Tim Leiweke may be on his way out as the man in charge of two of Toronto's biggest sports venues but he says his big plans for the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field are not going anywhere.
The president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the Air Canada Centre and its two major tenants, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, and runs BMO Field for its owner, the City of Toronto, says the ACC can become "one of the most important arenas in the world in the next three or four years." His plans are no less grandiose for BMO, which is undergoing a $100-million upgrade, the first phase of which will be done in time for next summer's Pan Am Games. Leiweke says BMO Field "is going to have a greater impact on massive events coming to our city than any other infrastructure project today."
MLSE has already landed the 2016 NBA all-star game for the ACC, and plans to spend as much as $40-million tarting up the arena leading up to that. Leiweke also has his eye on the NHL all-star game and the entry draft for the 2016-17 season in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of both the Maple Leafs and the NHL, capped by a Winter Classic outdoor game in the same season for BMO Field. He is already talking to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the ACC playing host to the World Cup of Hockey whenever the NHL and NHL Players' Association revive the tournament. The 2015 and 2017 world junior hockey tournaments are coming to Toronto as well.
Also in the plans for BMO Field, which will see its capacity raised to 30,000 for MLSE's Major League Soccer team, Toronto FC, with the ability to go to 40,000 for selected events, are international soccer games involving the world's top teams, major events for sports such as rugby and women's soccer and perhaps a Grey Cup if a spat between MLSE and the federal government over $10-million in funding from the taxpayers can be resolved.
Plans to reconfigure BMO to accommodate the CFL's Toronto Argonauts by 2018 are on hold because the federal Conservative government says it will not contribute taxpayers' money directly to building a stadium for professional sports. The football renovations are also in jeopardy because MLSE no longer wants to buy the Argos from owner David Braley, although they are discussing a lease beginning in 2018. The Ontario Liberal government is expected to give a $10-million grant to the BMO Field project, while the City of Toronto has already approved a loan of $10-million.
MLSE had pledged $100-million for the BMO renovations if all three governments contribute a total of $30-million to the project, but without the feds the deal has been scaled back to $100-million. "They haven't bailed and they haven't joined," Leiweke said of the federal government. He said talks have stalled but hopes to persuade Prime Minister Stephen Harper's people to contribute the $10-million through infrastructure grants to the various big events Leiweke hopes to attract to BMO Field rather than the stadium itself.
All of these plans leave the Rogers Centre, which opened 25 years ago, looking like the poor relation among the three main Toronto sporting venues. It is the biggest of them, with a capacity that ranges from 48,282 for baseball to 55,000 for concerts, but it quickly went from one of the world's wonders with its retractable roof when it opened June 3, 1989, to obsolescence.
"That building was obsolete about three years after it opened," said retired MLSE president and CEO Richard Peddie, who held the same job at the SkyDome, as the Rogers Centre was known then, from 1989 to 1994.
Peddie admits he is exaggerating, but only a bit, as the rise of single-sport, retro-stadiums that began in baseball shortly after the SkyDome opened put the concrete multipurpose stadiums out of fashion.
"It was a spectacular building in 1989, and had a great run through the nineties. But when the Air Canada Centre came on stream, it really lost," Peddie said. "In my last year, we were doing something like 250 events a year at SkyDome, and I think the guys got even higher after I left. But a lot of that stuff has gone away."
In 1997, the SkyDome was in use for 302 days or nights, which remains the record for the facility. But when the Air Canada Centre opened in February, 1999, it quickly took away the bulk of the concert business, even though it has 19,800 seats for concerts. In 2014, what is now called the Rogers Centre is scheduled to be in use for just 119 days and nights, most of them for Blue Jays games.
Paul Beeston, president and CEO of the Blue Jays and the Rogers Centre, admits things changed when the single-sport retro-styled stadiums came along, but argues the Rogers Centre remains relevant on the Toronto sporting scene. The only trouble is Torontonians take it for granted and don't appreciate its versatility thanks to the retractable roof.
"We've got something quite special in that, A, it's downtown, and B, it's got a roof that opens and when it opens it's an open stadium, not a hole in the roof," Beeston said. "It's 25 years old and it needs major upgrades, but it still works."
