Friday, October 28, 2005

Toronto soccer stadium gets the go-ahead

Looks like Toronto's on-again, off-again soccer stadium deal is definitely on again. City councillors have approved the contribution of $9.8 million toward a 20,000-seat stadium at Exhibition Place (plus the $10 million in land to build it on).

Ottawa will be chipping in $27 million towards the $63 million stadium, with another $8 million coming from the province. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) has committed to funding the remaining $8 million and generating $10 million in naming rights.

MLSE plans to use the stadium as a home for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, expected to be launched in the spring of 2007. The stadium will also be used as a venue for the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championships, which were recently awarded to Toronto.

Of course there's still opposition to the plan, most notably from people who think that the City's money could be better spent on something other than supporting a private sports franchise. But the stadium will also bring people -- and their money -- to Toronto. A Deloitte and Touche study estimates that the increase in tourism from the FIFA youth championships as well as the stadium's construction would generate an economic impact of $166 million.

I saw the streets blocked off with celebrating fans on the Danforth, in Little Portugal, all over the city during Euro 2004. I saw the Skydome (excuse me, the Rogers Centre) packed with fans for the Roma-AC Milan and Liverpool-Porto games later that summer, with crowds of people in their team colours jammed into every bar and restaurant nearby before kickoff. And I see the people playing in parks all across the city, from the time when the ground thaws in the spring until it snows in the fall. My point is that Toronto has the potential to be a great soccer city.

But there are a few drawbacks. First of all, Toronto already has a soccer team -- the Toronto Lynx of the United Soccer League that get virtually no fan support. They're currently stuck playing out at Centennial Stadium, since Varsity Stadium at U of T was torn down. There have been discussions about the Lynx moving to the new stadium, once it's built, and sharing space with the MLS franchise. But there's no guarantee that people will actually go out to see the games.

Actually, there's no guarantee that people will care about an MLS team either. I know a whackload of soccer fans, but I don't know anyone who pays attention to the MLS. The Premiership or Serie A, sure -- it probably helps that those are the two leagues on TV the most, but even if you spring for Fox Sportsworld, chances are it's not to watch the D.C. United Metrostars or whatever. Although that may change with a Canadian team -- there's nothing we like better than rooting against the Americans.

Another problem is that the proposed stadium will have artificial turf rather than real grass. That means that top-level international games can't be played there, unless they can put in a temporary surface. (And I can't really blame them, either -- Astroturf burns hurt like a bitch.)

Regardless of all that, though, I think building the stadium is the right decision, and Exhibition Place is the right location. Much better than Downsview Park, which was the most recent proposal. It's close to downtown, close to the highway, and easily accessible from the GO train or TTC -- perfect for heading out to the game, having a couple of beers and cursing the ref. And don't even try to tell me that Canadian fans are too polite for that.

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