When Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment made the decision in 2014 to pursue a $150M two-year, two-phase expansion and redevelopment of Toronto’s BMO Field, it was with the hope that the new-look stadium would host significant sporting events that would impact in a positive way on the overall fan experience.
I don’t believe even MLSE’s Chief Project Development Officer Bob Hunter could have foreseen how much of a spotlight the lakefront facility would have held in the past week, playing host not only to a wildly entertaining 104th CFL Grey Cup game Nov. 27 between Ottawa RedBlacks and Calgary Stampeders, but also to an exhilarating and thrilling MLS Eastern Conference Championship match between Canadian arch-rivals Toronto FC and Montreal Impact only three days later. Moreover, the stadium will be front and centre once again when it hosts the MLS Cup final between TFC and Western Conference champions Seattle Sounders Dec 10.
When speculating, during a Sport$trategies interview in November of 2015, on a scenario that involved both the CFL’s championship game and TFC hypothetically extending a playoff run at the same time, Hunter said: “It’s really a scheduling exercise. Football is more stressful on the pitch and we understand, from the research we’ve done, that it probably needs five days to recover. That’s the way the schedule is being laid out for the regular season, but in the playoffs, the scenarios are unknown…and then it’s just a matter of how you organize the schedule.”
That five-day window, which was in effect throughout the overlapping CFL and MLS seasons, was reduced to only three days in order to accommodate MLS playoff scheduling requirements. And, only 72 hours after the awarding of the Grey Cup, the pitch was restored to near-perfect conditions for soccer, despite a persistent rainfall through most of the 120-minute MLS match.
After the game, TFC Captain Michael Bradley complemented the BMO Field grounds crew: “Our groundskeepers are unbelievable. They’re a part of our club. We see them every day at the training ground. We ask how things are going, they give us feedback, so we have an incredible amount of respect for the work they do, for how professional they are, how much they put into it all.
“They had an impossible task,” Bradley continued, “of turning a field around in this weather from a Grey Cup to an Eastern Conference Final and they did an incredible job and, obviously, regardless if there had been a game three days ago, when you play 120 minutes and it’s raining, the field gets a little bit heavy, that’s normal. I think we all fully expect, with ten days to come back, it’s going to be in perfect condition for the finals.”
The steady rainfall was negated by the new canopy installation that allowed fans to stay and soak up the post-game awards ceremony and celebrations, rather than scatter for the concourse or the exits, as might have occurred in the past.
And the fact TFC sold out an additional six-thousand temporary seats, installed specifically for the Grey Cup and the Centennial Classic outdoor NHL hockey game Jan 1, for the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, was an unexpected bonus and a result of the drawing power of both the MLS team and the stadium, which also won rave reviews from Grey Cup spectators who travelled from across the country.
If there was any doubt in the minds of MLSE executives of the value of the costly and elaborate stadium upgrade, with the intrusive side effect of forcing the prime tenant, TFC, to play on the road for two months two years in a row, I’m sure those concerns have been put to rest in the past week as BMO Field has emerged as a centrepiece of high level sporting activity in Canada and North America.