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BMO Field key to TFC’s success
March 19, 2009, 7:24 AM
Filed under: BMO Field, Toronto FC

History shows for Toronto FC that if you build it, they really will come. BMO Field will be jammed once again for every game of the MLS team’s third season.

Season tickets are capped at 16,000 with another 14,000 on the waiting list. Every game will be on TV and this season there’s even a radio deal.

“I get asked this question all the time. ‘Did you ever expect it to be so successful out of the gate?”‘ says Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and CEO for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. “The answer is ‘No, we didn’t actually.’

“We believed that soccer was going to succeed in this market, we knew there’s lots of soccer fans. The question was would they buy into Major League Soccer? We didn’t really know that.”

The 20,000-seat BMO Field has been the cornerstone of Toronto FC’s success. The Vancouver Whitecaps, awarded an MLS franchise on Wednesday, could learn from TFC’s beginnings.

“One of the keys to success here has been having a soccer-specific stadium, no question about it,” Anselmi acknowledged.

At $62.9 million, it is a no-frills venue. But it is designed for soccer, has a good location on the Toronto waterfront and there are some nice touches that dress up the blue-collar TFC home.

The north end is essentially one big watering hole/patio — the summer’s “best bar,” according to Anselmi. The giant Maple Leaf logo on the seats in the middle of the east stand adds to the stadium’s Canadian flavour, as does the panorama of Lake Ontario to the south and the Toronto skyline to the east.

Offering ethnic food at the concession stands is also appreciated by the TFC faithful. It’s something a little different.

But the fans make the atmosphere. In the southeast end, the Red Patch Boys — Toronto FC’s supporters’ club — make the fan engine tick every home game. The RPB charter sums it up when it says: “We are the voice in the stands filled with passion, pride and purpose for every minute of every game.”

Opposing players disappear in a sea of streamers when they try to take a corner kick in front of the diehards supporters. And when the game enters the 24th minute, they always make a point of singing the praises of towering striker Danny Dichio’s first ever goal for the club.

The support may be par for the course in other soccer strongholds. But it is unique in North America among MLS homes.

That atmosphere helps make up for the spartan stadium’s shortcomings.

Umbrellas aren’t allowed and the concourses are tight, so expect very tight quarters at halftime if the skies open and spectators flee their seats. Plus more than a few male fans also have come to regret that extra beer at the sight of washroom lineups.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, while acknowledging the star power of David Beckham would go down well in celebrity-driven North America, knew MLS needed proper venues to succeed.

While Beckham may provide a boost, Blatter said MLS also had to work on its stadium situation so it can avoid playing second fiddle to NFL stadiums.

“It’s only when they have their own stadia that they can reorganize their league . . . in order to offer the world of football places or jobs to play,” Blatter said during a visit to Toronto in May 2007.

Toronto fans have been denied seeing Beckham on the pitch when the Galaxy visit. But they still pack the joint.

Off the field, Toronto FC made smart choices in Mo Johnston as inaugural coach/general manager and Jim Brennan as the first player signed. The charismatic Scot and cheery Toronto defender-midfielder made for a good team, selling the franchise off the pitch.

Johnston’s early mission statement was simple, according to Anselmi.

“The most important criteria in him being the GM of this team was that we don’t have to win out of the gate, we don’t have to try and be good right away, we need to do it right for the long haul.”

In electing for blue-collar signings like former English league workhorse Dichio, Toronto FC signalled that the first-year club knew it would have to toil for every scrap of success.

Johnston, who loves to wheel and deal, has shown a flair for identifying young talent in the draft and worked hard to add pieces to the puzzle. Some have worked, some haven’t but the team is coming together and perhaps is just a central defender away from being a side to watch as long as it stays healthy.

Management has also looked for every edge. With John Carver installed as coach and Johnston moving upstairs to director of soccer, TFC has all the bells and whistles that come with top sports teams including computer monitoring of practice, nutrition experts and strength and conditioning guru.

Now the team is scouting Africa, knowing it is a cheaper source of talent.

“There’s been no stone unturned here in terms of moving forward,” Johnston said.

On the pitch, the goal this year is to make the playoffs — they finished four points out of the post-season last year.

And the club is already looking at ways of making the stadium bigger.

“You can add about 8,000 seats without having to tear things out and start over again,” said Anselmi, adding that such a reno would cost around $15 million.

While MLSE gets a lot of stick locally, it has made few missteps since cannily realizing there was an opportunity to be had with an MLS team, especially with various levels of government coming up with most of the cash to build the stadium.

Former CSA COO Kevan Pipe worked long and hard to get the venue, using his ties to get FIFA on board while linking the stadium to hosting the 2007 FIFA U20 Championship.

“The deal got kind of cobbled together, we were the last $20 million in the door kind of thing,” Anselmi said.

It has proved to be a sweet deal — for MLSE and for Toronto FC fans, at least those who have tickets.

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