Grass (and Argos) at BMO!

Of course the widespread rumours of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts wanting to play at BMO Field are unwelcome. Of course. These are the same Toronto Argonauts who put the future of the Youth World Cup in jeopardy by backing out of a stadium at York University at the last minute (costing the taxpayers of Ontario $15 million in lost finance from the school), who previously dithered over a soccer-football stadium at Varsity Stadium until it was killed, and who contributed zero cents to the construction of BMO Field. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment put their money where their mouth was and financed much of the stadium's construction. They also paid for the grass pitch being installed. In short, they did their job. As a result, the Argonauts will get to destroy that lovely grass pitch being installed at such expense.

Bluntly, the Argonauts can go fuck themselves, and I don't even like Toronto FC.

Now, a few folks such as Onward's Ben Knight are taking the logical approach: the Argonauts will never play at BMO Field and here's why. Most of the reasons centre around the fact that BMO Field would be a truly awful CFL venue and the league would need to bend over backwards to approve the Argonauts playing there. Unfortunately, this argument misses one key fact: we're not talking about the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, we're talking about the Toronto Argonauts. The CFL's Marquee Franchise, in spite of the fact that they're miserable off the field and worse on it and probably have the smallest following of any CFL franchise. The Argonauts are a classic example of the Toronto-centrism that we in the rest of Canada rail against so ineffectively, in that the CFL has always been willing to grab its ankles and spread 'em when the Argos come calling.

Besides, the sanctity of CFL field dimensions has always been up for discussion. As an Edmonton Eskimos fan, I can tell you in vivid detail about the truncated corners at Commonwealth Stadium and the touchdowns that haven't counted when a receiver ran a route onto the running track; the corners at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal share this defect. The ill-fated CFL USA experiment (I believe it is constitutionally mandated that it be referred to as "the ill-fated CFL USA experiment") saw absolutely everybody except the San Antonio Texans playing on non-regulation field sizes. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, home of the Memphis Mad Dogs, had nine-yard end zones.

Would the Argonauts be going as far as petitioning the government if they didn't have some assurance from the CFL they'd be able to play there? Government lobbying is neither cheap nor effortless. Either somebody at CFL HQ has told the Argonauts that they'll make BMO Field work or they're using BMO Field as leverage. But leverage for what? The Argonauts are up for sale, of course, but they have a buyer in BC Lions owner David Braley. Their rent deal at SkyDome is as favourable as physically possible, and SkyDome's significantly higher capacity means less of a cap on Argonaut revenues (their average attendance is higher than BMO Field's capacity). Ben Knight suggests that the Argonauts are trying to bait Rogers, owners of SkyDome and the Toronto Blue Jays, into buying the team. But given the lack of funding and enthusiasm Rogers has shown to their existing sports empire since Ted Rogers's death, there is a certain quixotic air over such a quest.

Being a cynic, I think that the Argonauts' desire to move into BMO Field is sincere. They want to play on grass (only Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton has a natural grass surface among current CFL venues). They're hoping for a Molson Stadium effect, where the Montreal Alouettes moved from cavernous Olympic Stadium to a small university stadium and increased both atmosphere and profit. Although they pay no rent at SkyDome, they'd prefer to avoid the inevitable overhead costs of playing there because they're losing a million billion dollars every year.

As a general rule, I hate publicly funded stadia, but BMO Field was done as properly as possible. Private enterprise (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) kicked in much of the construction and maintenance costs. The field was set aside for community use, and when grass was required and community use was no longer possible the government forced MLSE to construct an adequate replacement. The government retains ownership of BMO Field rather than just making it a gift to the mighty teachers' pension plan. Plus, it was of course built in part for our Canadian national teams, a public enterprise if ever there was one. Now, though, we see the inevitable downside: Toronto FC is not master of its own domain. It operates at the sufferance of bodies that have little stake in its success. The euphoric joy at being allowed to pay for a decent playing surface can quickly be overwhelmed by the horror of political masters helping out one of their other interests. Until Toronto FC plays in a stadium paid for and owned by the club (current estimate: never), its mere operation will always be lingeringly uncertain, and its success will always come with the lingering chance of betrayal.

If life was fair, the only way the Toronto Argonauts would get into BMO Field would be with tickets. But life, and more particularly government, is not fair, and the joy of "grass at BMO!" will be replaced by the deadening pain of all that money spent and a surface that is still completely unsuitable for world-class football, while a less successful franchise frolics through the stadium they tried to destroy.

Other perspectives: Ben Knight's article linked above, Duane Rollins, squizz the Some Canadian Guy, and Duane Rollins again.

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