Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's plans to expand BMO Field and move the Toronto Argonauts there took another step forward Wednesday when Toronto city council's executive committee endorsed putting $10 million of towards the project. The almost-unanimous vote (Mayor Rob Ford was the lone dissenter) is an important moment here, as it brings the city (which owns the stadium) firmly onside with the plan, and a source of funds has already been identified (Toronto plans to borrow the money and pay it off with increased parking revenues). Perhaps most crucially for CFL fans, MLSE has committed to negotiating a long-term lease with the Argos as part of this proposal. Toronto executives and politicians told The Toronto Star's Paul Moloney that the MLSE investment ($90 million of the projected $120 million cost) and chance to give the Argos a new home (something they've long needed) made this an attractive plan:
The city, which owns the stadium, is in talks with the other levels of government, who are reviewing the proposal, said City Manager Joe Pennachetti.
Toronto would borrow its $10 million share and pay it off through increased parking revenues from the expansion, Pennachetti said, calling it a “virtually the definition of ‘win-win.’”
Added chief financial officer Rob Rossini: “We will continue to own this facility so I look at it this way: A private corporation is willing to put in $90 million of their own money to enhance our facility and maintain it. That’s a very good deal.”
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, chair of the executive committee, said the chance to give the Argos a new home was an attractive element of the deal.
“Soccer is obviously a growing sport in this city; at the same time, this affords the protection of a central part of our Canadian heritage, Canadian football,” Kelly said.
MLSE, owner of Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors as well as the soccer team, TFC, has committed to negotiate a long term deal with the Argos, who now play at Rogers Centre.
This isn't a done deal yet, of course. $20 million in funding is still up in the air (MLSE is seeking $10 million each from the provincial and federal governments), and that may not be easy to obtain. There are still plenty of concerns about how the proposed expansion will affect soccer, too, with the playing surface posing a particular problem. Previous reports have discussed a hybrid grass-turf system, but MLSE chief project development officer Robert Hunter's comments to The Star seemed to imply retaining the current grass and just scheduling carefully:
Fixing damage to the grass surface from football games is challenging but can be done, Hunter said.
“If we can get TFC to play the night before an Argos game, we’ve got six to seven days to ensure that field is back in great shape for soccer,” he said. “We’ve done it with rugby a number of times and rugby can be as damaging to the surface as 300 pound linemen can be.”
That may prove to be optimistic. Six-to-seven day windows before each TFC home game will likely be unachievable, given that both MLS and other competitions like the Voyageurs' Cup frequently involve midweek fixtures and that TFC has traditionally done well with afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday. Moreover, it's notable that no other MLS team shares a grass field with a football team; the three stadiums shared between football and soccer use either FieldTurf (Seattle, New England) or a Polytan artificial surface (Vancouver). It's going to be interesting to see what's actually proposed in terms of the surface, as that may have a substantial impact on whether federal funding comes or not; keep in mind that BMO Field has been frequently used as a national soccer stadium as well as TFC's home, and the Canadian Soccer Association might have something to say if they're expected to give up the natural grass surface there.
Thus, there are still plenty of hurdles left before the Argos get to BMO Field, including full council approval of this plan, federal and provincial funding and perhaps even a deal that sees the team sold to MLSE or MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. Wednesday's executive committee approval is another significant step forward, though. It means that while the Argos' once-unlikely plans to play at BMO Field still have a long road ahead, they're looking more and more possible all the time.