In many ways Toronto is a great city.
While the politics of the Big Smoke have become a satirist’s dream in recent years, for a metropolis of its size Toronto is very clean, remarkably safe, and consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world.
But for all of its merits there is one way Toronto is a cesspool and arguably the worst city in North America: the quality of its professional sports teams.
Over the last two decades this town has put on a clinic in sporting ineptitude, leaving an entire generation with no recollection of a major North American championship.
Toronto’s flagship sports franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs, haven’t won the Stanley Cup in almost 50 years, the Blue Jays currently possess the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball, Toronto FC has yet to make the postseason, and the Raptors are only recently showing signs of life.
In light of the city’s epic struggles to field a competent professional team the Toronto Observer takes you on a guided tour of the barren wasteland that has been a Toronto sports fan’s experience over the last 20 years.
Rather predictably, it begins with the Maple Leafs.
Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be John Wooden, Hall of Fame NCAA basketball coach
Twice this season, Toronto Maple Leafs fans have thrown jerseys on the ice, fed up with losing.
While the schedule is still young the team has not had success since 1967. It has been 47 years since hockey fans in Toronto have been able to call their beloved Leafs champs, but with a fan base that has become more passionate in recent years; the result has just meant bigger heartache.
“It didn’t seem like that big of a deal then, because it was a six team league then and they had won a couple cups in the ’60s, but it has become a big deal since,” says long-time Leafs fan Larry Kries. “It certainly didn’t feel like it was the end of the line.”
In the last 20 years, the Leafs have made the playoffs 10 times and achieved limited postseason success in those seasons. On four occassions, the club made the conference final (1993, 1994, 1999, 2002), losing each time.
Team after team have failed to repeat what the ’67 Leafs have done. To 62-year-old Kries, who has seen the highs and the lows, the pinnacle of continued failure was met in the third period against Boston in 2013, when the Leafs squandered a 4-1 lead.
“That was devastating, I have never felt so bad about a game in my life,” says Kries. “That just pulled the guts right out of me.”
For years the Leafs Achilles heal has been their ability to sell tickets and make money regardless of the quality on the ice.
Forbes magazine, in July, named the Maple Leafs as the only NHL team worth over a billion dollars. Though, it is no secret to the Leaf faithful that the crowd is largely filled with business moguls and executives and not the passionate fans that stand by their team.
“I think they should take the people from the inside and switch them with the people outside,” says Kries, referring to the fans gathered at Maple Leaf square during the 2013 playoffs. “Those people outside were the true fans, they were the ones who got excited.
“You don’t even get the sense there is energy in that building [Air Canada Centre] anymore.”
Maple Leaf Square displayed the true passion fans have for their Leafs. Though the loss was heartbreaking, the anger and sadness felt by fans further showed just how much people care about Toronto’s biggest team.
Jerseys thrown on the ice are something the team and many hate to see, but it makes a statement, the statement that the fans who have been loyal to this franchise for far too long believe that they deserve better.
“False hope is a terrible thing, if it's the only thing keeping you alive you'll be dead by dawn.” Charlie Rae, singer/songwriter
Another Toronto FC season is in the books, with the club once again unable to clinch its first playoff berth in franchise history.
It is the eighth straight year Toronto has missed the playoffs, a Major League Soccer record. Not only does Toronto have the longest current playoff drought, they are also the only side to have never qualified for the playoffs in league history.
“I’m really not surprised [that TFC missed the playoffs] to be honest with you,” said Anton Saric, a former season ticket holder. “That’s what TFC always does, promises big but delivers little … if any team could screw this up [after all the big signings], you just knew it would be Toronto.”
In January, MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke announced the signings of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley for a club-record sum of $100-million.
‘It’s a bloody big deal’, fans were told on multiple occasions as the club doled out a transfer fee for Defoe and Bradley that was only $21-million less than Forbes’ valuation for the entire franchise.
Expectations were sky-high in the city, as many supporters pondered the possibility of an MLS Championship and assumed the playoffs were a mere formality.
With Toronto finishing on the outside looking in once again, fan apathy and frustration may reach a fever-pitch.
“Supporters are tired of the constant rebuilding and the club’s general lack of direction,” said Saric. “It’s a big reason I finally made the difficult decision to give up my season seats.”
