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Playing the Field

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In 2007, BMO Field opened its doors as Canada’s national soccer stadium. The feds, the province and the city all kicked in money to make the dream of a soccer stadium a reality. Later, the artificial turf was ripped out and replaced by green, green grass. But, as deal with the CFL Argonauts inches closer and closer to completion, we wonder: Is a truly soccer-specific stadium a myth in a multipurpose world?

After seven years of watching losing teams on an intimate, fan-friendly, soccer-only pitch, Toronto FC supporters now face an ironic prospect: Watching a winning side but losing the dibs on their beloved stadium.

The City, the Exhibition Place board and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment look to be moving towards a deal that will see BMO Field undergoing a facelift sooner rather than later. Tim Leiweke, MLSE president and CEO, has openly discussed renovating and expanding BMO Field to 30,000 seats, with up to 10,000 additional seats added for such standalone events as the 2015 Pan Am Games or an NHL Winter Classic outdoor game.

Since Toronto FC would still be the building’s primary tenant, the new BMO’s redesign would be made with soccer in mind. During a January speech at the TIFF Lightbox, Leiweke was quoted by the Toronto Star, claiming that the new BMO Field would resemble “an English Premier (League)-style stadium, with a roof that covers the seats.”

Of greater concern to TFC supporters, however, is that Leiweke has also hinted at the prospect of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts also moving into BMO Field.

Leiweke only referred to a possible Argos move as “rumours” but, if the Argos did move in, “we’ll do it in a way you’ll never know there’s a CFL team when you’re there for a soccer game, and you’ll never know there’s a soccer team when you’re there for a CFL game. It’s engineering and we can fix that.”

It sounds like an ideal solution, on paper. In an era when taxpayers are more skeptical than ever about paying for privately-owned sports stadia, it makes sense to move the Argos from the Rogers Centre into a pre-existing venue rather than building another entirely new venue. BMO Field would be far from the only soccer/football hybrid venue in MLS, or even in Canada — the Whitecaps, Sounders, Revolution and Dynamo also share their fields with various CFL, NFL and/or collegiate football teams.

So why, then, does the prospect of the Argos moving into BMO raise such consternation amongst Toronto soccer fans? It goes beyond simple sports-fan provincialism and into worries that the building’s unique atmosphere is being forgotten behind MLSE’s larger ambitions.

The signings of such stars as Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley “are almost being inadvertently held over our heads,” says Phil Tobin, president of the Red Patch Boys supporters’ group. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘if you want ticket prices kept low, we’re going to have more seats at BMO and, oh yeah, you’ll have to share it.’“

If it was just a matter of renovating BMO Field to better accommodate TFC and its fans, Tobin would have no issues. Tobin personally expressed some of his own ideas for stadium upgrades to Leiweke during a game last season; and Tobin favours such improvements like a roof, additional concession and washroom facilities, and added or more permanent seating to “[fill] in the corners so it actually feels like a bowl, not like an erector set.”

The deal-breaker for Tobin, however, would be if football affects the pitch itself. Despite Leiweke’s claims that the CFL and MLS experiences at BMO Field would be totally different, all of the cosmetic differences in the world won’t matter to Tobin unless the grass surface can’t handle soccer and football.

“Let’s say it’s raining in September and the pitch takes a lot of damage with these 300-pound linebackers tracking up and down a narrow part of the field,” Tobin says. “Think about an important [CONCACAF Champions League] qualifier on a Wednesday night that same week. I don’t think any science or manpower can get that pitch [ready] in time.

“If the pitch can’t recover in time, then I’ll have to question things on a very serious level… If the sport is not watchable and we’re fighting ourselves in giving our team a competitive edge, then I’ll have to consider not renewing tickets.”

Leiweke has pledged to retain the grass pitch in the new BMO, which would make the stadium somewhat unique.

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES GRASDAL

Of those shared soccer/football venues in MLS, only Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium uses a natural surface, and the impact on its pitch was evident last fall when five Dynamo games (including their playoff knockout match against the Impact) and four college football games were played at the stadium between October 4 and November 3.

“For back-to-back games, [the pitch] is not aesthetically pleasing but it’s safe,” says Brandon Smith, BBVA Compass Stadium’s turf and= grounds manager since November. “Grass is a living organism, it can only take so much. We have a safety point where we say it can’t take it any more, it becomes a safety concern… Then we re-sod the middle of the field to our specifications.

“Our main tenants are the Dynamo, so you have to have a good balance between soccer, football, rugby and all the other events. [The Dynamo] understand and want to play on a first-class playing surface. They always have concerns and I think we’re always ahead of that curve when it comes.”

BBVA Compass Stadium’s Bermuda grass surface, however, is a non-starter for BMO Field, as Bermuda grass is harder to grow and maintain in cooler weather. Smith suggests that the Desso GrassMaster surface (a natural surface reinforced with artificial grass) used at such venues as Green Bay’s Lambeau Field or most major English soccer stadiums could be an option for Toronto. Since Lambeau focuses only on football and Anfield, Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, etc. focus almost exclusively on soccer, there’s no guarantee that such a surface would sustain months of both sports.

