With Hamilton's football stadium under construction, this might have been an ideal year for the Toronto Argonauts to finally play host to the annual Labour Day game against the archrival Tiger-Cats at the Rogers Centre.
However, the Blue Jays, who are playing at home that weekend, claim the stadium cannot be converted in a single day for one of the marquee games on the CFL calendar. The dilemma underscores the need for the Argos to come up with a plan for long-term viability in Toronto.
With some 50,000 seats, the Rogers Centre is too big for Argonauts football in this day and age, and it's a struggle to schedule their games around the Jays' home schedule. The Blue Jays have stated their desire to install real grass to attract top players, the logistics of which would make it impossible to keep converting between the two sports. The clubs share a good working relationship, and the Jays don't want to kick the Argos out or damage the CFL in a tricky Southwestern Ontario market. But as one of just two major-league teams not playing on grass, the Jays want – and need – a baseball-only facility with grass if they want to continue attracting top talent.
"It's tough to co-exist. It's tough for them, too. They've got to get dates in there," Blue Jays president Paul Beeston said during an interview this week with The Globe and Mail. "The conversion – it isn't like we play tonight and they can play tomorrow night. We play tonight, they can play two nights from then."
Beeston added: "We can't turn it around for football mode quickly enough for them to play on Monday. I feel badly about it. That's their tradition, but we can't deliver."
The Grey Cup-champion Argos are in the middle of re-negotiating a deal to remain at the Rogers Centre, since their contract expired at the end of 2012. Argos president Chris Rudge says the negotiations are going well, and he expects it will be more substantial than simply a year-to-year deal.
Rudge says his club is exploring options for a new home venue, stressing they would be silly not to. But he declines to say what they are right now. He says he and Beeston often discuss the notion of the Jays wanting to install grass. It's no secret. But they have never been told it's imminent or discussed a firm timeline for the Argos to move out.
"It terms of moving from theory to reality, I'm sure they still have a lot of business analysis to go through," Rudge said. "Clearly, there would be significant capital costs and logistics challenges, and I assume that as they get closer to making a decision and as we move into our next relationship with them, I have every confidence that they will give us considerable notice if it's something that's likely to happen and give us ample time to solidify any plans we may be developing."
So when are the Argos moving out, and where would their new game venue be? What kind of building would they choose? Most can only speculate right now.
Many say Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto might have been perfect, moving to a campus like the Montreal Alouettes did at McGill University.
Many lament that BMO Field didn't work out, when a feasibility study found it unsuitable for CFL football back in 2009.
"Unless they can right-size a stadium downtown, I think they should move to the boroughs, get a significant break on rent and own their own market there," said Brian Cooper, President and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group. "Their right-size audience is 22,000-28,000, not 50,000. It's really about defining their new audience."
Richard Peddie, former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment, said that unless you have a worthwhile event – like the 2015 Pan Am Games opportunity, which allowed the Ticats funding help to get a new stadium – it will be difficult for the Argos to get any government funding toward a new facility.
"You need something to make it make sense because governments are very wary about spending money on new stadiums," Peddie said. "It was amazing that Hamilton pulled off getting a new stadium on the back of the Pan Am Games, and MLSE got a new stadium [BMO Field] largely because of the world under-20s [soccer tournament].
"What have the Argos got?"
Peddie also mentioned the idea of moving outside the downtown core, but said it has its down side, too.
"The demographics are more 905," said Peddie, who added that when he was with MLSE, he explored buying the Argos, but couldn't figure out how to make the club financially viable. "That's one of the problems with the CFL – it's got an old demographic and that's not good for sponsors, not food for the future. By putting it outside downtown, you're pretty much saying you're giving up on the city with the influx of young people coming in, buying condos and having money to spend. You want to be there."
At his state-of-the-league address in November, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said the long-term plan for the Toronto team should probably incorporate a new stadium in the region, one that would hold around 24,000 fans, like the league's other new and incoming stadiums.
Rudge says the Argos' higher priority right now is arranging a new practice facility, and he hopes to have news on that in the next month. Their current practice venue at University of Toronto Mississauga was damaged in a fire last off-season, and they hope to move into new practice digs for this coming season.