Leiweke proud of BMO renovations

Tim Leiweke shows Phase 1 revamp of BMO Field
MLSE president/CEO Tim Leiweke is proud of the renovations at BMO Field that he feels will help turn Toronto FC into a real MLS power. PHOTO CHRIS SO / TORONTO STAR

Tim Leiweke stops. If he walks though this door it will lock behind him, and he knows this, so he asks someone to hold it open for him. The current CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has given a lot of tours of the renovations at BMO Field, and he is well-versed in the details. The enthusiasm is well-practiced, too.

“Despite those who said we wouldn’t be here today, we’re here today,” says Leiweke. “And despite those who said we wouldn’t be focused and giving it 100 per cent, we’re focused and giving it 100 per cent. I think that’s one of the things that I’ll probably be proud about, is that I never checked out, and we have never checked out here.”

As his time in charge of this city’s dominant sports conglomerate dwindles, Leiweke is making a show of not slowing down. His departure was announced back in August; people figured he’d be gone by Christmas, and some of the shots he fired across MLSE’s bow indicated he wanted out. Leiweke has been eyeing the exit since early 2014, at least.

But a replacement has been difficult to find with the ownership tangle here, so here he is on a Tuesday, committed until June or earlier, wearing a construction hat and giving a tour of BMO as crews work triple shifts to get Phase I finished for Toronto FC’s Sunday home opener. It won’t quite be done, but it’ll be close, and Tim Leiweke is preparing the ground, in a lot of different ways.

“The problem with the grass isn’t the Argos,” Leiweke says. “The problem with the grass is the winter.” Leiweke lists off all the other events they run at BMO, and insists the grass will be OK if the CFL team comes. They’re already working on how to repaint and remove the lines for different sports — he kneels down to show where the centre circle had to be redone. The old line is faded, but like Leiweke, it’s still there.

“I know everyone comes in here and says well this is the national soccer stadium, but the greatest soccer stadium on earth is probably Wembley, and they play football, and they play rugby, and they have concerts,” says Leiweke. “We have to ultimately learn how to be a multi-functional facility, because the problem in Toronto is one, this is it and two, I don’t think there’s going to be another one for a while. I think it’s probably not the best use of taxpayers’s dollars to build a second outdoor stadium.”

The deal to buy the Argos and move them to BMO isn’t done, but it could be next week. As reported by TSN’s Dave Naylor and Rick Westhead, MLSE’s owners remain split. Bell and Larry Tanenbaum are willing to buy the team; the holdup is Rogers, which has no interest in the CFL, and has been the biggest problem all along. Whatever the arrangement, the Argos will likely land in BMO, with a couple Grey Cups to help pay for their $10-million share of the Phase II renovations.

The end zones will be a little short, but they’ll fit. As Leiweke puts it, “A lot of things could happen, but I would say at this point, when you have the Prime Minister of the country, the premier of the province and the mayor of the city that all want this to get done . . . ”

But then he’s back to the stadium. Railings are going in, they’ll have kitchens and a menu, new food-and-drink clubs for the affluent, including one where you can watch the soccer teams walk out through an unnecessarily narrow double door. (“I like it that way, because that way we might get a scuffle,” he says with a grin.)

He shows where there will eventually be poles sunk deep in the ground for the roof. The sound and lighting will be moved to the sides of the stadium, so as not to distract a goalkeeper, or a kick returner. The sideline luxury seats aren’t in because they’re stuck in the ports of Montreal, and Leiweke has learned who controls the ports in Montreal.

The maximum capacity will be 40,000 for the Winter Classic MLSE is sure to get, or for the Grey Cups. And while the pitch remains a concern, the building will make Toronto FC rich. There are already 20,000 season ticket holders, and he projects over $50 million in revenue this year, and $60 million next year, an MLS first.

“We’re going to turn it into a super-club,” says Leiweke. “Here, this soccer team could be the most important team in town, if we win. If we win games we will be huge. I think the first team that wins a championship here will be a very important team in the history and the passion of this city.”

That’s the classic big-picture Leiweke vision: it’s what he was brought here to sell. Sure, the Leafs are starting a rebuild (which is actually, in the big picture, a good idea), and the Raptors are contemplating all options after a playoff flameout (everyone, from Kyle Lowry up and down, is on the table), and TFC is still muddling, in the early going.

But while he says he’s not thinking too much about legacy, he lists off the BMO expansion, which he calls the old version a high school football field; the Raptors practice facility and D-League team, which is coming; Drake’s new club and the new scoreboard which are coming to the ACC; the NBA All-Star Game in 2016 and the World Cup of Hockey this year. There are plans for Ontario Place, too, which remain in the pipeline.

The winning hasn’t happened, of course. But ever the optimist, Leiweke believes.

“I have great faith in (Leafs president Brendan Shanahan) and (Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri),” Leiweke says. “If there’s one thing I’m most proud of it’s those two guys. They will win, both of them. And they are not afraid, and they will stay the course, and they don’t give a damn what anyone says.”

Lots has been said about Leiweke in his time here, and it’s coming to a close. But he’s racing to finish what he can before he gets to throw back the keys and leave this confounding puzzle of a town behind.