Tim Leiweke has proven that he is good at making the media rounds and feeding the hype machine in the Toronto Sports landscape. Today he was busy with all things related to the Raptors as they announced that the city will host the 2016 NBA All-Star Game and that they have brought rapper Drake on board as a global ambassador.
Between all the talk about Drake and improving the Raptors brand the President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment found some time to talk about the neglected child of the MLSE family, Toronto FC. In an appearance on Prime Time Sports on the Fan590, Leiweke once again brought up that whole Argos to BMO Field issue.
His comments brought a mixed bag for TFC fans as he discussed just what sort of upgrades could be in store for BMO field in the future if MLSE does decide to invest in major improvements to the stadium.
"The 100 million includes a renovation of the stadium as well," said Leiweke. "We want to try to upgrade some of the concourse, upgrade the premium areas, upgrade the locker room areas. When this stadium was built I think we underestimated the support and the amazing growth that we would see with soccer. So if you look at where Major League Soccer is today and you go to places like Kansas City, New York, Portland, and Vancouver and you see those new stadiums what you begin to realize is BMO quickly became outdated and so we need to upgrade the experience, we need to upgrade the environment, and we need to upgrade the fact that unlike a place like Kansas City or in Portland where they also have some rain issues; even if this was an unusually wet summer we still need to make sure that we're created some sort of fan friendly environment on the days or the nights that it does rain. So we're looking at an overall revamp to try to bring the stadium up to speed to what is a better comparable environment to what's happened in the league and how significantly the league has grown and these stadiums and these facilities since Toronto became a part of Major League Soccer."
He was clear that in the plan grass would remain and the roof would only cover some portion of the stands allowing the playing field to still be exposed to the natural elements. Leiweke suggested that those decisions had to do with the preferences of the players while the roof would be intended to improve the fan experience.
Up until that point in the interview Leiweke was saying all the sort of things that TFC fans want to here. The idea that MLSE is willing to invest a major sum of money into BMO to ensure it is at the very least on par with some of the newer stadiums in MLS should be warmly received by fans as it is no secret that it is not hard to tell that BMO Field was initially built quite cheaply.
It was all going well until the Argos and CFL football at BMO Field got brought up. "Both can co-exist," said Leiweke when asked about CFL on shared natural grass field, "there are stadiums, Houston is the stadium that I was part of building for the Dynamo and it also is home to a college football team that's a good program and so they play eight games a year down there and then the soccer team has it for the rest of the year. You see this in Dallas, you see this in Los Angeles, you see it in other stadiums now in Major League soccer where there is mixed use. We've had it with rugby, and we have had rugby twice this year plus two practice days, so we have had four different days of rugby teams on the pitch. So there is a way to schedule it, you can't have a CFL game and a soccer game on the same weekend so we have spent a little time talking to both leagues to see if there's a way to schedule it. This is not a unique situation, they currently do this in another market in Major League Soccer and the CFL where there is a joint sharing arrangement on the stadium. I think we can get to the right place if that was where we were headed but we are in the very early stages and don't know if we can make this work. "
The two or three principals that we have locked in on, that we will not bend on, first has to be grass, cannot be artificial or else we don't get designated players and it ruins the experience for the fans of both clubs. Two, you have to have a seating configuration for soccer that is as good if not better than today and a seating configuration for the CFL that offers the expanded end-zones and a 55 yard line not a 50 yard line. Three, you have to do this by making sure that you put additional improvements into the overall stadium including a roof and being able to afford it financially knowing that we are going to have to pick up the cheque and the tax payers are not going to write a cheque for these improvement. I don't know if we can do those three but we're going to look at it. We don't own the stadium, the city does, so we have an obligation to be a good partner, explore the conversation but stick to those three principals and say without these three being protected there is nothing we will do and no partnership we'd enter into and no cheque we'd write that can take away from the experience that we need for the soccer club. If we finally get that team headed in the right direction next year the last thing we want to do is shoot ourselves in the foot by making the experience worse, by putting in artificial turf, or moving the stands further from the pitch."
The conversation goes on to talk about the potential for MLSE to purchase the CFL franchise which seems to be something they have yet to consider but will be an option down the road. Bringing in the Argos would be what would make the renovation cost 100 million dollars or more as Leiweke pointed out that the roof would only account for about half of that figure while the rest would go towards things like the addition of retractable stands.
The good news for TFC fans is it seems that MLSE has a lot of other expensive plans on the horizon that could wind up being prioritized ahead of splashing out that kind of money on improvements to BMO Field. That could change though if they decide to explore the idea of purchasing the Argos in which case they would expect to see a better return on the upgrades than they would if they just spent the $50 million on improving BMO as a soccer-specific stadium.
It does sound like MLSE are doing their due diligence when it comes to the idea of using BMO for multiple sports which is good news. If the move does have to happen, an upgraded BMO Field and the club sticking to those three points would at least help to soften the blow. There is no doubt that the stadium could use the upgrades and the roof would be welcomed by fans but the question will be is it worth the cost of seeing the Argos move to BMO Field.