruptcy in November 2009 and re-launched a modestly budgeted, lower profile version of the league in the spring of 2010.
Rob Godfrey joined his father Paul in the Toronto Blue Jays front office and worked his way up to Senior Vice President of Busines Operations before departing in 2006.
Downloads & Links:
“Toronto is new haunt for AFL Phantoms” Canadian Press, October 18, 2000
“Obscure Phantoms kick off; Announced crowd of 10,023 on hand for 61-54 loss to in inaugural season as the first Arena Football
League team in Canada”, Mark Harding, The Toronto Star, April 15, 2001
“AFL goes 1-1 in off season”, John Lombardo, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, September 30, 2002
“Godfrey ready to leave Jays?” Perry Lefko, Sportsnet.ca, October 22, 2007