New Argos owner still sees NFL in Toronto’s future

New Argos owner Larry Tanenbaum.
New Argos owner Larry Tanenbaum.

Earlier this week Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Chairman Larry Tanenbaum formed part of a group that purchased the Toronto Argonauts, and Thursday morning he spoke to local financial professionals about his optimism for the future of pro football in Toronto.

Four-down pro football.

The kind they play in the NFL, which Tanenbaum vows will place a franchise in Toronto eventually.

That’s unusual talk from a sport executive who just invested heavily in the CFL’s flagship franchise, but when asked to envision Canada’s pro sports landscape in the future Tannenbaum said his outlook includes the NFL.

“The timing is totally up in the air,” Tanenbaum said. “They see Canada as an obvious choice for an NFL team.”

Tanenbaum made the comments during a sports business panel discussion at Bloomberg Economic Series: Canada, a one-day conference covering the Canadian economy. The panel included former NBA COO Russell Granik, Inner Circle Sports founder Robert Tilliss, and BMO US acquisitions head Lyle Wilpon. Topics included the Leafs’ hiring of head coach Mike Babcock, the rising value of media rights and the effect of the exchange rate on Canadian franchises, but NFL questions nevertheless arose.

As far as Toronto is concerned, the answers aren’t simple.

First, the league has to deal with Los Angeles where two groups — one in Inglewood and another in suburban Carson — are bidding to build stadiums to house an NFL tenant. This week league officials said the 2020 Super Bowl would head to Los Angeles if one of those two groups succeeds in attracting a franchise, and the consensus coming out of this week’s owners meetings was that L.A. should prepare for a team.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ now, but ‘when,’” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Then there’s the issue of ownership.

NFL rules prohibit collective owners like the Bell/Tanenbaum tag team that purchased the Argos.

Wilpon pointed out Thursday that as the cost of an NFL franchise rises, the pool of individuals with the money and desire to buy one shrinks.

Toronto has been there before.

Four months after Tim Leiweke took over as MLSE’s president and CEO, the company invited rock legend Jon Bon Jovi to Toronto and inducted him into the Air Canada Centre’s Hall of Fame, where he remains the sole enshrinee. And when Bon Jovi announced plans to buy the Buffalo Bills, rumours swirled that he intended to move the club to Toronto.

If that plan ever existed, it collapsed last October when the Pegula family bought the Bills and pledged to keep the franchise in Buffalo.

While Tanenbaum says a Toronto-based NFL team is inevitable, he says his immediate priorities remain MLSE and the Argos, highlighting that MLSE is contributing $100 million toward the $120-million renovation of the city-owned BMO Field. City and provincial governments are paying the remainder, and by next spring the stadium will be ready to host CFL games.

“If you’ve had the experience of going to BMO Field, you’ll understand what a great venue it is,” Tanenbaum said. “For CFL football it really has tremendous sightlines.”