Rumours fly: Are the Toronto Argonauts being bought by MLSE?

Don Landry
55 Yard Line

The rumours have been floating out there for some time, now.

Would Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment be interested in purchasing the Toronto Argonauts? Would part-owner of MLSE, Larry Tanenbaum be?

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While those rumours have been circulated and decried a number of times since last spring, it seems there is plenty of smoke around them now to declare that there is fire evident.

That's what TSN's Dave Naylor - who is exceptionally well plugged in when it comes to matters of the CFL - is reporting in a story on TSN's website.

Naylor writes:

The Toronto Argonauts could be sold within a matter of weeks, either to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment or its chairman, Larry Tanenbaum, according to multiple sources.

Talks between David Braley and MLSE have heated up in recent months to the point that the MLSE board, which includes Tanenbaum as well as representatives from Bell and Rogers, was asked to vote during December on acquiring the CFL team.

It's been no secret that Argos owner David Braley - who also owns the B.C. Lions - has been searching for someone to purchase the team. The league itself would welcome a new owner, as the optics of one person owning two teams has never been considered positive.

As Naylor reports, the matter of purchasing the Toronto Argonauts has even gone so far as to reach the inner confines of the board rooms of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, although it has been met with some push back.

That's where a pretty good battle might be waged between Bell Media and Rogers, who own equal shares of MLSE. While Rogers has not shown itself to be particularly friendly to the CFL and the Argos, with a distinct lack of coverage of the league and team on its outlets, Bell is a major partner with the CFL, as it owns TSN, the exclusive carrier of the league. While Rogers executives might not have any skin in the game when it comes to the CFL, Bell obviously does. The question is: Can they win the battle to bring the Argos into the fold?

Bell Media would be very interested in securing a more stable road ahead for the Argos, who face an uncertain future right now. The Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays have announced that they will be installing real grass in their stadium (also owned by Rogers), in time for the 2018 season. The Argonauts, North America's oldest professional sports franchise, will need a home once they complete the 2017 season.

For their part, a highly-placed source with MLSE told me last spring that the company had no interest in seeing the Argos orphaned, even as the company continued to lay the groundwork for acquiring an NFL team. MLSE, they said, was not thrilled with the notion that they could be seen as the ones with the black hats, should the Argos be forced to move out of Toronto.

In fact, a new stadium was in the early planning stages for both the Argos and MLSE's soccer team, Toronto FC, I was told. However, it would have been built in conjunction with a multi-billion dollar casino and resort project that was being proposed by MGM for the Exhibition Place grounds and when that died at Toronto city council last May, so did the stadium.

There seems to be even more urgency at play for the Argos, according to Naylor:

From the Argos perspective, the team is in desperate need of a new practice facility, having been told by the University of Toronto that its Mississauga campus can no longer house the football team. With three months until the opening of CFL training camps, a sale would presumably open the door to the Argos taking up residence at the KIA Training Ground, the practice home of Toronto FC which includes three full-size grass fields, four artificial fields and a 40,000 square foot field house in Downsview.

Argos players and coaches have long complained about the practice field at the U of T and their semi-permanent offices suffered a terrible blow in 2011 when a fire gutted much of it. A move from that location would not break anyone's heart.

Whether MLSE eventually votes to buy the Argos or Tanenbaum goes about it on his own, it seems the President of MLSE, Tim Leiweke, is a proponent of the Argonauts moving to BMO Field, which currently houses Toronto FC.

Leiweke has said for the record that he believes a soccer team and football team can coexist at a facility - with natural grass - with careful upkeep and intelligent scheduling. Lately he's been musing about expanding the stadium from it's current capacity of about 21,000, in order to host bigger events like the Grey Cup Game and an outdoor NHL game.

The possibility of MLSE owning the Argonauts will, no doubt, bother some fans of the football team who see the company - and Tanenbaum - as evil forces who care really only about the NFL.

However, the Argos need a home and they need new ownership. Casting in with MLSE and its penchant for glitz and show biz would be a definite boost for the team's cache in the city of Toronto. It would mean stability. If Leiweke treated the Argos the way he has MLSE's other properties, you'd have to consider it a boon for the business of three down football in Toronto.

If this gets done - forgive me for co-opting a recent MLSE soccer tag line - it'd be a bloody big deal for the Argos.

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