Varsity Stadium - Toronto Varsity Blues
Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.29
University of Toronto
299 Bloor St W
Toronto, ON M5S 1W2
Year Opened: 2007
The Toronto Varsity Blues have a ridiculously long history when it comes to football. The origins of the football program at the University of Toronto are murky at best. Many believe that the first ever game at University of Toronto, maybe even in Canada, was on November 9, 1861. Through more than 150 years of football at Canada’s largest university, the road has been filled with ups and downs. The Toronto program lays claim to winning the first ever Grey Cup in 1909 and count former Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson among alumni who helped coach the Varsity Blues.
Home for the Varsity Blues program has been Varsity Stadium since its inception in 1911, when the original stadium was built. Varsity was also home to the Toronto Argonauts until they moved to Exhibition Stadium in 1959. Varsity has hosted 21 Vanier Cup games as the National Championship game for university football in Canada, as well as 30 Grey Cups. The third Grey Cup ever played was hosted at Varsity, where the game would be a staple for years. The Varsity Blues have seen their share of success including Grey Cup Championships in 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1920. When the Grey Cup would become an exclusively CFL trophy, the Blues would go on to win Vanier Cups in 1965 and 1993. The Blues also claim 25 Yates Cup Championships as conference champions between 1898 and 1993.
Unfortunately, the Varsity Blues program has fallen on hard times. In 1992, the program was nearly cancelled and the miracle that was the 1993 Vanier Cup victory was followed with a fairly sharp decline of performance on the field. The Varsity Blues have not posted a winning record or made the playoffs since 1995. Between 2001 and 2008 the Varsity Blues would claim a record 49 game losing streak.
During this period, Varsity Stadium would be torn down and rebuilt. The centre of controversy with plenty of rumblings of the Argonauts making a return to Varsity, the new Varsity Centre would be completed in 2007 with a modest 5,000 seat grandstand and modern facilities. The new Varsity Stadium provides the Varsity Blues with one of the nicer venues in the OUA and the football program has seen some improvements in recent years. However, the new Varsity Stadium and latest coaching staff of the Toronto Varsity Blues has not yet been able to change the tune at Varsity away from those Varsity Blues.
Food & Beverage 2
The concessions at Varsity Stadium are not overly spectacular. Under the grandstand, there is a small concession stand. There you will finds a fairly limited variety of snacks. Hot dogs ($3), burgers, chips and candy are all available. Soft drinks that are available are Pepsi products ($2.25) as well as water and a few different iced tea flavors. On a cool evening coffee or tea may be the way to go, which are also available.
Further south under the grandstand there is a licensed area where alcoholic beverages can be purchased. Molson Canadian, Coors Light and Alexander Keith’s IPA are available for sale but may not be brought out of the enclosed area or to your seat.
Varsity Stadium is one of the nicest venues in the OUA, but it lacks that visible history which may be expected. From the outside, Varsity Stadium is a nice enough venue. Wrapped in red brick and wrought iron, the field can be seen easily from Bloor St. On Bloor Street you will see the main piece of history at Varsity. Dividing the stadium from Bloor St, just under the videoboard, is an original brick wall from the 1911 incarnation of the stadium. At the west end of the wall there is a Heritage plaque outlining the significance of the Grey Cup. Also at the west end of the stadium, at the corner of Bloor and Devonshire, there is a small square, which is a great meeting place before the game and a spot where you can peek through the fence and see some football action.
After entering the gate at the northeast corner of the stadium, patrons are led under the grandstand. The field is north-south oriented and the seating area is on the east side. The concourse is pretty nondescript and doesn’t offer too much that is interesting. The southeast end of Varsity Centre also encompasses the historic Varsity Arena. The seating area at Varsity Stadium is fairly simple. Metal benches with backs are found throughout the grandstand. The slope is significantly steeper than other stadiums in the conference and sightlines are very good. Varsity Stadium is also home to the Varsity Blues Track and Field program and also encompasses a full eight lane track, which brings the fan a little farther from the football action. At the north end of the stadium is the videoboard, an item that is still a bit of a novelty in the conference. That being said, the videoboard is older and nowhere near the quality that can be found at the professional level. From your seats, if you look to the south you will find the Varsity Centre Pavilion, and beyond that, the iconic CN Tower can be easily seen from the stadium.
The gameday production is about what you would expect for football in the OUA. The production is student-run with typical promos and contests. The PA system at Varsity Stadium is excellent and announcements are clear and crisp. The game that was reviewed was scheduled for the Thursday before the Thanksgiving weekend, a time that students are traditionally leaving campus, and it seemed like a bit of a skeleton crew working. The Toronto Engineering Society provides the Lady Godiva Memorial Band, a band with an interesting history, however they were not in attendance at the game reviewed. The game does begin with the firing of the cannon which will take those unaware by surprise for sure. The Varsity Blues make good use of their videoboard, often boasting of more National Championships than any other school, however there are few obvious reminders of that history within the stadium. Considering the difficulties the Blues have had on the field, they should embrace their history and do a better job putting it on display.
