Scott Stinson Argos not in Toronto stadium equation

Scott Stinson Argos not in Toronto stadium equation

MLSE may be waiting out owner Braley to get better price

An overall view of the BMO Field renovation is shown in an artists rendition. BMO Fields $105-million renovation officially kicked off Tuesday without a football conversion for the Toronto Argos.

TORONTO — ESPN’s magazine produced its annual List Designed to Outrage Readers the other day, ranking the Toronto Maple Leafs the worst professional sports franchise in North America.

And yet, the Leafs aren’t even the worst franchise under their corporate umbrella. That ignominy belongs to Toronto FC, on their ninth coach in eight seasons, having never made the MLS playoffs, and at great risk of losing Jermain Defoe, their ballyhooed off-season acquisition, at the end of what has rapidly turned into a wet firecracker of a season.

No better time to increase the stadium’s capacity by 8,000, yes? This is Toronto sports, after all, where self-flagellation is part of the deal.

I jest, mostly. Despite the abject failure of TFC on the field, they have otherwise been a booming success. All that losing hasn’t dampened the local enthusiasm for the team — although this season, with its hot start, terrible swoon, requisite coach-sacking and now uncertain future roster, will test those loyalties again.

So, there was some undeniable logic to the announcement made under a blazing sun on Tuesday afternoon that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the team’s owners, were going ahead with a $105-million renovation of BMO Field that was goosed by a $10-million contribution from Toronto taxpayers. The renovations will add an upper level and luxury suites to one grandstand in the first phase, in time for next summer’s Pan-Am Games, when the field will play host to the rugby sevens. In the second phase a roof will be put over most of the thing. (A canopy, to be precise — the kind of roof that will stop a nice vertical rain, if not the sideways kind that can blow down by the waterfront.)

The big mystery, though, is whether there will be a third phase, one that converts BMO Field into a stadium that could host CFL football, and specifically the Toronto Argonauts, soon to be nomads when they are given the boot from Rogers Centre after 2017.

The answer to that question appears to be: depends on how charitable MLSE is feeling. The official word from the sports colossus on Tuesday was that buying the Argos, once thought to be a given when owner David Braley put them up for sale, is “not on the radar.” The BMO renovations are designed to allow for the possibility of the Argos as a tenant, but they aren’t contingent on it. MLSE’s Bob Hunter on Tuesday described one of the hurdles of the conversion to a CFL-suitable stadium as an uncertain “funding mechanism,” which is what executives say when they mean “money.” Hunter said the football conversion would run about $15-million, which is a big problem since that cost is almost certainly more than a new buyer would have to pay for the Argonauts franchise.

MLSE is known to have considered buying the Argos in the past, but its management was not convinced the team could be made profitable. Tough product to sell in the Toronto market, and all that. History certainly suggests this is the case. Multiple owners have found that even Grey Cup championships haven’t been enough to spark local interest in the team. Attendance this season has averaged less than 19,000 per game, which means the Argos, despite cutting front-office staff, is operating at a loss again, even as the team wobbles toward a playoff spot in the historically weak East. A source with knowledge of franchise values put the proper price tag for the Argos at about $5-million, which sounds low but is a lot to pay for the right to lose money annually.

To put that in context, Toronto FC would likely have bidders willing to pay 10 or even 20 times that amount if that franchise was up for sale. The soccer team sells more tickets, more merchandise and other ancillaries, and has a stronger corporate base than the Argos. The CFL draws better — much better — television ratings than MLS, but that’s entirely a function of the league’s solid western base.

Scott Stinson Argos not in Toronto stadium equation

Toronto councillor Mark Grimes was at Tuesday’s announcement and he prefaced his remarks by saying he thought he was going to be announcing a new home for the Argos, but that Tim Leiweke, the outgoing MLSE president, told him to “put that speech away.” Grimes tried a different version of the same joke with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, telling him that he really hoped phase two of the BMO expansion would become a joint phase two-three. But there was still work to do on that, he said, turning to Tanenbaum on stage: “Right, Larry?”

Tanenbaum, with a tight smile and presumably unable to find a trap door he could pull, offered a tepid agreement.

And so, the Argonauts, in the CFL’s biggest market, needing a new owner and a new place to play, find themselves with a suitor that could solve both problems — if only that suitor hadn’t already moved on.

Perhaps MLSE is just planning to wait Braley out, until he’s willing to unload the team at an agreeable price. One equivalent to, say, half a season’s worth of Defoe.

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