Pity Toronto as it allows storied Argos to vanish

The Toronto Argos are looking at selling the team, specifically the possibility of a Green Bay Packers-type deal that would have fans dishing out the cash to control the team themselves.

Of all the reasons to get behind a professional sports franchise, pity has got to be the worst.

It’s certainly the saddest.

But that’s where the Toronto Argonauts are these days. The oldest football club in North America and the only Toronto-based franchise that has won anything in recent years doesn’t even inspire nostalgia.

The Argos have to be out of Rogers Centre at the end of the 2017 season and they have no current prospects of a place to play after that. And now Argonauts owner David Braley (who also owns the BC Lions) is musing loudly about selling the team in an article in the Toronto Star.

The only problem is that in the same breath as he’s talking about selling, he makes an awfully good case why no one is buying:

“We haven’t sold enough tickets,” he said. “We haven’t sold enough sponsorships. I have to take the blame.”

For a brief while there was hope that MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke would wave his magic wand and save the Argonauts while he was saving the Leafs, Raptors, TFC and helping bring the NFL to Toronto.

That’s not going so well these days.

The sports conglomerate has committed $95 million to a two-stage renovation that will see the BMO Field’s seat capacity increased to 30,000 (and up to 40,000 for events like the NHL’s Winter Classic) with the stands covered with a canopy. Football was in the picture too until the Federal government balked at $10 million of funding that in turn would have triggered a matching $10 million from the provincial government.

The Feds decided they would not fund a stadium for a professional sports team, the province has got gun shy and there are no plans to accommodate the Argonauts at the only venue that makes any sense; given no one is going to come up with a $150 million or so – which is what the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ new stadium cost – for a money-losing CFL team struggling to draw 17,000 at Rogers Centre.

So it’s BMO Field or bust.

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon says if the Feds continue to play hard ball the league will look to find other ways to bridge the funding gap.

“This is not an ownership discussion, this is about finding a new home for the Argos he said. “They have three more years at the Rogers Centre and there are on-going discussions with MLSE about trying to workout a lease agreement and determining how we can help fund or find a funding solution for the third phase of the extension at BMO Field.”

What will anyone pay to ensure a big piece of Canadian sports history survives?

I guess we'll find out. Money will have to talk.

“What’s needed for football at BMO?” says Bob Hunter, MLSE’s chief facilities and live entertainment officer. “About another $25 million. We would need to build a couple of big locker rooms and reconstruct – and it’s pretty major construction – the north and south end zone to get the extension of the field for football. And that constructability and that design needs to make sure [TFC] fans have exactly the same experience they have today. There has to be some kind of portable or retractable system to convert between the two sports.

“The key is to bring the soccer intimacy back and make sure its not affected by the CFL.”

Hunter estimates that if the funding could be secured it would take six months to make BMO CFL ready. Realistically that means a plan for the 2018 Argonauts season would have to be in place by the time the 2017 season started.

That means there is two years give or take for the team and the league to find a new place to play.

Absent a lease at BMO in place, it's hard to imagine a buyer emerging. Braley claims he’s had two inquiries about buying the team, which is a long way from offers, he admits. There was one from six months ago that hasn’t resurfaced. There is a proposal to turn the Argos into a community-owned non-profit like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatchewan, but Braley said that might still require him owning the team.

Translation: there is no one waiting to buy the Argos as currently configured and no one willing to pay for them to move into new digs where they may or may not lose money.

In all, it’s a hell of a way for Cohon to end his eight-year run as commissioner of the nine-team – for now – league that is otherwise as close to running at full capacity as it ever has been thanks to new and renovated parks sprinkled across the country and a five-year $200-million television contract.

The problem is that long-term a hole in Toronto would drag down the entire league.

“It would carve out your audience, it would carve out your sponsorship and it would carve out your prestige,” said Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship Group and former Argos president. “The CFL has to have Toronto in it.”

The question is why would someone want to spend good to secure the Argos future after it’s dismal recent past?

It’s been a long time since the CFL feels like it has mattered in Toronto. We’re edging ever closer to finding out exactly how much Toronto matters to the CFL.

Pity that.