Since their inception in 2006, TFC has seen a steady decline in season tickets and attendance at BMO Field, due in large part to the club’s mismanagement and seemingly never-ending parade of new coaches, players and systems.
In only eight seasons, the club has had nine different head coaches.
The last two years have been particularly troubling for Toronto, as attendance has dipped to slightly over 18,000 per match (from well over 20,000 in prior seasons). Toronto’s average attendance dropped to 10th in the league in 2012, after previously finishing no lower than third.
To put TFC’s futility in perspective, their Canadian counterparts, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, both made the playoffs in their second seasons.
I have a horror of not rising above mediocrity. Robert Baldwin, Premier of Canada West 1843-1848
For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, following the 2014 World Series hasn’t been easy.
They’ve watched the Kansas City Royals break a 29 year playoff drought with a World Series run that revived baseball in their market. In the process, Kansas City has handed Canada’s only Major League Baseball team the “honour” of holding the longest postseason drought in North American sports.
The Blue Jays used to be the toast of Toronto. Now, they’re often a source of frustration for an entire generation of fans who don’t know what a baseball playoff game feels like.
“I don’t remember watching the World Series games specifically,” said Matt English, six years old in 1993 and now a 27 year-old season ticket holder. “But I do remember a general aura of baseball surrounding the city in my childhood.”
That aura is what the Blue Jays have struggled to recapture.
Some stars have left marks in spite of the drought. Players like Carlos Delgado, Roy Halladay, and Jose Bautista became household names in the city.
However, splashy improvements from the addition Roger Clemens, to the Marlins blockbuster that brought Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, to hiring a protege of Billy Beane haven’t translated into success.
Perhaps there was no greater disappointment than the 2013 season. Expectations soared after trades with the Mets and Marlins. Instead of living up to the hype, the club lost 88 games and frustration among Toronto’s baseball fans reached its apex.
“[2013 was] the first time in my adult life that I can remember a genuine buzz about the team,” said English. “And then to spend all that money, and to [watch them] fail so spectacularly, in so many ways. It was just exhausting and heartbreaking to watch it all fall apart.”
Despite the frustrations of recent seasons, a flood of emotions will be released, English predicted, if the Blue Jays return to October.
“The whole city shut down for the Raptors,” he said. “I think it would be even bigger for the Jays. Give us a playoff game, and we’ll be packing Yonge Street like maniacs.
“The spirit of 1993 isn’t dead, it’s just dormant.”
There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for. J.R.R. Tolkien, Author
On the surface the Raptors appear to be an unlikely saviour for Toronto sports fans.
The franchise recently celebrated its 20th season and it has only two division titles and one playoff series win to show for its efforts. The Raptors have only won more games than they’ve lost in a quarter of their seasons and have posted a putrid .417 overall winning percentage since they broke into the NBA in the 1995-1996.
The team has garnered more attention for stars they’ve lost like Vince Carter, Tracey McGrady, and Chris Bosh than rosters they’ve assembled.
Despite their status as perennial non-contenders, the Raptors experienced a reversal of fortune in 2013-2014, putting up a franchise-best 48 wins on the way to an Atlantic Division title.
While the team has shown promise in individual seasons before, last year felt different. The atmosphere surrounding the team began to shift with the hiring of Masai Ujiri, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year. Ujiri changed the face of the roster with the midseason trade of Rudy Gay and galvanized the fan base with a controversial exclamation aimed at the Brooklyn Nets, the team’s first round playoff opponent.
During that series Toronto rallied behind the Raptors like never before. A rebranding of the squad centred around the slogans “We the North” and “Northern Uprising” instilled a sense of pride in a long-suffering fan base and “Jurassic Park”, the name Raptors fans gave Maple Leaf Square, was packed every night of the seven game series.
The league took notice: fans and players alike.
“I’ve heard so many stories of how it was [during the playoffs],” said Will Cherry, a rookie point guard who signed with the Raptors in August. “The fans are geared and ready to go. That’s the kind of crowd I love to play for.”
Although the Raptors ended up making a first round exit at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, they have kept the team together by retaining star point guard Kyle Lowry. They head into the 2014-2015 season with a proven core, a strong identity, and a sense of momentum.
In this city there’s no other team that can say the same.
The conversation continues with a Toronto Observer exclusive radio roundtable
About this Special Report