UPDATE: The Argos are set to make “major announcement” at BMO Field at 1:30 p.m. where it’s expected ownership change will be made official.
By Dan Ralph and Neil Davidson
The Canadian Press
The Toronto Argonauts have found a new home and owner.
Two league sources confirmed Tuesday the CFL team has been sold to Bell and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. The official announcement will be made Wednesday.
The sources say the deal also includes a lease agreement for the Argos to begin play at BMO Field as early as next season. That’s pending renovations needed to accommodate the CFL field but they’re expected to be completed in time for the football franchise to play at the lakefront stadium in 2016.
The Argos will play this season at Rogers Centre. Their lease there is to expire after the 2017 campaign although they have the option of leaving earlier if they find a new venue.
The announcement will cap roughly a year of talks between Argos owner David Braley and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It was generally accepted that the sale of the team and lease agreement at BMO would be announced together but the deal had to be completed by June 1 for the football team to have any chance of playing at Exhibition Place in 2016.
Absent from the deal is Rogers Communications, which is part of the MLSE ownership group with Bell and Tanenbaum. Rogers was reportedly not interested in acquiring the 142-year-old franchise, likely because it has no ties to the CFL while Bell has a vested interest in the league through its broadcast affiliate TSN.
Rogers, which owns the Rogers Centre and Toronto Blue Jays, prompted the Argo search for a new home by telling them the plan to install grass in the domed facility meant they had to leave.
Braley, who also owns the B.C. Lions, assumed assumed control of the Argos in February 2010 from Toronto businessmen David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski.
While Cynamon and Sokolowski tried to move the Argos from Rogers Centre, Braley remained committed to the CFL club playing there. However, Braley has said repeatedly in recent months that fan discontent with the dome prompted him to begin looking for an alternative home venue for the storied franchise.
Fans have long complained about the lack of atmosphere at Rogers Centre, where Toronto averaged under 20,000 spectators last year in a stadium that can hold over 50,000 fans for football. Also, the Argos have found it difficult to secure decent home dates because of stiff competition from baseball and special events.
BMO Field, a city-owned stadium that’s home to Toronto FC of Major League Soccer, is undergoing a $120-million renovation with MLSE footing most of the bill. MLSE owns TFC and managed the stadium.
The first phase, completed earlier this month, added some 8,000 seats in the form of a second tier to the east stand, as well as more premium club options.
The second phase, to be completed by May 2016, involves putting on a canopy around three sides of the lakefront stadium as well as installing a new audio and lighting system.
To convert the field for CFL play, the seats in the north stand will have to be reconfigured while the first seven or eight rows in the south stand will have to be converted into retractable, removable seats.
New, bigger dressing rooms will also have to be built to accommodate football.
Bob Hunter, MLSE’s chief project development officer, estimated the cost of CFL conversion at anywhere from $20 million to $23 million.
Some soccer fans have opposed the idea of converting BMO Field for the Argos, contending that CFL play will impact the quality of the playing surface. A banner saying “No Argos @BMO” was hung on the south stands at the last Toronto FC home game.
Outgoing MLSE CEO and president Tim Leiweke insists soccer fans will notice no difference if CFL football is played at the stadium.
Others hope that the move to a more intimate setting from the cavernous Rogers Centre will help revive football in Toronto, as it did in Montreal.
Neither source would confirm specific details of the sale, which reportedly includes two Grey Cup games being held at BMO Field. The first would be the 2016 CFL championship game.