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Cutting to the chase


Sean Fitz-Gerald, National Post

Published: Wednesday, June 18, 2008



TORONTO -- If he had told the truth while walking into that south Florida bar that winter, in 1969, nobody would have stopped to listen. So Paul Godfrey lied, just a little, and introduced himself to the commissioner of Major League Baseball as a councillor from Toronto - and not from nearby North York, where he actually worked.


Then he asked for a baseball team.


"Son, where are we going to play?" Bowie Kuhn asked back.


"Sir," Godfrey said, "you give us a team and we'll build you a stadium."


Kuhn, with his imposing 6-foot-5 frame, put a hand on Godfrey's shoulder.


"Son, let me tell you the way we do it in Major League Baseball," he said. "First, you build us a stadium, then we'll decide if we want to give you a team. Nice meeting you."


After plenty of negotiation and a bit of luck, the Toronto Blue Jays staged their first regular-season game at Exhibition Stadium eight years later. And by the mid-80s, Godfrey had turned his attention to the NFL, shaking hands and making friends with the league's power brokers.


Today, it is Godfrey's employers at Rogers Communications who have taken up the chase, and Godfrey's employers who are faced with the same stadium-related questions for football that the former councillor faced for baseball.


Rogers Centre is too small for the National Football League. Its seating capacity has been set at about 54,000 for an upcoming eight-game series featuring the Buffalo Bills, placing it firmly behind each of the league's existing 31 stadiums in terms of size.


Renovations are a possibility, but would not be executed without complication. If a new facility is deemed to be the answer, then where would it be built? And who would pay for it?


Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum had to navigate a number of obstacles just to secure the series, and the stadium issue is still only one in a line of hurdles stretched out between them and the finish line of their quest to land their own NFL team.


There are politicians on both sides of the border who would want to be heard before the relocation of any team; there are the NFL owners who would have to be convinced the time is right to move beyond the U.S. borders; there are other, American billionaires who would likely join in the bidding for any available team; and then there is the Canadian Football League, which would loudly protest any further encroachment onto its turf.


"Getting a franchise, it's like getting the games here," Rogers vice chairman Phil Lind said. "It's extraordinarily complicated."


Rogers Communications will pay $78-million to lease eight games from the Bills over the next five NFL seasons. And there has been rampant speculation the move eventually could become permanent.


Sports investment banker Sal Galatioto, president of Galatioto Sports Partners, was asked why Toronto does not already have its own NFL franchise, despite decades of lobbying.


"There are a bunch of reasons," he said. "One is Toronto doesn't have a stadium that really is NFL-ready, that meets NFL specs. That's a big problem. And it's like the chicken and the egg - unless you have the building, it's difficult to entice an NFL team to move there, but you don't want to build a building not knowing if you're going to have a team."


Rogers Centre, formerly known as SkyDome, opened in 1989 at a cost of $578-million. It was overshadowed just three years later when Camden Yards opened in Baltimore, unleashing a new wave of stadium architecture, which favoured the quaint and the retro over the futuristic feel of the concrete and steel dome.


SkyDome was sold to Rogers four years ago for just $25-million.


Some feel the stadium could be renovated to house an NFL team by, among other things, digging and lowering the floor. The obvious conflict that would arise, though, is how the construction schedule might interfere with the Blue Jays, the stadium's primary tenant - and another of Rogers' holdings.


According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, the league does not have a minimum size requirement for stadiums. But the smallest facility, Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, holds 61,500 fans, 7,500 more than Rogers Centre.


Opinions vary about where a new stadium might be built. There would seem to be some potential along the water just east of downtown, but the lack of public transit and room for added traffic flow has ruled it out for some.


Downsview Park, in the city's north end, has often been cited as prime real estate, but Liberal Member of Parliament Joe Volpe vaguely suggested there was "some maneuvering" that might rule out its candidacy.


