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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Grass no greener off the pitch at TFC

Roof goes here.

Ask Toronto FC supporters what is wrong with the failing, and seemingly flailing, club right now and many will give an arms-length list of problems dressed in red kits or holding clipboards. In a season where on-field successes have been few and far between, it is hard to fault the average member of BMO Field's faithful for pointing at the pitch and screaming in exasperated frustration.
It is obvious to anyone who has regularly attended a match on Toronto's Lakeshore this year or even watched a match on TV, that there is a different air around the club. The heady days of electric atmosphere and optimism without reason have noticeably diminished in 2011, replaced only with flickering hope that yet another new regime will bring the change that The Reds’ loyal support so deserves - or worse, an uncaring apathy.
Judging the club based on its on-field performance right now brings simple answers - bad. However, those can be fixed with a few inspired personnel moves - it is arguably off-field issues where the rot has set much deeper and may indeed be the threat to TFC reaching its full potential as a club.
The apple rarely falls from the tree. While the Aron Winter/ Paul Mariner management team does its best to bring a professional environment so missing under Mo Johnston, there are still many links to the "old ways" of doing business. Much of this "culture" comes from owners MLSE who as any Torontonian sports fan can attest, is far more interested in dollars than trophies. The owners have somehow managed to turn the hottest ticket in local sports into a rapidly dull and apathetic environ. The extendable "5-Year Plans" (which aren't necessary in MLS) are slowly alienating casual support and somehow slaying the most unlikely "golden goose" in the Toronto sports scene. Can Winter & Co. battle the culture of "All For One Dollar"? There are a few players, some here - some departed, who already think not.
While the story has gone quiet (...too quiet) the seemingly inevitable sale of MLSE to (insert media giant / bank / super villain name here) must have a forward effect on planning. An air of instability must run through the front office rank and file with their futures seemingly in the balance. And what of MLSE currently? Is there a desire to improve the team long-term with acquisitions of Designated Players for example? Or, would such frills be considered ill-timed if a sale is on the horizon? While the massive Academy investment seems to signal long-term strategy (but possibly real estate accumulation), other short-term (and short-sighted) decisions such as putting most TFC matches on MLSE-owned GolTV seem like a short-cut to the quick buck. The GolTV move, which may affect long-term fan growth, is a particularly distressing move and one which hopefully doesn't signify a short-term vision in other areas.
In the club's early days, the emergence of a "global football supporter culture" took hold at TFC and likely took MLSE by surprise. The raucous atmosphere created at BMO Field was noticed around the league and around the world as a new type of MLS club support. The supporter culture made TFC matches a "place to be" and MLSE soon was happy to market this as a reason to come to matches when the football was definitely not. Recently however, it seems to many as if the club's operators have been quietly trying to dampen the boisterous supporter sections and the groups within them.
Minor incidents with flares for example, have been manipulated to excuse an overzealous security clampdown which has gone as far as making it difficult to bring a flag to the stadium. The result is a much more muted supporter element at BMO at a time when other MLS clubs are embracing such supporter displays. While many think they would never castrate this segment of the crowd, would it be beyond belief to think that a "Family Section" wouldn't fill the coffers of MLSE as easily without the hassle of policing this so-though-of "troublesome" element? It is a doomed vision if it exists - but would surprise few.
It is difficult to be too hard on BMO Field because without the publicly funded tin-can, there would be no TFC. When the stadium was built, it was assembled on the cheap as quickly as possible and Toronto football fans had no problem with it. The idea of a footy specific stadium was so rare after all. However, apart from the installation of grass (an admittedly fine investment by MLSE) the stadium is not the comfiest place to watch a match while other, more grand stadia, are being erected league-wide.
Positioned by the lake and being used during an MLS season which sees the worst of Toronto's extreme weather, BMO Field can be a challenge for the heartiest supporter. While MLSE will claim that the stadium is a municipal facility and their hands are tied, no one believes that the city would object if the owners would spring for the missing element in making BMO a better place to watch football - a roof. Whether it protects from searing heat or freezing rain and wind, a basic roof would be a gesture in customer appreciation which MLSE could afford for the price of a few Maple Leafs fourth liners and transform BMO Field from an "okay" place to watch a match into a great one.
It is not an insult to refer to Major League Soccer as a mid-range football league. It's what it is. MLSE of course would prefer to compare TFC to its other products, the Leafs and Raptors, who play in the global premier leagues of their sports. This thinking led MLSE to charge a premium rate for TFC tickets which average higher than many English Premier League clubs. The astounding early success of TFC of course affirmed their decision and gave them the bravado to increase ticket prices regularly and quickly.
Now that the "golden goose" has been somewhat slayed, the ticket prices no longer represent value for money. Casual fans and supporters in what were once cheaper seats are openly questioning the value of such investment in a floundering club while once die-hards in more expensive seats are simply not showing up to matches. Despite announcing near sell-outs for every match, BMO Field has rarely looked full in 2011 but a price roll-back by MLSE is still highly unlikely. It’s just not in MLSE’s DNA. This, with many of the above issues, may spell out a future that is darker before the dawn at the once liveliest sporting event in Toronto.


  1. I have become so apathetic that if the NASL presented a "new" Toronto team, then I would be seriously considering the possibility.

    The team could not be any worse than a ML$E sponsored team. I would not be charged exorbitant amounts of money for Season's seats and ridiculous concession prices.

    Hmmm, sounds like I will not be renewing. Oh boy, what a mess.

  2. Good article! I am an avid soccer fan. Pricing at BMO is just ridiculous, specially given the quality TFC displays on the field. More expensive than many La Liga matches I have attended!

  3. If everyone could refrain from spending $40 in beer, sausages and chip buttys for one match, and I do mean everyone, and explain as to HOW and WHY we're doing what we're doing, they'll listen.

    Not renewing season's tickets isn't going change anything because someone else is waiting to snap them up. But when you can control the lack of flow into the registers, then they're realize that supporters are actually organized and in control of their fiscal success. I'll pay for the ticket, but I'm not going to pony up $5.25 for an f'ing hot dog.

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