The Rock Relocate: Thoughts from a Hamiltonian

It’s a little bit of hyperbole, but not a lot: the lacrosse landscape in southern Ontario changed dramatically this week.

Of course, we all know now that the Toronto Rock are sort-of relocating, and by “sort-of” I mean that they are remaining the Toronto Rock but will be playing their home games in Hamilton for at least the next five years. The jersey and logo will be the same, the staff and roster will be the same, everything to do with the TRAC will be the same, but when the team bus leaves the TRAC for home games, it’ll head west on the QEW instead of east.

For me personally, this is great news. I live in Waterdown, which is part of the city of Hamilton, and my house is about 10 km from the First Ontario Centre. If a game ends at 10:30pm, I’m easily home by 11, and that’s if I stroll to the parking garage. There are not that many people who can say that the relocation of their nearest NLL team is good news, but I imagine Rock fans anywhere from Oakville to Kitchener-Waterloo to Six Nations are all pretty pleased with this move. Fans in Banditland who like to cross the border for Rock games just found their travel time cut in half.

Downtown Hamilton

(Image: downtown Hamilton. The tall black building in the middle is Stelco Tower. Just to the left of it, you can see part of the white roof of the First Ontario Centre.)

Of course, that’s not the case for thousands of others coming from north or east of Toronto. I know my friends in Newmarket and Stouffville have decisions to make, not to mention my friends downtown who used to be able to walk home after Rock games. There are likely a ton of people from Peterborough who are willing to make the hour-and-a-half-in-good-traffic drive downtown for Rock games, and they will all have to decide if they are willing to add an extra hour-in-good-traffic to each direction of that trip. Remember too that most NLL games occur in the dead of winter, and so the “in-good-traffic” part can really come into play.

The Rock have said that they plan to have most home games on Saturday evenings, so the Monday-Friday 9-5 crowd won’t have to worry so much about getting from work to the arena. But make no mistake, I’m not dismissing the additional travelling a great many fans will have to do if they want to see the games in person. It’s a big deal and I wouldn’t blame anyone for deciding to either scale back from season tickets to going to a game or two per season, or just not going at all.

Rock owner and GM Jamie Dawick said that ticket prices will be lower in Hamilton, and things like parking and concessions will be cheaper as well. I am looking forward to paying less than $6 for a can-sized bottle of Coke Zero.

The Rock are returning to the same place where the franchise began, as the Ontario Raiders back in 1998. But they only played there a year before moving to Toronto where their popularity skyrocketed. But after five Championships and seven straight years of 15,000+ attendance, the Rock’s numbers dropped to around 10,000 in 2010, and haven’t recovered, which brings us to where we are now. I’m pretty sure Dawick said a few years ago that he needs attendance of 10,000 per game just to break even. [Aside: I have a feeling I’m misremembering that and the number is actually higher.]

Half of the 65 Rock home games since 2015 have been below 10k and only two have been above 12k. Surely nobody expects Dawick to continue losing tons of money every year renting the Scotiabank Arena. Does it suck for many Rock fans who don’t live west of the city? Absolutely it does, but it’s a business decision. I’m impressed he stuck it out this long.

Another odd part of this whole scenario is the fact that Toronto and Hamilton have been sports rivals forever, mainly the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This is a rivalry that compares to that of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, and so I’ve seen comments that this endeavour will fail because any real Hamiltonian wouldn’t be caught dead supporting a team with Toronto in the name.

But I’ve lived in Hamilton for almost 25 years. I don’t buy it.

No, I don’t see a lot of Argos gear around town, but that’s because Hamilton has its own team. I do see Leafs, Blue Jays, and Raptors gear all over the place. I personally have worn shirts and jerseys from all three of those teams (plus the Rock of course, and I even have a Toronto FC hat), and nobody in Hamilton has ever mentioned anything to me about having a problem supporting Toronto teams.

Nonetheless, the fact that a team with Toronto in the name will play its home games in Hamilton is a little unusual. According to people on twitter, only the San Francisco 49ers play their home games further away from the city they’re named for (in a normal non-pandemic year, anyway). Now, the Vancouver Stealth didn’t pull in great numbers when they played 40 km away from Vancouver in Langley, but let’s be honest, the team wasn’t very good. The Chicago Shamrox also didn’t pack the building in Hoffman Estates, 53 km away, but they weren’t great either and they were only given two seasons to figure it out.

The Rock were 7-4 during 2020’s partial season and 12-6 in 2019. There’s no reason to believe they won’t at least contend in the North division next season. The team may not be the powerhouse team they were in Toronto in 1999, but Toronto fans who make their way down the QEW for Rock games next season should still see a strong team and entertaining games. Other than transportation costs, they’ll also spend less money to do it.

I have intentionally refrained from making any predictions about how successful the team will be in Hamilton. The Ontario Raiders averaged 4,810 people per game in 1998. But that was an expansion team in an unknown league. Thanks to 22 seasons of the Toronto Rock, the lacrosse scene in southern Ontario is quite different now, and so I don’t think comparisons to the Raiders are really meaningful. Even if they don’t pack the building every night, the lower arena costs will hopefully mean the team can stay alive. Moving the team to Hamilton may not be good news for many Rock fans, but I’m sure most will agree that it’s preferable to losing the team entirely.

I did not grow up watching the Rock play. I was in my early thirties before I ever saw a lacrosse game. But an entire generation of lacrosse players, broadcasters, and fans have grown up in southern Ontario with the Rock as a major part of their lacrosse world. Things will be different going forward but hopefully the new location will allow the Rock to continue to be a huge influence on the lacrosse community in this area.