"Probably the best place - and it was the best place 30 years ago when they were talking about the SkyDome - is Downsview," Volpe said. "And the second-best place is just past Canada's Wonderland."


Building a new stadium is not cheap, but some believe the Toronto group might be able to avoid asking for public money by selling personal seat licences. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is reportedly charging as much as US$150,000 for a PSL - which only really gives a fan the right to buy tickets - in his new, US$1.1-billion stadium.


Private financing might be the only way to proceed in Toronto.


"When SkyDome was built, Metro Toronto put in $30-million, because at that time, the municipality had felt there was a need for a major sports centre," Toronto Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone said. "There's no political will in this town, that I'm aware of, to basically subsidize an NFL team in Toronto by putting taxpayers' money in it."


"It'd be tough," Volpe said.


The same could be said of the competition to land an NFL team. Ralph Wilson founded the Bills for US$25,000 in 1959, and has indicated the franchise will be placed up for auction after his death. Wilson turns 90 this fall, and Forbes values the Bills at US$821-million.


"When an NFL team comes on the market, Ted Rogers is great - he's a bidder, but not necessarily the winning bidder," Galatioto said. "There are other people just as wealthy as he is, if not wealthier, who want an NFL team."


Galatioto suggested the Bills could have more than a half-dozen wealthy suitors, from those who might want to keep it in Western New York to those who might want to return the league to Los Angeles after an absence of more than a decade.


"You're going to have a lot of interest around the Bills," he said. "Believe me, there are a lot of people who ask me that same question: Some people interested in keeping it in Buffalo; some people interested in the dream of L.A.; some people talking about Toronto. The Bills are a big, hot topic."


Especially in Western New York, where the NFL acts as one of the region's final ties to the national spotlight. Senator Charles Schumer is reportedly scheduled to meet with Wilson and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at training camp this summer, seeking to ensure the team's future in Buffalo.


Other politicians have made their voices heard, and only on the mere speculation the team might be in danger of moving.


The Toronto consortium would face headaches at home, too, where B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles has pledged to make as much noise as possible in defence of the CFL. Senator Larry Campbell, a former Vancouver mayor, recently tabled a bill that would ban the NFL from playing regular-season games in Canada.


"I do believe in the tradition of the Canadian Football League," Godfrey said. "And it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that there are ways that both can survive. I really believe that the CFL can not only survive, but I think with the co-operation between the two leagues, it can put teams in cities that they're not in today - possibly Quebec City, Halifax."


According to Rogers Communications, though, the Southern Ontario market is NFL territory.


"The NFL owners have to cross the threshold and decide whether they are international, or whether they are just American," Lind said. "And they lose a certain amount if, say, Toronto or Moose Jaw gets a franchise. They gain a lot, too, because there's a huge market in Canada that would be energized way more than it is right now."


Godfrey, who started the chase more than 20 years ago, is admittedly not in the foreground of the most recent pursuit, focusing on his role as president of the Blue Jays while Rogers, Tanenbaum and Lind lead the hunt.


But even from the background, he claims he can still see the finish line.


"A team is coming here," Godfrey said. "Can I predict whether it will be two years, or six years, or 10 years? I can't. I have no inside information, but I do know the NFL wants to go global, and it's the only sport that has not gone North American - never mind global."

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Toronto needs the NFL

Leslie Roberts, National Post

Published: Wednesday, June 18, 2008



As Canadians debate the pros and cons of an NFL franchise for Toronto, perhaps a newcomer to this country is best suited to offer guidance.


David Whitaker, the president and CEO of Tourism Toronto, is an American who held the top marketing job in Miami -- home of the NFL's Dolphins -- at the Greater Miami Visitor and Tourism Board for 17 years. A year into his Toronto post, Whitaker is very excited about the initial plan to bring one regular season Buffalo Bills game, and two preseason games, for the next five years, to Toronto's Rogers Centre. That's the deal Ted Rogers and Larry Tanenbaum struck after years of delicate behind-the-scenes lobbying and negotiations.


