Report of MLSE interest in buying Argos as bridge to NFL raises plenty of questions

According to The Toronto Sun, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has expressed interest in buying the Toronto Argonauts—potentially as a way to demonstrate their football credentials to the NFL. Moreover, the report adds that if MLSE bought the Argos, they might look at moving them to BMO Field, home of Major League Soccer's Toronto FC (also owned by MLSE). That's a highly weird combination of information to include, and one that raises plenty of further questions. From the initial report, written by the Sun's Frank Zicarelli:

At this point in the process, nothing is imminent, but Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is kicking the tires with what sources believe is a long-term goal of bringing a National Football League franchise to Toronto.

Recently, a top executive for MLSE toured the Argos’ football facility at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, which has housed the CFL club for close to two decades. ...

Synergies are always explored among teams and the city’s top executives talk often, if not on a daily basis.

Big picture, it’s no secret the Argos will need both a new owner and the ability to control home dates by having their own facility. ...

The fact MLSE has taken a look at the Argos, even in a peripheral way, speaks to a vision that clearly involves the NFL, at least that’s the scenario painted by many in the industry, who, at this point, aren’t prepared to go public.

In terms of big-league sports, football is the one missing jewel in the MLSE structure.

It gets no bigger than the NFL, but to play with big boys it will involve MLSE pursuing the Argos.

The theory is that MLSE will need to show the NFL it can make a football product viable — and what better way than by making the Double Blue relevant in Toronto, by investing the money necessary to build a full-time facility and perhaps even a new football stadium.

There's plenty to question in there, particularly Zicarelli's contention that "to play with big boys it will involve MLSE pursuing the Argos." That seems highly unlikely. Owning a CFL team is no prerequisite for owning an NFL team, and in fact would likely make getting a NFL team more unlikely (at least without selling the CFL team). While the NFL-CFL relationship isn't bad at the moment, the leagues are not formally affiliated and likely won't be for the foreseeable future. Having one owner with teams in both leagues might even be more questionable than having David Braley own two CFL teams, as it would raise the spectre of having the CFL team become a farm team for the NFL team, something which is much further than even most advocates of the CFL as a developmental league would go.

This isn't like owning a NHL team and an AHL team in the same city, as MLSE does with the Leafs and Marlies. One owner for a CFL team and an NFL team would be seriously problematic from a CFL standpoint, and it's likely the NFL wouldn't be a big fan of the idea either. Moreover, it's also unlikely that showing they can run a CFL team would improve MLSE's standing with the NFL. This is an organization that already runs NHL, NBA and MLS teams; the first two have massively higher budgets than a CFL team, and while the latter is lower (at least in salary cap numbers), it likely carries more appeal south of the border. Running a CFL team wouldn't necessarily add anything to their case as NFL owners, if that's something they even want.

The other highly questionable part of Zicarelli's piece comes from his assertions that a shared NFL-CFL franchise ownership could reduce the impact on the CFL and that the Argos might be able to play in BMO Field. Here's that part of his article:

There also has been this theory that the NFL does not want to enter the Toronto market full-time, fearing it would destroy the entire Canadian Football League. If MLSE ends up owning the Argonauts, it could help prevent the NFL from looking like the bad guy if a four-down franchise is placed north of the border — and the CFL ends up suffering from the increased football competition in the battle for TV viewers and media interest.

Whether it’s some kind of shared arrangement at BMO Field, which MLSE operates, building a new facility, there are many moving parts and so much that needs to be done that nothing is expected to get done anytime soon.

But there’s something afoot and the presence of an MLSE executive in Argoland has raised many curious eyebrows.

First off, there sure isn't much that would suggest MLSE owning the Argos would help the NFL's PR side whatsoever if an NFL team came north of the border. What are they supposed to do, jointly market NFL and CFL teams? That's not going to work, as the two fanbases tend to be quite separate. It sure isn't going to make MLSE look like supporters of Canadian football if they bring a NFL team north, either. The BMO Field assertion may be the most questionable one here, though. Yes, some football teams share stadiums with MLS teams (the B.C. Lions/Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Seahawks/Seattle Sounders, for example), but those stadiums tend to be artificial turf, as natural grass usually isn't in good condition for soccer after it takes the pounding from a football game. BMO Field was converted to grass in 2010 after significant pressure from fans and soccer officials from both TFC and the Canadian Soccer Association (which uses the field for many national team games on both the men's and women's sides), and there would be tremendous pushback from soccer fans over any movement to reinstall turf in the stadium. Acquiring the Argonauts and trying to shoehorn them into what at the moment is a soccer-specific stadium would likely be disastrous for MLSE.

Moreover, this argument conveniently ignores all the recent evidence that's made a strong case that the NFL won't be coming to Toronto full-time any time soon. One of the biggest moves there is the five-year extension the Buffalo Bills signed with Rogers earlier this year to play one regular-season game north of the border each year. That adds to the case that Toronto is considered Bills' territory by the NFL, and that works out well for everyone: a limited one game a year doesn't particularly threaten the CFL, and it allows the Bills to take in extra money (making their survival in Buffalo easier) without moving, which would be a PR nightmare for both the franchise and for the NFL as a whole. Even long-time NFL supporters are starting to realize that having a NFL franchise based in Toronto is becoming less and less likely all the time, and that's why mayor Rob Ford is suddenly big on the idea of a new, CFL-only stadium. Zicarelli's argument here flies in the face of the recent momentum, which has been moving away from the idea of an NFL franchise in Toronto, not towards it.

That's not to say that the idea of MLSE eventually buying the Argonauts is in and of itself impossible or even problematic. That scenario actually makes plenty of sense; it increases the company's stranglehold on the city's sports scene (the Blue Jays and the Toronto Rock would be the only major non-MLSE teams left, and the Jays are owned by MLSE co-owner Rogers), it allows for some efficiencies (marketing, ticket sales and such can be partly spread across properties) and, given the team's current low attendance and stadium issues, they could probably acquire the Argos at a relatively low price. MLSE would also have the resources and/or the political connections to help the team get a new stadium, which would likely increase its value substantially. There's a reason Argos' CEO Chris Rudge sounded favourable to the idea of MLSE as an owner when The Sun's Bill Lankhof sounded him out. However, it's far from certain that MLSE would even make a bid for the Argonauts, and the presence of some of their executives at Argonauts' events alone doesn't necessarily mean all that much. Going beyond that to rationalize the sharing of BMO Field and the Argos as an eventual bridge to NFL ownership is taking a few strands of wool and sewing a whole sweater on them.

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