"I like to think we will always have something like the Rogers Centre in the middle of the city, that can be accessed by people and keep the city vibrant," Beeston added. "If something is coming, whether it's the PanAm Games, we're going to be the opening and closing stadium. Where else are you going to have it where you know, even if there's a rainstorm, that the opening and closing ceremonies can happen, and happen in a perfect venue downtown?"
The Rogers Centre
$590-million, most of it paid by Toronto and Ontario taxpayers, by its 1989 opening. The original budget was $150-million. A group of 30 corporations contributed about $150-million in exchange for becoming suppliers.
Initially owned by a consortium representing public and private groups. After the province paid off its $400-million debt in 1994 it was sold to a private consortium for $151-million. It changed hands twice more, was declared bankrupt once and Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns the Blue Jays and part of MLSE, bought it in 2004 for $25-million.
Concerts, 55,000; Baseball, 48,282; Football, 49,290.
Paul Beeston says the most important thing about the Rogers Centre is its "location, location, location." He said it helped spur much of the condominium, restaurant and bar development around it on the west edge of downtown Toronto.
While the Rogers Centre lost most of its concert business to the Air Canada Centre, Beeston argues the music business changed as well. There are no longer as many stadium acts, as they are known in the entertainment business, such as Bruce Springsteen in his heyday, which can fill a large stadium. Both Beeston and Peddie say there are only one or two such acts available every year. The others prefer a smaller site like the ACC.
$62.9-million when it was finished in 2007 at Exhibition Place in Toronto's west end. Unlike the SkyDome, this stadium was built on its budget. About $45-million of the cost was paid by the Toronto, Ontario and Canadian governments with the rest coming from MLSE in exchange for management rights.
It is owned by the City of Toronto and managed by MLSE. The city splits the profits 50-50 with MLSE and has received between $2.5-million and $3-million since 2007.
Soccer, 21,000, rising to 30,000 by 2016 when the second phase of renovations is finished. Concerts and special events, 40,000.
The major part of the renovations will be done following the PanAm Games next year when a roof will be constructed over most of the seats. There were plans to expand the end zones to accommodate CFL football and the Argos as tenants, but they are officially cancelled now as part of the stare-down between MLSE and the Harper government over funding.
The most interesting change is Tim Leiweke's plan to turn BMO Field into a major concert venue. This is not practical now, since the facility is owned by the city and covered by a union agreement with the workers at BMO, from ushers to concession workers to the takedown crews.
According to Richard Peddie, the wages called for in the union agreement add $100,000 to the cost of every event compared with the other venues in the city. This means concert promoters shun BMO, which has held just one concert in its seven years of existence.
However, Leiweke hopes to negotiate a side agreement with the unions that would attract concert promoters. He is also talking to the province about establishing a permanent music festival at the old Ontario Place grounds that would involve BMO.
"I believe in the simple theory that economic deals that prohibit work earn union members nothing," Leiweke said, adding a new deal "will put [union members] back to work and is in all of our best interests."
Leiweke also expects Kathleen Wynne's provincial government to fork over a $10-million grant soon. To critics of using taxpayers' money for stadiums run by private companies, Leiweke says all three levels of government will get their money back through taxes generated by jobs created by the stadium and, most of all, the big events he expects to attract.
Air Canada Centre
$265-million, paid by MLSE.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Hockey, 18,880; Basketball, 19,800; Concerts, 19,800.
MLSE just finished an upgrade to the ACC's Internet and WiFi capabilities. Also on the list by the 2016 NBA all-star game are a new video scoreboard, the third one since the ACC opened in 1999, new seats and improvements to the concourses that could bring the total cost to $40-million.
Tim Leiweke also plans to use the large concourse that joins the ACC to Union Station for a large display that will celebrate the NBA all-star game, the Raptors and the 100th anniversary of the Leafs and the NHL. MLSE started a series of statues of Leaf players seated on a granite bench outside Gate 6 of the ACC called Legends Row. The first is one of Ted Kennedy, who will be joined by Johnny Bower and Darryl Sittler and as many as eight more will be unveiled leading up to the start of the 2016-17 season.
Landing the all-star game as well as the Raptors' sudden success in making the NBA playoffs last season will help attract the league's top talent to the basketball team, according to Leiweke.