The Toronto fan experience might recover from the pandemic. But returning to full capacity is just the start
To be a fan and passionate paying customer of a professional sports team in any city is a significant emotional and financial investment.
But how can fans invest when they don’t know what restrictions might lurk just around the corner?
So even with the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC back in business — able to sell all their seats and all the beer they want — it’s going to take a while to re-establish the connections that have been diminished or severed over the past two years of COVID.
The fact that all three clubs were surrounded by varying clouds of doubt as they were able to again welcome full audiences over the past seven days doesn’t make it any easier.
The Leafs still have folks talking about their playoff pratfall against Montreal last spring, not to mention ongoing goaltending problems.
The Raptors are three years removed from their championship season and in a dogfight for a playoff spot.
Toronto FC, meanwhile, was dreadful last season with only six wins, and was down two goals to the New York Red Bulls before Saturday’s home opener was 25 minutes old en route to a 4-1 defeat. Not a great debut for new coach Bob Bradley. Not surprisingly, there were thousands of unoccupied seats on a chilly, blustery day at BMO Field. And given that performance on a patchy pitch, some of those who did attend may not repeat that mistake any time soon.
The Leafs, meanwhile, didn’t sell out their first game back at full capacity last week against Buffalo, just as they started out last fall unable to fill their home rink. And the Raptors weren’t sold out for a rescheduled game on Friday night against lowly Orlando.
So, this could take a while. There’s hesitancy in the air.
It’s understandable. Last fall it felt like we were nearly back to normal, remember? TFC had started the season in Orlando but returned to BMO Field, while the Leafs and Raptors were doing business as usual. But in December, the government mandated a return to 50 per cent capacity, and by January we were back to empty stadia.
Right now, yes, the numbers are encouraging. Fewer than 800 people in Ontario were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday. But despite our hopes — and the demands of a few that all mandates and restrictions be eliminated, regardless of what the facts say — nobody knows what the future holds. Certainly not Toronto’s teams.
In Ontario, the Ford government has dropped vaccine mandates and masks may not be far behind. But is this the turning point in the pandemic or just a lull? Will periodic restrictions for pro sports be a fact of life for the conceivable future?
As COVID lingers, can fans truly commit to teams the way they once could? If the Raptors game on Friday night was any guide, many fans are already treating masks as optional, and not everyone will be comfortable with that.
The Jays played in three different locations last year — Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto — and were restricted in the number of seats they could sell even at the Rogers Centre. Only for the final homestand were the Jays permitted to sell 30,000 seats, about 75 per cent of capacity.
Now, with the Major League Baseball season at the very least delayed because of an entirely avoidable lockout by owners, it’s unclear when the Jays will start spring training or return to Toronto. Re-establishing connections with your fan base when you’re not playing is doubly challenging.
The Argos, meanwhile, didn’t have a 2020 season at all and struggled to get attendance north of 10,000 for games in 2021. The very survival of the franchise is in question, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.
The hope, naturally, is that the fans come back for all these teams while feeling confident that they’re entering a safe environment and won’t be shut out from the action again. COVID, among other things, has robbed Toronto of the buzz its sports teams once delivered.