The University of Toronto neighbourhood is second to none in the entire CIS. The St.George Campus, which hosts the athletic facilities, is at the north end of what is still considered part of Downtown Toronto as well as part of Old Toronto. In the immediate walking area, there are a ton of options for pre and post game fare. Signatures, Gabby’s, Madison Ave Pub, Duke of York, and Fox and Fiddle are all options that are very close and worth a look. There are also a number of large chains and fast food that can be found on Bloor Street.
There are a ton of things to do in downtown Toronto and you can’t go wrong with a weekend or even a week in the area. Varsity Centre is located right beside the Royal Ontario Museum, which requires a number of hours for a good visit. On the other side of the stadium the Bata Shoe Museum can be found for something very different. The St. George Campus of University of Toronto is also a short subway trip to the heart of downtown Toronto where you will find the Harbourfront, CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium and the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Eaton Centre is also not too far and the centre of Toronto’s shopping scene and the Theatre District is also right there.
If you are looking for more of a sports fix then you are in luck. The University of Toronto also fields a whole host of other athletic programs including hockey at Varsity Arena, also part of Varsity Centre, and basketball at the brand new Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. Varsity Blues rivals the Ryerson Rams host their athletics out of the former Maple Leaf Gardens and play hockey at the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens and basketball at Coca-Cola Court. The pros are also not far away with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto Rock calling Scotiabank Arena home, the Toronto Blue Jays calling Rogers Centre home, the Toronto Marlies calling Coca-Cola Coliseum home and Toronto FC and the Toronto Argonauts playing at BMO Field.
There are a number of fine hotels to stay at in Toronto. Probably the most convenient is the Holiday Inn, located right across the street from Varsity Centre.
Let’s face the facts, the Toronto Varsity Blues football program has not been a good one in decades. With the last winning season for the Blues coming all the way back in 1995, getting fans to come out to Varsity has been a real challenge. The Blues have shown a little bit of life in the last few years, but are still a ways from a playoff appearance. In 2016 and 2015 the Blues have struggled to draw more than 1,500 fans per game and rank near the bottom of the conference in average attendance. During the 2014 season, the Blues attracted an average of over 2,200 fans per game and ranked 8th in the OUA. There is a great deal of room for improvement and the University of Toronto needs to do a much better job attracting students to football games and to make the Varsity Blues football experience part of the Toronto student experience.
The fans in attendance that are cheering for the Blues can only be described as die-hard, as the product has been so poor over the last few decades. Varsity Stadium is a great venue for visiting fans, however. You will often find many travelling fans who are in attendance to see their team, who happens to be playing at Varsity.
Toronto traffic can be a real challenge and getting to Varsity Centre can be a bit of a pain. Varsity Centre is located a fair distance from all major highways in the area. Almost equally distant from highway 401, 427 the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, driving to Varsity will involve some very slow going through the city with many lights and stop and go traffic.
What Varsity lacks in challenges for getting there by car, they make up for with proximity to public transit. Varsity is located near stops for two different subway routes which makes getting there not too terrible with public transit. Check out the TTC website for fares, maps and schedules.
There are a number of parking options around Varsity Centre. Rates are not terrible and you can probably park for $10 for the duration of the game. A little research on parking options will go a long way before heading into the city by car.
The ticketing window and main gate are at the northeast side of the stadium off of Bloor Street. Credit card services are available and there is very rarely any sort of wait at the box office.
Getting around the stadium is no problem, mainly because there is often not close to a capacity crowd. The space under the grandstand is more than adequate for getting around. The washroom facilities are also more than adequate for the number of fans that are typically in attendance.
Return on Investment 3
Tickets for Toronto football will run $12 for General Admission and $20 for reserved in the centre section. There will be a charge for either parking or public transit. Concession prices are decent also. OUA football can offer a fantastic return for your sporting dollar. However, decades of poor teams can make it a bit of a crapshoot as to what type of game you will get. Blowouts are commonplace at Varsity and the stadium can empty at halftime if the game gets out of hand.
An extra mark for the alumni and friends of the Varsity Blues program who saved the program in 1992 and led to the miracle 1993 Vanier Cup team.
An extra mark for the annual Red and Blue Bowl where the Varsity Blues take on their crosstown rivals, the York Lions. Both teams are often struggling in the standings and the game can often be entertaining and close.
An extra mark for the Toronto Varsity Blues attempting to rekindle a classic cheer.
The Toronto Varsity Blues have had a rough road through the CIS for decades. They have a great facility in a fantastic, big market city, which should help both at the gates and in recruiting. Be selective when choosing a game and try to avoid a mismatch. If you can do this you will have a great time in Toronto. Otherwise, you may just be singing the Varsity Blues.
Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on Twitter @profan9 and on Instagram.