TORONTO -- The Toronto Argonauts, once the flagship franchise of the CFL, hit a new low yesterday when the league was forced to take over the franchise from owner Sherwood Schwarz. Commissioner Tom Wright looked for positives in making the announcement at a hastily called news conference at the Royal York Hotel, where westerners on horseback once rode through the lobby during Grey Cups past.
TV viewership is up, he said. Other franchises have sorted out their problems. The product on the field is first-rate. Damon Allen is about to hit 60,000 yards in career passing.
But the Argos are hemorrhaging and Schwarz apparently had no more money to keep them afloat.
While praising Schwarz for his "energy and enthusiasm," Wright said a change was needed.
"Clearly it is our feeling that the current organization in Toronto has been unsuccessful in generating the financial support that is necessary to ensure that the CFL and the game in this market (keeps) pace and is consistent with the renaissance and momentum that we see across the country.
"Clearly it is time for the CFL to turn a corner. It is time for this league, for our league, to collectively demonstrate our commitment to this market."
In the parlance of the boardroom, Schwarz's "franchise has been terminated."
Paul Robson, the CFL's chairman, will take over day-to-day operation of the team.
There were more questions than answers yesterday. In the absence of facts, there were hypotheticals -- most of which Wright opted not to answer.
He did say the team would continue to play at the SkyDome rather than finish out the season on the road.
Wright declined to say how much the league has already injected into the Argos to keep the team alive this season, or how much it would cost the rest of the season.
"I recognize we are in a public sport, but these are private businesses," he said.
Reports have suggested the league already has advanced Schwarz $1.3 million for various expenses, the majority of it for players' salaries, on the assumption he could find new partners.
The club is drawing interest, as recently as yesterday morning, said Wright.
"There are interested parties, absolutely," he said.
The Argo players have not been asked to take a pay cut, Wright said. Robson will put together an operating plan and budget and will work within it.
The players were slated to be paid by the end of business yesterday, Wright said, and it appeared those cheques might not be coming. The league then stepped in.
"If there was a straw that broke the camel's back, perhaps (that was it)," the commissioner said.
Attempts to reach Schwarz were not immediately successful yesterday. Wright told the news conference he, too, had been unable to reach him and that the New York businessman was unavailable for the league governors' conference call earlier in the day.
Schwarz had reportedly injected more than $18 million into the team since he bought the Argos three years ago. According to reports, he had stopped putting money into the team and attempts to inject cash through partners have failed.
Wright acknowledged the situation has been exacerbated because the league, believing the Toronto ownership had plans in place to see out the season, had not taken control earlier.
"I guess it would have been better if we had addressed this in January or February," he said, noting hindsight is infallible.
The Argos are 3-3 going into Friday's home game against the B.C. Lions and have shown real signs of life on the field. It is off the field where the problems have been.
Head coach Pinball Clemons gathered his players after practice yesterday, breaking the news to them in a huddle at the centre of the field.
"We simply told them as it relates to this, it doesn't change the operation of the Toronto Argonauts a great deal . . . business has to carry on," he said later.
"We're going to try to quell any distractions that may occur because we're at a real important time in terms of the football season."
The team has drawn 15,126, 14,482 and 14,089 fans this season at SkyDome. The Argos averaged a league-low 16,000 in 2001, but upped that to 21,000 last season -- aided by glitzy sideshows that ranged from Tony Hawk to Muhammad Ali.
The Toronto Argos, celebrating their 130th season, have had nine owners through the years:
1873: Toronto Argonauts Football Club is formed as part of the Argonaut Rowing Club. Ten Grey Cups.
1957: A syndicate including Toronto Telegram publisher John Bassett buys the team. No Grey Cups.
1971: Bassett, now the head of Baton Broadcasting, takes sole control of the Argos. No Grey Cups.
1974: Hotel magnate William Hodgson buys the team from Bassett and the team begins a stretch of eight straight losing seasons. No Grey Cups.
1979: Carling O'Keefe Breweries takes over from Hodgson. During the mid-1980s, attendance begins plummeting. One Grey Cup (1983).
1988: In December, Harry Ornest becomes owner. The team moves into the SkyDome for the '89 season. Attendance rebounds. No Grey Cups.
1991: Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky bring glitz to Toronto. After a brief Hollywood honeymoon, attendance tumbles again. One Grey Cup (1991).
1994: TSN (whose parent company is Labatt) takes over from the McNall group. Two Grey Cups (1996, 1997).
1999: In December, Sherwood Schwarz becomes the franchise's ninth owner. No Grey Cups.