Exhibition Place board votes to expand BMO Field, but hurdles may still remain for the Argos

55 Yard Line

It looks like the Toronto Argonauts will soon have a new home—and that they will indeed be sharing it with Toronto FC. When the idea of the Argos joining TFC at BMO Field first came up in the discussions about the team having to vacate the Rogers Centre by 2017 so the Blue Jays can install real grass, it seemed unlikely for a host of reasons, but TFC owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment unveiled expansion images this week that included a CFL configuration, while the Exhibition Place board voted Friday to allow a BMO Field expansion. MLSE (which has been repeatedly named as a potential Argonauts buyer) seems set to let the team play at BMO Field, and the city is reportedly pushing heavily for them to be included in the expansion. Toronto deputy mayor Norm Kelly made that explicitly clear in a tweet he sent out after the meeting Friday:

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While the Argos have needed a new home for ages (the Rogers Centre isn't a great football venue under any circumstances, but the real problem with it is that the team receives bottom-of-the-barrel scheduling priority there, leading to things like them not being able to host Labour Day games and having to play in the middle of the week), they've faced significant hurdles getting there. There were discussions about putting them in BMO Field along with TFC ahead of its 2007 construction, but those talks fell apart and it was built as a soccer-specific stadium. The team also tried to get in on the 2007 construction of the University of Toronto's new Varsity Stadium, but academic and neighbourhood opposition led to that plan falling apart. Since then, a variety of plans have been proposed, but none had advanced too far until now, and this one may not be all settled just yet.

It's particularly remarkable that it's the BMO Field plan that seems to have come through, as that looked like a highly-improbable option at first. Part of that was because the stadium is too small for a CFL field without extensive renovations, but it seems the money's been found for that. It also looks like they've figured out a way to expand the stadium to accommodate a CFL field while keeping soccer supporters behind the goals close to the action, thanks to removable stands that can be put in for soccer and taken out for football. However, the surface issues are more concerning. Natural grass was put in in 2010, which is ideal for soccer but can't easily be shared between soccer and football. That's what's led to a lot of pushback from soccer fans on this front, as they don't want to lose the grass surface.

The surface issue is especially notable, as there have been some mixed messages on that front, and it may not be entirely decided even yet. MLSE president Tim Leiweke told Sportsnet's John Molinaro in January that "I want to be as clear as I can: We are committed to grass. There is no miscommunication on the grass issue," and that was with discussion of bringing the Argonauts in. However, it seems almost impossible to have soccer and football teams share one stadium with all-natural grass, as even football-only stadiums with grass get chewed up considerably late in the year. That's why recent reports about the expansion include lines like "what’s likely to be a hybrid playing surface — natural grass combined with artificial fibres."

A hybrid surface would be a step up over a pure turf surface for soccer, but would still largely viewed as a step down from an all-grass one. That's why there may still be more pushback to come from the soccer community on this plan—both from TFC fans (even if some seem to see it as an inevitability now), and perhaps even more importantly, from the Canadian Soccer Association. BMO Field doubles as the primary national soccer stadium for the CSA, but if its surface is changed, that may not be the case any more. Beyond that, while a hybrid surface would be more resistant to football damage than a pure grass one, it wouldn't be invulnerable, and there could still be concerns about how it will hold up late in the year under a soccer-and-football workload. It seems the BMO Field plan is going forward, and that's good news for the Argos, who desperately need a stadium solution and might just have found a very good once. The forced Argos-TFC marriage may yet have some rocky days ahead, though.

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