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Tim Leiweke discusses BMO Field expansion at Winter Classic

The talk of improving and expanding BMO Field heated back up earlier this week when Tim Leiweke was quoted in an interview with Sportsnet as saying MLSE are looking to double the capacity of the facility to allow it to host bigger events including a potential Winter Classic in 2017.

Would an expanded BMO Field ruin this iconic view of the CN Tower?
Would an expanded BMO Field ruin this iconic view of the CN Tower?

Tim Leiweke has been in his job with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for a little over half a year now. In that time it has quickly become clear that he is the perfect fit for the company as they try to further expand their sports and entertainment empire in Toronto. Leiweke knows how to talk the big talk and inspire the fans. He also knows how to add value to a company like he did in his previous role with AEG.

Since taking over Leiweke has already made major decisions about MLSE's three biggest properties and who should be in charge of shaping their futures. He gave a vote of confidence to Leafs GM Dave Nonis, he brought in one of the top young GMs in the NBA with the hiring of Masai Ujiri to run that franchise, and he replaced Kevin Payne with Tim Bezbatchenko at the top of Toronto FC.

Those were the highest profile moves that he has made in his short time in Toronto but there were certainly other moves that put MLSE in a better position moving forward. There has been a fair bit of turnover at the top of MLSE in recent months as Leiweke looks to bring in the people he wants to work closely with which has resulted in some of the less popular figures in the organization being shuffled out.

On the whole, things seem to be heading in the right direction for MLSE under their new boss with the major caveat that none of it has yet produced results on the ice/court/field as his changes are only just starting to have an impact on the organizations.

With the people he wants running the organizations now in place in seems that Leiweke is more focused on other projects that could potentially add value to MLSE's holdings and further strengthen their presence in Toronto. One of the biggest moves that he has mentioned is the potential renovation and expansion of BMO Field.

The costly improvements to BMO Field first came up when discussing the potential for the Argos to make a move to the stadium when they are no longer able to play at the Rogers Centre in a few years time. At that time it became clear that the stadium would be improved and expanded to include key features like a roof over the stands and moveable sections in the north and south ends to allow for the facility to adapt from the dimensions of a soccer field to those of a CFL field.

The expansions came up again earlier this week at the NHL's Winter Classic when Leiweke made it clear that BMO Field could be hosting such an event down the road. This year's game was played in front of over 100k fans at Michigan's Big House but in 2017 it could be played in front of 40k at BMO Field according to the report from Sportsnet.

The article is full of all the kinds of quotes that you would expect from Leiweke as he talks about all of the potential events that could be hosted in an expanded BMO Field. It would remain home to soccer on a regular basis but could also continue to host rugby games but the real draw seems to be special events like an outdoor Grey Cup and future Winter Classics. With the Leafs hoping to host all of the major NHL events around the time of their 100th anniversary an expanded BMO Field could play a big part in that.

It all sounds like a nice dream but in reality getting such a major expansion completed in time for 2017 would be a tight timeline. It is not a simple matter of MLSE just deciding that they want to sign some cheques and make it happen as they are not the owners of the facility. BMO Field is owned by the City of Toronto and any expansions would need their involvement and would likely also require contributions from all levels of government to make it possible as it would be a very expensive upgrade.

If this all does go ahead what exactly would it mean for Toronto FC? Well, it would mean fans finally getting some coverage from the elements at games and it would mean a much bigger stadium. The club have averaged right around 20,000 fans per game throughout their history with BMO being routinely sold out during the nicer summer months so some expanded capacity could be put to used by the soccer team. The problem is it would seem very optimistic to suggest that suddenly TFC will be drawing a similar number of fans to what the Seattle Sounders have achieved since joining MLS.

It is possible though that an expanded BMO Field would not have a permanent capacity in the 40k range but rather would be built in such a way to allow for a reduced capacity most of the time while being able to expand for major events that call for those additional seat. This quote from Leiweke in the Sportsnet article gives hope that TFC would not wind up playing in a half empty stadium week after week: "We have a pretty good idea how to take the capacity and get it to one level for permanent and expand it for things like this."

With that in mind it might just be a very good move for the fan experience at BMO Field. The current version of the facility was built on the cheap for around $60 million and it shows in a lot of ways. If nearly twice that amount were invested to improve and expand BMO Field that could possibly turn it in to one of the real gems of MLS assuming that it is done right.

Any expansion will of course bring with it the fear that the Argos will also be making the move to BMO Field. That still remains a realistic possibility if MLSE do ever purchase the CFL franchise. The Argos are going to need a new home come 2017 and with few others looking to buy them and no one looking to build them a new home the options outside of BMO Field seem quite slim.

At this point all of this is just talk as none of these plans seem to really be in motion, at least publicly. It is clear that MLSE is exploring all of their options to figure out how to best maximize their use of BMO Field though and that could include all of the things speculated about.

What price would TFC fans be willing to pay for an improved stadium though? Would they be okay with sharing it if it meant getting better infrastructure and a roof? There are certainly a lot of questions to be answered if this does become a reality. If the goal is 2017 though the ball is going to have to start rolling soon to get the upgrades done in time.