‘Black Saturday’ a landmark day for Toronto FC


Toronto FC goalkeeper Chris Konopka kicks the ball during Saturday’s home game as fans protest behind him. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – It was a day of mourning. Not a day of protest—a day of mourning.

Many Toronto FC supporters in the normally festive south end stands of BMO Field were dressed in black on a gloriously sunny Saturday evening during the Reds’ home game against the Portland Timbers. A number of banners were held up, including “RIP BMO,” and the same fans kept eerily quiet and only began to cheer and beat their drums midway through the first half, leading to a funeral atmosphere inside the stadium.

A “Black Shirts At BMO” social media campaign launched by the U-Sector supporters group earlier in the week resulted in this unique call to action to mourn the fact that the Argonauts are moving into TFC’s home next year, and raise their concerns over the integrity of the soccer pitch being maintained when they do.

And while organizers went to great lengths to stress that it wasn’t a protest, it sure felt like it, and don’t think for one second that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Toronto FC management and TFC players didn’t take notice.

For 23 minutes, BMO Field was devoid of life and any kind of meaningful atmosphere, a stark reminder of how hollow the place sounds and feels without those south-end fans in full voice, and how the game-day experience for everyone involved—TFC players, the opposition, the coaches, and all the fans in the stadium—just isn’t the same without them.

Players provide the skill and entertainment on the pitch, while fans are the lifeblood of any club, both in terms of support and revenue. Without them, players don’t make a living and team owners don’t make profits, which means MLSE must take the concerns of their hardcore fans seriously. Otherwise, they run the risk of playing more home games in a sterile environment.

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This correspondent has covered Toronto FC since the very beginning. Honestly, I’ve grown numb from the experience (but please don’t feel sorry for me—I get paid to write about soccer. Save your sympathy for someone deserving of it). Very little surprises me anymore. The constant losing, the gross mismanagement, the roster churn, the coaching turnover—it’s turned me into a cynical soul. I’m worn out and weary. I’m beyond jaded.

This protest—let’s call a spade a spade, okay?—surprised me. Sports teams and their owners have taken advantage of fans’ good will for far too long in this city. Toronto supporters’ love for their clubs, and their expression of that love, has been unconditional.

That’s how it should be, I suppose. It’s how it used to be in “the good old days,” how it was when I was a kid, when the simple pleasure of going to a game with my dad and brothers was all that mattered to me. I didn’t care about grass pitches, or salary caps, or who was the GM. I just cared about the soccer.

The south-end blackout reminded me those days are long gone, how the dynamic between supporters and their teams has forever changed. Clichéd as it may sound, fans have become customers in the modern sports era. Ultimately, they have the power.

All too often, TFC fans haven’t exercised that power. Saturday they did. They let their voices be heard by saying nothing—and the silence was deafening.

This protest (there’s that word again!) has been ridiculed and mocked in some quarters, the underlying message that TFC fans should just accept what they’re being offered because they don’t know how good they’ve actually got it.

There’s some truth to that. MLSE hasn’t skimped. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars—on players, on facilities and on so much more—on this team. Fans can cheer on players the calibre of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in one of the best stadiums in MLS. Other owners in the league haven’t shown anywhere near the same commitment as MLSE.

Spending hasn’t been the problem. Managing the team has been the problem, and no amount of money is going to turn this franchise into a consistent winner. That will only come with wise and insightful management. Overall, we haven’t seen that from MLSE over the past eight years, so you’ll forgive fans (and me) if they’re a little skeptical of Tim Leiweke when he promises soccer won’t be impacted when the Argos move in—especially when he won’t be here in a year’s time and thus can’t be held to account IF this goes bad.

I don’t doubt Leiweke’s intentions for a second. Whether right or wrong, though, he’s become the public face of this grass issue. He might claim the MLSE board will see out his vision once he’s gone, especially after all the money it’s invested. But he simply can’t make that guarantee. Nobody could.

Common sense suggests the board will do everything in its power to ensure Leiweke’s promise is kept. But history has shown that execution hasn’t been MLSE’s forte. If it were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, so it should hardly come as a surprise to MLSE that not everybody is willing to just take their word for it in this case.

Fans withholding their love for 23 minutes might seem like a treasonous act, but it’s not—it’s merely a by-product of the modern sports era. Owners show loyalty to a certain point—that point usually being when they move the team to another city. Players are loyal, until they sign a free-agent deal with a rival club.

Everybody’s loyalty in pro sports is up for grabs, so why should we expect anything different from fans? Why should their love be unconditional, while owners and players are free to auction theirs off to the highest bidder? It’s a double standard.

The south-end blackout fans aren’t spoiled brats. They are simply making themselves heard and telling the owners that they plan to hold them accountable. We don’t see that nearly enough from sports fans in this city.

Saturday was your warning, MLSE. Live up to your promise. These supporters aren’t going to let you off the hook.

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