MLSE doesn’t deserve benefit of doubt over BMO

MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke discusses the planned changes to the BMO turf that will not only accommodate the Argos, but also Toronto FC.

“I have made a solemn pledge, and I will stick by it, that we’re going to make the experience better.”
— Tim Leiweke to Sportsnet, Jan. 9, 2014

A few days before Toronto FC’s “Bloody Big Deal” became a reality with the official signings of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment dropped a bombshell during a one-on-one chat with this correspondent.

Construction hadn’t begun on the expansion and refurbishment of BMO Field—it was still in the exploratory stage at that point—but Leiweke stressed, in the strongest way possible, that they would not take out the grass and install artificial turf, and outlined how a new hybrid surface that is mostly grass can accommodate both teams. He also went to great lengths to explain that if the Argos did move into BMO Field that it would not affect the soccer experience in the slightest—that soccer fans would never know a CFL game had been played there.

“There will be no obstruction of the sidelines, no distances created between the first row and the pitch that are any different than what you see today. We will have the same ambience and same experience and same atmosphere that they have today but with additional seats,” Leiweke said.

He later added in the same interview: “We’re committed to making the experience better—not worse—for TFC.”

The question was then put to him directly: What if you’re wrong? What if this fails? What if the Argos eat up this new hybrid surface, like NFL teams have done at Wembley Stadium?

Then what?

Leiweke wouldn’t hear any of that, categorically refusing to accept the premise of failure, and remained steadfast in his belief that altering BMO Field wouldn’t impact soccer in any way.

This has become Leiweke’s mantra over the last 16 months, something he’s repeated over and over again to anybody who’ll listen, spreading the word to believers and non-believers alike as though he was a tent-revival preacher.

It’s difficult to question his sincerity. Pro soccer in Toronto has had few allies who are more powerful and passionate about the sport than Leiweke. But as pure as Leiweke’s intentions may be, they have to be taken with an entire silo of salt, never mind a measly grain.

A healthy amount of scepticism is required here, if for no other reason than Leiweke will soon be gone, leaving his post atop Mount MLSE in order to pursue other interests. Leiweke is a “soccer guy” and has had a major hand in shaping TFC—from the expansion of BMO Field to the signing of designated players such as Defoe, Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.

Leiweke was the first MLSE president who treated Toronto FC as though it was a priority. Not quite on the same level as the Leafs and Raptors, but he brought a sense of legitimacy and gravitas to TFC during his tenure that was missing before his arrival.

His pending departure leaves the Reds without a strong-willed advocate inside MLSE’s corridors of power at the highest levels. Who’s to say his as-of-yet unnamed successor will: a) be a soccer guy, and b) be committed to see out Leiweke’s vision for BMO Field?

Leiweke might publicly state that his “legacy program” for the stadium that TFC has called home since 2007 will come to fruition regardless of who takes over from him. But he can’t deliver on that promise. Nobody could. Such guarantees are meaningless—see Leiweke’s promise in the aftermath of the Defoe and Bradley signings that TFC would make the playoffs last season.

What’s more, and with all due respect, why would any right-minded person give MLSE the benefit of the doubt? Why on Earth should we trust an organization that, despite spending millions of dollars on players and infrastructure, hasn’t managed to put a consistent winning team on the field? We should just accept the word of an outfit that has burned through nine coaches in nine playoff-less years?

This organization’s track record is one dominated by failure, not success—by shortcomings, instead of achievement.

TFC hasn’t managed to qualify for the playoffs in nearly a decade of MLSE ownership. So what makes them so sure they can deliver on Leiweke’s promise of TFC and the Argos living in peaceful harmony at BMO Field?

Maybe they can. History suggests otherwise, though. With MLSE, there are no sure things.

They argue a hybrid surface can support both teams, and that the soccer experience will not suffer from the Argos moving in.

Fine. Show us, don’t tell us. Until MLS can do that, all bets are off. And any promise it makes, whether related to matters on or off the field, must be questioned and met with unwavering cynicism.