With roster rebuilt, TFC’s attention must turn to stadium expansion

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Early on in Monday’s splashy unveiling of high-priced talent for long-suffering Toronto FC, Tim Leiweke described his outlay of $100 million dollars on three designated players as “financial suicide.”

And here’s why, in the words of the refreshingly frank and delightfully bold MLSE head honcho himself: “We don’t have enough seats to make economic sense out of this.”

Toronto’s DP slots have been filled to overflowing. Next on the agenda is the expansion of BMO Field. An announcement on the matter, possibly a funding agreement with government blessing, can be expected “in the very near future,” Leiweke said Monday.

Like the influx of new stars, it won’t come cheap. Not that MLSE can’t afford it, mind you. But they’re looking at dropping another $100 million at least, or maybe as much as double BMO’s original $63 million price tag, to breathe new life into a bare bones facility that still isn’t even a decade old.

“If we have one of the top teams in the league, we have to have one of the top stadiums in the league, so we’re committed to working with the city and trying to find a vision that significantly enhances the stadium,” Leiweke told a media scrum Monday, moments after taking the wraps off striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley

Updated digs will add an anticipated 8,000 seats to TFC’s lakeside home, probably with an upper deck stacked on top of the current east stand and further changes behind one or both goals. Leiweke’s typically grandiose plans include visions of Grey Cup games and NHL Winter Classics at BMO, with temporary seating boosting capacity as high as 40,000 for one-off events.

The fan experience will be improved with modern touches like WiFi routers and HD televisions, similar to those at Kansas City’s soccer playpen. There’s also likely to be some kind of roof, given that Leiweke has promised to give the place more of a “European flavour.” And while, strictly from an aesthetic standpoint, that’ll probably ruin one of the prettiest stadium views on the continent, it’s also the inevitable price of progress in the march towards a bigger and better future.

photo-5The other, somewhat more ominous expectation is that any renovation to BMO will make sure it can also accommodate the 150-yard field required by the Toronto Argonauts, whose time under the roof of Rogers Centre is running short. Amid debate over retractable seat technology to handle the CFL’s expansive end zones and yard-line markings that can be washed away between uses, the more troubling matter here is the heavy toll the gridiron game is likely to take on the immaculate natural surface preferred for soccer. Leiweke insists scheduling can be handled so the grass always gets a week off for repair, but alarm bells are ringing nevertheless.

As a goodwill gesture to fans, TFC has frozen ticket prices for the coming season, hoping to reverse a slide that saw attendance fall to just over 18,000 last year. But win or lose with the raft of new additions, there can be little doubt that it will soon take more green to watch the Reds play. And despite the lofty price tag, Leiweke is convinced his costly endeavour will soon bear fruit for MLSE.

“We’re going to be the first $50-million gross-revenue club in the history of soccer in North America, going all the way back to the [NASL’s New York] Cosmos,” he pledged Monday. His track record suggests he’s the type of man to make that happen, someone whose ideas aren’t likely to wither and die in focus group sessions with fans or design discussions with architects.

The roster has been rebuilt, but that’s only the beginning. More change is coming at TFC. Expect a bigger, better home field, and a CFL tenant, by the time the dust settles.

Ian Harrison

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