Rudi Schuller: MLSE plan for an expanded BMO Field loaded with uncertainty

A lot of variables need to fall into place for BMO Field's expansion plans to be deemed acceptable to Toronto FC fans, not the least of which is maintaining current field quality.
Toronto FC fans, would you share BMO Field with a Canadian Football League team if it meant that you'd get a vastly upgraded stadium experience?

That seems to be the question that Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, has been posing to supporters of his company's soccer team recently, amid increasing reports that MLSE is on the verge of purchasing the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and placing them in TFC's charming little bare-bones stadium.

Although, according to Leiweke, a BMO Field with the Argos would be a vastly different stadium than the hastily thrown together bandbox that was rushed into existence in time for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

“We’re going to spend $120 million to build an English Premier [League]-style stadium, with a roof that covers the seats,” Leiweke said in a speech on Tuesday night, as reported by the Toronto Star“Yeah, there are rumours there may be a CFL solution, but we’ll do it in a way you’ll never know there’s a CFL team when you’re there for a soccer game, and you’ll never know there’s a soccer team when you’re there for a CFL game. It’s engineering and we can fix that.”

TFC fans have predictably reacted to the potential ground share with a healthy does of skepticism, and rightfully so. Looking past the struggle for legitimacy that soccer has had to endure in this country for decades, one that is being broken down thanks in large part to the arrival of BMO Field and its once-raucous atmosphere, TFC supporters fear a downgrade in their matchday experience should the Argos move in, despite Leiweke's assurances to the contrary.

Nowhere will the issue be bigger than in regards to the playing surface itself, which will have to be altered to accommodate the 141-year-old CFL franchise.

It's no secret that gridiron football is extremely tough on grass, so much so that every team in the CFL currently plays on an artificial surface. Examples of the tough realities of ground sharing exist in MLS as well, the most glaring being the brand new BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston -- home to soccer's Dynamo as well as the Texas Southern University football team -- which has shown the bad side of what football can do to a soccer pitch if the right steps aren't taken to protect it.

We’ll do it in a way you’ll never know there’s a CFL team when you’re there for a soccer game..."

- Tim Leiweke

And that's where Leiweke's plan differs. The brash CEO has stated on several occasions that the right steps to preserve the quality of the pitch for TFC will be taken if and when the stadium upgrades happen. Whether or not that can be successfully achieved is another issue, one that could potentially define the long-term health of the MLS franchise.

It wasn't too long ago that TFC upgraded BMO Field's original FieldTurf surface to a lush Kentucky bluegrass natural turf, and at considerable expense. The rationale behind that move was that the team would never be able to reach its true potential while playing on artificial turf, as players detest it and fans notice subtle differences in game play attributable to the playing surface.

That rationale still holds true today, perhaps even more so now that the club has dipped its toes into the world of megaspending on international-calibre players. Those transactions increase the team's visibility and expectation levels, and a sub-par playing surface is simply not an option any longer.

So how will MLSE add 10 Argonauts home dates to BMO Field without ruining the pitch for the soccer team?

The most likely option is a hybrid surface, a newer technology that has gained traction -- so to speak -- in many top-class sporting venues around the world in recent years. NFL teams in Green Bay and Colorado employ this technology, as do venerable soccer venues such as Wembley Stadium, the San Siro, and Amsterdam Arena.

Hybrid surfaces have proven to be effective in soccer stadiums that regularly host other sports as well, most notably Liberty Stadium and Cardiff City Stadium. Each stadium plays host to a Premier League side and a pro Rugby team, with all the tenants playing fall-spring schedules. At both venues, the pitch has held up remarkably well.

However, rugby isn't CFL football, and gridiron tends to do more localized damage between the hash marks and along the sidelines. It's going to take some work to convince local soccer fans, this writer included, that the technology has advanced enough to allow for a CFL team and an MLS side to share a natural surface with zero repercussions to the turf.

And that's not even addressing the issue of football lines all over the field!

However, the reality of the situation is that BMO Field is on the verge of a major transformation that will make the current erector set completely unrecognizable. Leiweke has spoken of a "world class" venue to match TFC's massive recent spending spree; one that would include retractable seating to ensure intimacy for both sports' fans, upgraded amenities, increased seating capacity, a roof, and, of course, natural grass.

If all of that is accomplished, without detracting from the soccer experience, could you accept gridiron football at BMO Field? Could you accept it if your experience was downgraded? 

Of these two questions looming over Toronto FC fans, we can only hope that it's the former that will require answering in the near future.