As Tobin points out, the shared-pitch situation gets even more complicated when you factor in late-season scheduling. TFC and the Argos could keep their regular season schedules separated but the addition of possible Champions League games for the Reds and with both teams potentially juggling playoff dates in November, there’s a lot of room for conflict.

Ironically, had stadium plans from 2004 been realized, Toronto FC and the Argos would have always been neighbours. MLSE, Argos ownership, the Canadian Soccer Association, the University of Toronto and the federal and Ontario governments joined forces in an effort to refurbish Varsity Stadium. This renovated field would have been the prime venue for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, U of T’s sports teams, the Argos, Canada’s national soccer teams and a possible new MLS entity.

David Miller, then the mayor of Toronto, says the city was “brought in at the last minute” about the plan, which ultimately fell through due to rising costs and disputes over how the stadium’s profits would be divvied up. MLSE than approached Miller about a stadium at Exhibition Place, which eventually led to the city-owned BMO Field. The Argos tried to involve themselves in the BMO Field plans, but their interest came too late in the project.

With so much focus on whether TFC and the Argos are compatible within a single stadium, Miller notes that the national program’s needs must also be taken into consideration.

“People forget that this is the national soccer stadium…. It was built for the U-20 World Cup, that was the justification for national and provincial money,” Miller says. “The conversation changes a bit when people talk about BMO Field because it sounds private. I think we should be talking about whether the national soccer stadium should be rebuilt to accommodate a football team, that’s a more appropriate conversation.

“It’s appropriate for the public to pay for a facility when there’s a public purpose. The National Soccer Stadium was built to host the world and the fact that it’s still available for a private purpose is good, since it helps pay back the city’s investment. That was an appropriate arrangement, but it can’t be subsidizing a private business.”

According to Miller, the arrangement between MLSE and the city over BMO Field is that profits are split between the two entities, while any losses are covered solely by MLSE. It remains to be seen how the Argonauts ownership group would fit into this deal, though it could be a moot point if rumours of MLSE buying the Argos outright prove to be true.

Such a purchase could be worrisome for TFC supporters. It would be one thing if the Argos were simply tenants at BMO Field, but it’s quite another to have them join the Reds as partners in the MLSE empire. It sounds absurd that TFC could become an afterthought, given the massive amount of attention and money spent to rebuild the team over the last few months, including Designated Player deals to Gilberto, Bradley and Defoe.

But, given Leiweke’s ambitions to be involved in bringing an NFL franchise to Toronto, similarly rebuilding the Argos could become his next priority.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #1

“I think giving fans an opportunity to go see an Argos game outdoors in a stadium with a roof that covers the seat, in a 30,000-seat environment, with real grass, is awesome, and it will help turn that franchise around,” Leiweke said in his January speech. “So we’re going to start with that. There’s no way the NFL comes here without the CFL being unbelievably successful first.”

Beyond the big-picture projections and the (literally) ground-level concerns about the pitch, some TFC supporters are simply being territorial when it comes to the CFL. The Argos are widely seen within the city as the weak sister of Toronto’s major sports franchises, with many fans not even acknowledging the CFL as a “major sport” itself. While such fans conveniently forget the Argos’ extra 134 years of tradition over TFC, the argument is that soccer is the growth sport of the future, while the CFL is a thing of the past.

Tobin and Miller, notably, are not these types of fans. Both have great respect for the Argonauts and want to see the CFL continue to succeed in Toronto, though they feel the best way for this to happen is for the Argos to have a football-only stadium to call their own. Argos fans are likely just as concerned over the move to BMO Field and playing on a rugged turf field as TFC fans, Tobin notes.

“There are possibilities this could go really wrong despite the best intentions from all these people,” Tobin says. “I have no problem at all with the heritage and history of the CFL. I just wish they had their own facility to play in. That would be ideal for their fans since if we’re looking at a merged stadium, I don’t think they’d be happy coming into a red stadium supporting their double-blue team.”

Leiweke has said that MLSE is taking its time in figuring out the best way to approach the BMO Field renovations. Between working out those plans, getting city approval and the fact that that Argos’ lease at the Rogers Centre runs through 2017, it will still be a while before TFC fans have to face the spectre of football and futbol on the same pitch.

It remains to be seen if Toronto FC’s latest roster overhaul will finally result in a winning team, and if Defoe, Bradley and company fail to deliver, TFC fans don’t want to be stuck both watching a poor team and doing so in a stadium that is less than ideal for soccer.

It will be a tall order for MLSE to deliver a BMO Field that suits both the city’s soccer and football fans. But, if the Argos’ move does become a reality, Tobin and Miller are both hopeful that the perfect solution could somehow be achieved.

“[Leiweke] talked very big last fall and what he was talking about didn’t seem possible. He’s delivered well beyond those inflated expectations,” Miller says. “If anybody can pull off an adaptable field that keeps the soccer experience number one and allows a football team to play there, it’s him. I give him the benefit of the doubt, though I don’t think it’s an ideal solution.

“It comes down to the pitch. You have to have a grass pitch. If these advances can ensure that the soccer experience isn’t diminished, people will accept it. But that means real grass, no lines on the field and stands close to the field. That’s what the experience is all about.”

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