Whitaker is careful not to offend those opposed to the bigger plan, which no one is confirming nor denying, and that is to bring the NFL franchise to Toronto permanently. Citing the Miami experience with the Dolphins, he says lots of jobs are created, more taxes are collected, city revenues jump and tourism gets a boost from having an NFL team in town. After all, who wouldn't want their city beamed into millions of homes, not only in North America but around the world, virtually every week?


Asked outright: Are there any negatives to a city that secures an NFL team? He pauses, and responds: "I'd be hard pressed to find one."


Enough said.


Any other mayor, any other city would be leading the parade. But David Miller's priority is to ''protect the CFL." The Mayor and people of Toronto need to get behind the idea


of a Toronto NFL team, so Canada's biggest city, and North America's fifth largest, hangs on to its "major league" reputation, secured with basketball's Raptors and baseball's Blue Jays franchises. Ticket sales for the Bills games are going well, but the sooner they sell out, the better. The NFL is watching, Toronto. Consider this an audition.


And fan loyalty will be rewarded. Sources tell me those who buy tickets now will be the "go-to" supporters offered season tickets when a franchise is secured. One day they'll be compared to those families who bought Leafs seasons tickets in 1931, the team's first year at Maple Leaf Gardens, and have passed the coveted seats to today's generation.


I understand the rumblings inside the CFL, worried about the Canadian version of the game dying. But it's not one or the other. Both leagues, David Whitaker says, can survive in Toronto. Already, 20,000 Ontarians regularly make the trek to Buffalo for games, yet the Argos are thriving. Buffalo fans would be willing to do the same in reverse.


The future of the Buffalo franchise is already in doubt. Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 89, has said his team will go on the block after his death. New York fans would rather have the Bills within driving distance than lose it to another American market hundreds of miles away. And the industrious team behind the potential Toronto ownership of Rogers/Tanenbaum is already making the pitch.


That's how it's done at the highest levels. Is that where we are, or not?


-Leslie Roberts is the anchor for Global Ontario's News Hour.




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Until they build a stadium (which they won't) forget about it. Toronto isn't even a football town. Once people actually go to see a game for a trillion bucks and see that it's not as entertaining as they though, they won't go again. Look at baseball, sure Toronto is a big city and the fourth largest media market but the attendance is pathetic (ok well, yeah I know Montrealers shouldn't talk). Also everyone seems to assume that Mr Wilson will die soon. In life nothing certain and it's not like Rogers is a spring chicken. Plus I guarantee you there are other fat egos willing to keep the team in Buffalo or move it to an actual football town. There's a tiny little place on the west coast called Los Angeles with a metro of what 13 million and the second largest media market not to mention HAVE a plan for an actual stadium up to standards. I'm not worried one bit, the media, being Toronto and all, try to hype up something that shouldn't be. Make no mistake about it Rogers and his bitches Phil Lind and Larry Tanenbaum want a team in Toronto. It's just not going to happen.


Lastly, it's not like they don't have a team. Tickets are cheaper in Buffalo anyways. The CFL is an exceptional league. The NFL is great too but Toronto will not support a team. Don't let the numbers fool you. I bet most people who bought tickets have never been to a game. After actually enduring a game, (lol only in Toronto will some idiot pay 250 dollars to watch a fricking pre-season game) they'll see that the NFL is not so glamorous and just because it's popular in the US, doesn't mean people will care here.


HELP protect the CFL! We have the best of both worlds, Canadian Football and American Football! You don't have to chose, you can be a fan of both and make the short 90 minute drive to an NFL game in Buffalo.


PS what does everyone think of Larry Cambell's bid? I support it 110%! Look what happened to hockey, they basterdized it and now it's american. Let's keep our culture and our distinct 3 down game. The Grey Cup is not the largest sporting event in Canada, it's the largest party, gathering, spectacle in this great country.



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