11/06/2015 22:15 EST | Updated 11/06/2016 01:12 EDT

Toronto Argonauts bid the Rogers Centre farewell after 27 CFL seasons

TORONTO — The Toronto Argonauts exited the Rogers Centre on a winning note Friday after 27 seasons under the dome.

Next season the Argos will call BMO Field home — and hope that the outdoor lakefront stadium might lure fans back in the same way that Montreal's move to the more intimate Percival Molson Stadium revitalized interest in that CFL team. 

The last CFL game at the Rogers Centre drew an announced attendance of 17,511 for a 21-11 Toronto victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a meaningless contest for both teams.

Toronto's 2015 season is not yet done but it will play its post-season on the road. Winnipeg (5-13-0) is finished for the year.

There was some symmetry to the Argos' home finale coming against Winnipeg. Toronto's first game at the dome was a 17-16 pre-season victory over the Blue Bombers on June 29, 1989.

There was little emotion to the evening, although the giant scoreboard did flash Rogers Centre memories throughout the game.

The switch to BMO Field takes the Argos (10-8-0) back to the CNE, where they used to flourish at Exhibition Stadium before taking up residence in 1989 at what was then known as SkyDome. 

The Argos exit with a 123-96-1 record at the downtown stadium. But mostly they leave with a whimper rather than a bang, given their second banana status to the Blue Jays this season.

Toronto went 49 days without playing at the Rogers Centre due to the busy baseball schedule, forced to shift two late-season home games to Hamilton and one to Ottawa. The Argos home opener, meanwhile, took place 3,800 kilometres away at Fort McMurray, Alta.

The four previous CFL games this season at the Rogers Centre drew 14,236, 17,694, 14,748 and 20,642. In essence, the team was in limbo — more so given a change in ownership from David Braley to Bell Canada and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

What was once seen as an engineering marvel billed as the eighth wonder of the world — the venue can fit eight 747 planes on the field while in baseball mode and its retractable roof is still an impressive engineering feat — had become an oversized, unfriendly and character-lacking football home.

Still the lack of interest in the football team came in stark contrast to the sellout crowds that packed the venue for the surging Blue Jays.

The football finale came on a night on which the Maple Leafs were hosting the Detroit Red Wings and the red-hot Raptors were on TV taking on the Orlando Magic.

The Argos were essentially shown the door by the Blue Jays ownership, which wants to install natural grass at the venue which it also owns.

Toronto made its regular-season debut at SkyDome on July 12, 1989, when a crowd of 32,527 watched Toronto lose 24-15 to Hamilton. The Argos averaged 35,069 that first year under the dome, whose construction price-tag ballooned to some $570 million. Last year, average attendance was 17,791.

Mike (Pinball) Clemons, the Argonauts' vice-chair and former coach and star player, was a CFL rookie back in 1989. Injured, he watched his first game from the 500 level, the top tier of the stadium.

"All of a sudden everything made sense ... Watching it from up there, you understood the advantage you can get from coming downhill in motion, you understood the width of the field," he recalled. 

While he had spent some time in the NFL, Clemons was still taken by the size of the stadium and its trademark Jumbotron screen.

"This stadium was like no other, just a beautiful facility," he recalled.

The venue hosted four Grey Cups with the Argos winning the 100th edition of the CFL championship by a 35-22 margin over the Calgary Stampeders in November 2012. That championship game featured a halftime show that ran the gamut — Justin Bieber to Gordon Lightfoot.

Saskatchewan (twice) and Calgary also hoisted the Grey Cup under the dome.

The 2016 championship game will be held at BMO Field.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press