THE LEAFS VS. THE TAXPAYERS
For the last 50 years, the most remarkable screwed-up reporting in Toronto has come over the various proposals, dreams, schemes, construction schedules, demolitions and renovations for our stadiums.
You don't have to look hard to find the reasons.
First, the media. They have the attention span of a gnat and are baffled about history that is more than a year old. The papers, which should know better, don't seem to understand what incredible wastage of taxpayers' bucks happens right under their snotty noses. They are lousy watchdogs!
Second, the politicians. Stadium proposals have involved councillors, MPPs, and MPs, and any stumblebum antics by Metro council and now city council is matched by Queen's Park, which gets more publicity over the loans/grants than the feds, but still manages to do the wrong thing at the wrong price.
Third, the Leafs, Jays and Argos, with the fatcats from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment leading the way down the garden path. Let's not forget all the Olympic and soccer bureaucrats who really don't give a damn what facilities cost as long as they get all their perqs when they come to visit to the fawning attention of the local journalists.
Stir this triumvirate of ineptitude into a stew and you get a mess of pottage that has cost Toronto taxpayers hundreds of millions.
I was reading a Star column on the latest stadium proposal by Royson James. I generally don't agree with his opinions but didn't expect a veteran observer to give such a sloppy history that there's no reason to believe he can be instructive about the latest proposal.
He thinks taxpayers should stampede towards acceptance of this deal like cattle to the slaughter - no, sorry, scratch that - he thinks it should be a triumphant parade towards a great deal.
Let me give some Toronto pages from the history of the butchering of the innocents throughout the world. It seems taxpayers have been robbed by sports teams since caveman days.
James explains that the city owns BMO Field which is to get a $120 million refit with more seats and three roofs, which is kind of strange for a stadium that just opened in 2007.
He says the first stadium at the Ex was called CNE Stadium and used for shows during the Ex. The fair, he says, would so tear up the field it was "near unplayable" for the Argos.
Actually it was used for concerts and events from spring to fall and the Ex, while being hard on the playing surface, built a giant moveable stage to minimize its damage during the fair. The field wasn't that bad. I can testify to that since I covered several Grey Cups there from the sidelines, once from the Tiger Cat bench. Besides, the CNE's Dave Garrick rushed off to buy artificial turf right after it was invented.
James wrote:"Taxpayers paid huge amounts to renovate and expand it to accommodate the Blue Jays." Actually, that's BS. The giant stadium, which could hold 54,145 spectators, which is more than double what BMO Field will be able to do even after expansion, was tweaked for $17.8 million.
This was such a bargain that the clever inexpensive adjustment to get major-leave baseball was famous throughout North America. In addition, Paul Godfrey, then the Metro chairman, and his main officials, John Kruger and Ray Biggart, arranged to get all revenue from parking - they bamboozled the Jays into thinking that was normal, when it wasn't - and also had every ticket holder pay 50 cents, later increased, towards the stadium maintenance.
James says that the Jays moved to SkyDome, leaving behind the stadium in 2006 with such few events that it was "again rebuilt" to accommodate Toronto FC. Again he betrays his ignorance.
It would have been easy to revamp CNE Stadium - after all the renovation tax kitty had more than $5 million - but all the eager sportscrats wanted it gone so that it wouldn't interfere with any proposals they floated for an Olympic Stadium that could later be used by the NFL.
I know something about this. I have been to a few games and events at BMO Field, but went to hundreds of events and games at Exhibition Stadium as a reporter, baseball season-ticket holder, columnist and entertainment editor. I also have been president of the CNE directors who run the fair and vice-chairman of the Exhibition Place (EP) governors who are the landlords.
I got motions passed at both boards saying that the CNE Stadium should not be demolished. After all, it was a reasonable facility that wasn't decrepit, and a third of the seats were under a vast roof. These were ignored because the idea of some glamorous creation costing hundreds of millions was more seductiver to the badgers of local and international sports who don't care about taxes.
So it was demolished in 1999, and it took all the money collected to repair it to blow it up because it was built so well.
Let's not forget SkyDome in this grisly tale. Now Ted Rogers may have renamed it the Rogers Centre and bought it for a song, but it cost you and me at least $300 million out of its $628 million cost when it opened in 1989. Since most commentators seem to have failed high school math and have no desire to prove it by doing accounting, this wastage is ignored.
I have gone several rounds with my former boss, Paul Godfrey, one of the leaders who stuck us with it, in arguing costs vs. benefits. I have no doubt that you and I as taxpayers lost a third of a billion dollars on it.
Now back to BMO Field which James seems to think is a renovated CNE Stadium which most people know was blown up. The field is built north of where CNE Stadium was eight years before and unfortunately is an obstruction interfering with use of the grounds. Its field runs north-south while the CNE field was roughly north-east by south-west.
James informs us that "Toronto taxpayers' paid $9.8 million for the latest fixup...." Except it was a new stadium a long pass and punt away from the old. He says the city donated land worth $10 million, MLSE gave $18 million, with $27 million from the feds and $8 million from the province.
He describes the rest of the deal, but somehow doesn't mention the scandal was that MLSE, the outfit that can make fortunes but not win hockey games, actually made money on the deal because it sold naming rights to the stadium for more than $20 million.
So MLSE virtually owns a stadium on city land where it invested not a cent while taking every government in sight for millions. It controls the stadium every hour of every day.
The CNE went out of its way during the approval process for BMO Field to demand that it have full use of the stadium during the fair period, unless there's a soccer game, which is the standard deal for all EP buildings during the fair. For example, the Ex has events in Ricoh Coliseum.
The Coliseum is another example of how politicians and officials representing the city and EP have their minds transformed to mush when sports entrepreneurs come calling.
The first Coliseum proposal to EP was for the rink renovation to cost $28 million. That was made to the governors, when I was a member. Then a different deal for around $38 million was presented to Toronto council and guaranteed loans became grants in a semantic muddle. It opened in 2003 with the initiating group tied to the Edmonton Oilers quickly going bankrupt. Then surprise, surprise, MLSE swooped in to take it off the hands of OMERS for its Marlies farm club.
The CNE feels betrayed by the last deal over BMO Field because it really can't use the facility as promised. I asked a MLSE officials about this at a recent presentation to the CNE directors. Would this problem continue? I concluded afterwards that our difficulties in using a stadium built on public land would increase, and EP would be no help to us.
As a director of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, I bumped into Mark Grimes, the councillor who heads the EP board, at a sports induction dinner just before the council vote on BMO Field. I told him there were a number of basic errors in the background report he had sent me. He listened, said he would raise them, but didn't as he moved approval at council.
By the way, if you wondered about the reference to the Sports Hall of Fame, it moved to Calgary after its building here was demolished to make way for BMO Field.
So I listen to the blandishments of city and MLSE officials and politicians - and the MLSE guys must be politicians too because they sure don't win much at sport - and think we should question every figure and demand a guarantee for every fact.
Why shouldn't I? Millionaires want to seduce us into improving their playpens and for us to borrow money for them when they can pay it out of petty cash. To hell with it. Renovate your own damn facilities out of all the extra money you charge for what is laughingly called food and drink.
Stop pretending that all this is in the name of sport. What a laugh! If you're sportsmen and not really corporate scammers, then Al Capone was a sportsman too. Apparently he wouldn't have needed a tommy gun in Toronto, just a hockey stick or a soccer ball.