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Toronto the rowdy


Toronto the rowdy
There was a time when the primary criticism levelled at Toronto sports fans was that they were boring.

Those traditions run deep. Legendary Leafs owner Conn Smythe patrolled the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens to ensure ticket holders met the dress code. The Blue Jays' long run of success in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s meant that the 50,000 fans at the Rogers Centre, n?e SkyDome, were known for their cavalier "wake me up when the playoffs start" attitude. Then there was the unforgettable moment when the Leafs opened the Air Canada Centre in 1999 and TV cameras captured swaths of empty seats in the platinum section - the season-ticket-holding swells were still finishing wine and cheese in the lounges.

Dull and detached isn't looking so bad these days if the alternative is drunk, angry louts misbehaving in the name of fandom. Conn Smythe wouldn't have tolerated it.

On Monday night, the Blue Jays' home opener was marred as paper airplanes and beer cups kept making their way to the field of play. Eventually, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland had to pull his team off the field briefly when one of his players was nearly hit by a Baseball.

It's believed to be the first time a game was halted at Rogers Centre because of fans.

Last Saturday, fans of the Toronto FC welcomed comedian Drew Carey - co-owner of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer - to BMO Field with a beer shower. The week before, an estimated 2,000 TFC fans followed the team on the road to Columbus, Ohio, for the season opener. The game featured smoke bombs. Someone threw a broken banner railing over the edge. There were scattered fights and chest-thumping afterward. One Toronto fan was subdued by police with a taser.

And, as the attachment between Toronto fans and the National Football League's Buffalo Bulls deepens - the team now plays one "home" game a year at the Rogers Centre - police in Orchard Park, N.Y., can only smack their foreheads: A disproportionate number of arrests they make at true Bills home games are of drunk fans from Southern Ontario.

"Maybe things have changed," said Dustin Parkes, 28, a lifelong Baseball aficionado, Rogers Centre regular and co-founder of the popular Baseball blog titled - ironically, he insists - Drunk Jays Fans. "Maybe now people think the only way to enjoy a sporting event is to get plastered."

As a punishment for a series of liquor-related offences last season at the Rogers Centre, the stadium has to "go dry" for three events this year, the first of which was the Jays -Tigers game on Tuesday. Detroit outfielder Josh Anderson said, "That's good. These people can't handle it."

Mario Coutinho, the Blue Jays vice-president of operations and security, says his staff eject about 50 fans a game over the course of the season, for reasons ranging from drunkenness to ticket violations. The trend, he says, is toward heavy drinking outside the park before the game, leaving Rogers Centre staff to deal with the fallout.

According to Bob Hunter, executive vice-president of venues and entertainment for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment - owner of BMO Field, Toronto FC, the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors - there were "no more than five ejections" from the TFC game on Saturday and only six or seven at the Leafs game against the visiting Montreal Canadiens Saturday night.

The least unruly fans among the major Toronto sports teams belong to the Raptors, who have recorded only 20 fan ejections this season, says Mr. Hunter. That's 50 ejections a game for the Jays versus 20 fan ejections all season for the Raptors.

Coincidentally or not, the beer sales at Raptors gamers are lower than TFC and Leafs games.

Is fan behaviour getting worse? If it is, it's only by degrees, says Mr. Hunter. Nevertheless, MLSE updated its security procedures last year.

Mr. Parkes's premise is that, as Canadians are weaned on hockey, their tendency is to perk up at the game's big moments: fights, big hits or close plays, of which hockey provides plenty. Other sports, by comparison, don't have the same excitement level, so fans are tempted to make their own fun.

Certainly, Chris Gould of 2000 Tours, based in London, Ont., has taken thousands of football fans from Southern Ontario to Buffalo Bills games since he began running bus trips in 1999, and handfuls of his customers have been arrested. The story rarely changes: The bus arrives hours before kickoff, the tailgating begins and bad judgment soon follows. "I think it might be because Canadian laws are more conservative about open liquor," says Mr. Gould. "They get to Buffalo, the tailgate party starts and the cops are high-fiving you ...Canadians lose their minds."

On Nov. 30, 2008, the Bills hosted the San Francisco 49ers and Canadian fans accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 33 people arrested at the game, no small feat considering Canadians made up only 15 to 20 per cent of the crowd.

Nowhere is that habit more ingrained than in the fervent following that European soccer teams engender, where chants and loyalties are passed on through generations. The explosion in popularity of Toronto FC, the local entry in the MLS just beginning its third season, borrows from those traditions. Every game at BMO Field has been a sellout; the waiting list for season tickets stands at 14,000.

The home games are special, in part because of the 2,000 or so over-the-top supporters such as the Red Patch Boys, North End Elite and the U-Sector. They gather at bars near BMO Field and congregate at nearby Lamport Stadium to march en masse to the game. The chanting, singing and never-sit-down enthusiasm is part of the entertainment for the suburban soccer families that fill out the crowd.

But the line between fun and loutishness is a blurry one. "They do ride on the edge. There's no doubt," says Duane Rollins, a TFC season ticket holder and member of the U-Sector, whose blog, The 24th Minute, covers "the world game from a Canadian perspective."

"No one would ever argue that we're all Angels...," says Mr. Rollins. "It's difficult to justify to someone raised on the more traditional North American fan experience. It's loud, it's crude, but that's the point. Six days a week I'm a normal guy, but for games your inner id comes out."

But foolish fans are hardly the preserve of soccer.

A year ago the Jays home opener featured a 500 upper-deck melee, captured on YouTube via cellphone cameras. This year the team has cancelled the popular $2 Tuesdays promotion after it became associated with fighting and excessive drinking.

"It was not one of our better promotions," says Mr. Coutinho. "It was a cheap cover charge, basically. If you did something stupid and got thrown out, who cares?"

The underlying reason why a small segment of Toronto sports fans present themselves as vulgar and occasionally violent is open to speculation, of course. And it's hardly a made-in-Toronto habit. While opening night at the Rogers Centre was marked by fans throwing objects, in Anaheim, Calif., police are trying to solve a murder after a fan was killed in a fight while leaving the stadium after an Angels game.

But alcohol is a common theme.

The irony, says Kent State University sociologist Jerry M. Lewis - author of a book on North American fan violence - is that teams encourage fans to be rowdy, be it with cheerleading scoreboards or by distributing noisemakers and the like. Alcohol sales - beers in Toronto sports venues average about $10 a cup - are a major source of revenue.

Conn Smythe died in 1980, having led the Leafs to eight Stanley Cups during his ownership tenure. He wouldn't recognize sports in Toronto today and not just because his old team is among the league's dregs.

A lifelong teetotaller, he never sold a drop of beer at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Leafs were winning and his nattily dressed patrons didn't seem to miss it.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 11, 2009

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