TORONTO – The Toronto Argonauts’ ownership situation has gone from eight decades of stability under the Argonaut Rowing Club following the team’s founding in 1873 to a circus that required CFL intervention in the early 2000s.
While stability seems to have returned with the Argonauts poised to join Major League Sports & Entertainment’s portfolio of profitable sports properties, North America’s oldest continuously operated professional football club took an interesting and sometimes perilous path to get to this point.
Here’s a timeline look at the companies and individuals who have made their mark on the Argos boardroom — for better or for worse.
ARGONAUT ROWING CLUB — 1873-1956
The Argonauts began in 1873 as a team for members of the rowing club who were also rugby enthusiasts. They claimed their first Grey Cup title in 1914 and would win nine more before being sold to a consortium including Ontario businessman John Bassett.
JOHN BASSETT AND THE DARK AGES — 1956-1974
Bassett was part of the Argos ownership group in some form for almost 20 years, buying the team outright through his Baton Broadcasting media company. The team failed to win a Grey Cup under his watch, and he sold the team to Canadian hotel magnate William R. Hodgson for $3.3 million in 1974.
Interestingly Bassett’s son, John F. Bassett, was awarded a World Football League franchise, the Toronto Northmen, that same year. The team made a splash by signing former Miami Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, but protectionist legislation to insulate the CFL proposed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government forced the team’s relocation to Memphis.
CARLING O’KEEFE AND THE END OF THE GREY CUP DROUGHT — 1976-1988
After originally coming in as a partner, brewer Carling O’Keefe bought out the rest of Hodgson’s shares of the team in 1979. Success on the field followed as the Argos won their first Grey Cup in over 30 years when they beat the B.C. Lions 18-17 in the 1983 title game. Carling O’Keefe sold the team to Canadian businessman Harry Ornest in 1988 due to an impending merger with Molson.
MAKING A SPLASH — THE MCNALL, GRETZKY AND CANDY ERA — 1991-1994
Ornest sold the Argos to the high-profile trio of Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall (60 per cent), NHL legend Wayne Gretzky (20 per cent) and star comedian John Candy (20 per cent) for $5 million in 1991. The trio made an audacious impact, signing impending top NFL draft pick Raghib Ismail for an eye-popping $18.2 million over four years. The CFL had a salary cap of $3.8 million per team that would have been obliterated by Ismail’s contract alone, but the bulk of his salary came through a “personal services contract” through McNall Sports And Entertainment.
The Argos won the Grey Cup in 1991, but Ismail’s contract turned out to be an albatross, and with McNall facing mounting financial problems (he was convicted of fraud in 1997 and spent four years in prison) the trio sold the team to the more stable Labatt Brewing Company, through its TSN network, for $4.5 million in 1994.
MONEY PIT — THE SHERWOOD SCHWARZ YEARS — 1999-2003
The Argos won two Grey Cups during the Labatt years, but low attendance combined with the brewer’s sale to a Belgian company had the team looking for an owner yet again in 1999. If the team was losing money before Schwarz took over the team, it was hemorrhaging it by the time he left. The team’s debt ballooned to $20 million, with Schwarz’s own money counting for $17.4 million of that number. The CFL was forced to revoke Schwarz’s bankrupt franchise and take over the team in 2003.
LOCAL HEROES AND A SILENT PARTNER — HOWARD SOKOLOWSKI, DAVID CYNAMON AND DAVID BRALEY — 2003-2015
Local businessmen Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon rescued the Argos, purchasing them from the league for $2 million in November 2003. The perceived stability paid instant dividends, with the Argos winning their 15th Grey Cup title in 2004. But losses continued to mount as the duo sold the team to David Braley in 2010. Already owner of the B.C. Lions, Braley now owned almost a quarter of the teams in the league. It was revealed by all parties and then-commissioner Mark Cohon that Braley had been helping Sokolowski and Cynamon bankroll the team since they took it over from the league.
Braley proved to be a capable caretaker of the team, owning it for another five years before selling it to two thirds of the MLSE triumvirate, Bell and Larry Tanenbaum’s holding company Kilmer Sports. With Rogers now on board the Argonauts appear to be in safe hands again.