Like a lot of Toronto FC fans, Phil Tobin feels somewhat out of the loop.
Tobin is president of the Red Patch Boys, one of TFC’s biggest and best-known supporters groups. He’s concerned about the possibility of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts moving into Toronto FC’s home at BMO Field.
Tobin and other TFC season-ticket holders have been repeatedly and publically assured by Tim Leiweke, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, that any potential modifications to BMO Field to accommodate the Argonauts or turn the soccer specific stadium into a multi-purpose facility won’t take place without MLSE first consulting them.
So imagine Tobin’s surprise last week when a Sportsnet report included confirmation from Leiweke that BMO Field, which has been TFC’s home since 2007, might undergo a major renovation and expansion in order to host a future edition of the NHL’s Winter Classic and CFL’s Grey Cup.
Another Sportsnet report cited CFL sources who said Argos executives hoped a scenario would unfold where MLSE would purchase the franchise, a move that could very well lead to the gridiron team moving into BMO Field on a full-time basis.
Tobin, a 39-year-old telecom technician who calls Toronto home, has served as Red Patch Boys president since 2010. He’s feels very confident in speaking for the majority of his membership when he says Leiweke and MLSE are sending mixed messages.
"We talk to Tim and MLSE people at town hall meetings and we engage them about these issues, and they’re promising before they do anything that they’re going to talk to us," Tobin told Sportsnet.
"But it’s frustrating because then you open up the newspaper or see website articles talking about Winter Classics, the Argos moving in, stadium expansion…. It’s every single point contradicting another one they’ve made and it’s frustrating."
Maintaining the soccer aesthetics of BMO Field, a soccer-specific stadium built for the Reds prior to their first Major League Soccer season in 2007, is a key issue for Tobin and thousands of other loyal TFC supporters.
BMO Field’s present configurations don’t allow for Canadian football because of the dimensions of the field and stadium. If the Argos were to move in, the stands would have to be moved back—unless retractable stands were used—putting TFC fans further away from the action, and resulting in BMO Field losing its sense of being what fans consider a proper soccer stadium.
Then there’s the issue of the football lines on the field, which would visibly detract from the stadium’s "soccer vibe." Also, BMO Field features natural grass, but supporters fear an artificial surface would likely have to be installed to accommodate the Argos. Again, that’s not ideal for soccer.
Tobin argues that putting in an artificial surface at BMO Field, which featured FieldTurf up until 2010, would make it increasingly more difficult for TFC to sign top players, especially those from overseas who are used to playing on grass.
"You’re not going to get a Jermain Defoe without grass," Tobin said, referring to the Tottenham and England star that TFC will officially unveil on Monday.
The Argonauts’ present lease with Rogers Centre expires in 2017, although it has an opt-out clause that could theoretically allow them to move into BMO Field. But as far as the Red Patch Boys are concerned, the bottom line is this: BMO Field should not roll out the welcome mat to the Argos.
"The position for most of our group, and personally, is that the Argos should find their own home venue. BMO isn’t a real solution," Tobin stated. "It’s not spite for the CFL. We’re really happy the CFL exists. … It’s a great tradition and it’s Canadian, and we’re very proud of it. But the Argos should sort out their stadium issues on their own."
Leiweke states that if BMO Field is renovated to become a multipurpose facility that can accommodate other events such as the CFL that the soccer experience won’t be affected in any way.
"When we talk about Winter Classics or Grey Cups and a 40,000-capacity BMO, that is with a base of 30,000 seats. Our expansion plans for BMO are to go from our current capacity of just under 22,000 to 30,000," Leiweke told Sportsnet. "We do not think that will ultimately out-paces demand, especially with where we’re trying to go with this team.
"We want to design it in a way so that we can get 40,000 on a temporary basis for big events. Our goal is still to have a 30,000-seat stadium that would protect the intimacy and the environment of the game and the experience, while still projecting some growth for the sport going forward."
The additional seats will come by adding another level to current structure of the stadium, Leiweke explained.
As far as installing artificial turf, Leiweke maintains that is not going to happen.
"I want to be as clear as I can: We are committed to grass. There is no miscommunication on the grass issue," Leiweke stated.
Leiweke also went to great lengths to explain that any system or technology implemented to physically slide back the end-zone stands in order to accommodate a CFL-size field would have no effect on soccer.
"One of the reasons why the renovation costs are so high—and I’m talking about a renovation cost that is twice what it cost the build the stadium in the first place—is to create an engineering system within the building to make sure for soccer the configuration remains as it is today," Leiweke said.
Leiweke later added: "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."
What about Tobin’s fears that CFL football would tear up the pitch? Or the gridiron line marks on the soccer pitch?
"There is a way to schedule events so that you never have the two teams playing on the same weekend and you always give the pitch a week to recover. [As for the lines], there are now ways to do lines that are a paint-based concept where the paint literally can be taken right off and you’d never know it was there," Leiweke assured.
Significantly, Leiweke went to great lengths to say that all of this—the expansion of BMO Field, it becoming a multipurpose facility—is in the exploratory phase. MLSE will use the next six months to consult with engineers, designers and architects to see if the renovation can be achieved without disrupting the soccer experience. He also stressed that MLSE will solicit fans’ opinions throughout the six-month period via town hall meetings and focus groups before any decision is made.
"We clearly don’t have some hidden plan, nor do we have a secret agreement done with the CFL," Leiweke promised. "We’re committed to making the experience better—not worse—for TFC. That’s why we need six months. Not just for the fan feedback, but also from an engineering and design evaluation as to whether or not we can find a way we can have multiple events on a grass pitch that enhances the environment for soccer. That’s the guideline. That’s our commitment."
While Leiweke understands why fans are concerned about proposed renovations to BMO Field, he’s bothered by the suggestion that making the stadium into a multipurpose facility suggests he and MLSE are not fully supportive of TFC.
"For those who think that we don’t love soccer and those who think we’re not committed to the right environment or the grass pitch, are you serious? Look what we’re in the middle of doing here. I love soccer. So can we just for once all calm everyone down and let everyone understand that they have no one—and I mean no one—that is a greater fan, a more passionate leader or more utterly, emotionally committed to building a great soccer franchise here than me," Leiweke said.
"I have made a solemn pledge, and I will stick by it, that we’re going to make the experience better."
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