Blue Jays’ plan for real grass at Rogers Centre poses problems and opportunities for Argos

There's a lot of excitement in Toronto around the Blue Jays, who start their Major League Baseball season Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians. For their co-tenants at the Rogers Centre, though, the Jays' remarkable offseason may not prove entirely positive; the renewed level of interest in the baseball team seems likely to boost their financial picture, and is probably related to the stories that have started popping up about the team taking their long-rumoured interest in converting their field to grass into a a definite timeframe for installation between 2015 and 2018. A grass field wouldn't work for a stadium that the team shares with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, as football tends to chew grass up too much for baseball, and The Globe and Mail's Robert MacLeod has reported that Jays' president Paul Beeston has told the Argos they need to find a new home within five years.

From a CFL perspective, the most basic way to look at this is as the Rogers-owned Jays bullying the Argos out of a Rogers-owned arena, especially given recent reports of Rogers' growing distaste for the Bell/TSN-affiliated CFL. However, that's not really the whole story: while the quest for a new home is likely to be exceptionally difficult for the Argos, securing a better facility is probably crucial to their long-term future, and a deadline like Beeston's reported one might actually prove a valuable motivator for them to get that done sooner rather than later.

The simple truth is that the Rogers Centre isn't a great facility for the Argonauts for anything other than a Grey Cup. They're always going to be the second-most-important tenant there (at best), and that's led to significant scheduling problems, such as this year's decision to only play one CFL game on Labour Day for the first time since 1949 because the Rogers Centre was unavailable to host a game. Beyond that, it's significantly too large for what the Argos can reasonably expect to draw during the regular season; the stadium can hold north of 52,000 in a football configuration, and even the typical football capacity of 31,074 (thanks to blocking off numerous parts of the stadium) seems too big.

The Argos' attendance hasn't been great for a long while, averaging just over 20,000 in 2011, and although it was better last year, the best number they posted in the regular season was still 27,283 (on the final day against Hamilton, which had plenty of Tiger-Cats' fans boosting the numbers). The team may draw better this year as defending Grey Cup champions, but pulling in 30,000+ regularly seems highly unrealistic, and the Rogers Centre often feels far too empty during CFL games.

The Rogers Centre is also built more for baseball than football, and the turf isn't ideal either, so there are issues beyond just the capacity. A smaller, football-focused stadium would likely provide a much better atmosphere for the Argonauts. It's not just about atmosphere, either; a better stadium deal could help them with scheduling issues, revenue streams and much more. Look at what happened with the Alouettes when they moved from the Big O to McGill's Molson Stadium, a decision some have called "franchise-saving." Thus, this isn't just about the Jays giving the Argos the boot, and a five-year timeframe is actually pretty reasonable. It's not like this is out of the blue, as the Argos have been looking at other potential stadium solutions for quite some time. This just gives them a definite deadline, and that may prove to be a positive.

Still, the quest for a new home won't be a simple one. The only other existing facility that could potentially handle the Argonauts would appear to be the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium. Toronto FC's BMO Field is out of the question, despite initial discussions about that when its construction was first discussed: it went to real grass in 2010, and would be completely unsuitable as a shared soccer/football facility at the moment. Varsity Stadium wouldn't necessarily work, either; although the team used to play on that site and is heading to the U of T for a preseason game this year, the new-look Varsity (opened in 2007) seats only 5,000 and isn't easily expandable. It's possible the team could strike a deal with York University, but York's building a track-and-field focused stadium for the Pan-Am Games, and that may not be easily adaptable to football; the 2,500-seat stadium the Lions' football team plays at certainly wouldn't work for the CFL. Moving to the suburbs would really hurt the team, so the main remaining option might be trying to build a new stadium somewhere on the waterfront, but that's much easier said than done.

With all that said, though, this might actually be a great time for the Argos to work on landing a new, smaller stadium. For one thing, current owner Senator David Braley has plenty of political connections and clout. For another, controversial Toronto mayor Rob Ford has at least been consistent in his support of football, even lifting the Grey Cup after the Argos won it, so although he and brother Doug might prefer trying to land the NFL, it's certainly not inconceivable that they could support the building of a small stadium for the Argos. The NFL-to-Toronto talk also seems at a particularly low ebb at the moment given the extension of the Bills' one-regular-season-game-a-year deal (by the way, that would likely be unaffected by grass at the Rogers Centre: the Bills have often played that game in November or December, well after the baseball season), so lobbying for a stadium now seems less risky than it might be at another time when a small CFL plan could get derailed in favour of a grandiose NFL plan. It won't be easy at all for the Argos to get a new stadium, and there are plenty of obstacles ahead, but this is likely something they'd need to do even if the Jays hadn't handed down a deadline. The reported deadline may even prove a positive motivating factor rather than a frightening one.