SPORTS

MSLE boss Leiweke lends a hand as workers rush to finish BMO Field renovation

05/07/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 05/07/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Clad in hard hat and an orange reflective waistcoat, Tim Leiweke works his way down a glass wall to reach up and remove lines of masking tape.

He does so unasked.

The president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is pitching in to ensure that newly renovated BMO Field is ready for Toronto FC on Sunday. The new-look lakefront stadium is Leiweke's baby and he wears his pride on his dusty sleeve.

There is plenty to do ahead of the long-awaited home opener. Hundreds of workers are labouring around the clock. Mobile cranes are attached to the outside like a scene from "War of the Worlds" and paving crews toil in the heat.

Inside the pitch looks beautiful and the enlarged stadium seems ready.

But there is carefully controlled mayhem behind the scenes. Sparks fly as workers cut, trim and install all measure of things.

Leiweke, who clearly likes building things, says it's a year-long project that has been squeezed into six months.

"You always wish you had a few more days but we'll be ready," he said confidently. "The progress we made in the last few days is pretty astounding."

Spare a thought for the unlucky worker who has to sand every handrail in advance of Sunday.

Leiweke has traded his suit and well-appointed office adjacent to the Air Canada Centre for jeans and a roving role at the construction site. While he speaks highly of the job PCL Construction is doing, he is not averse to playing the heavy to get things done.

Come Sunday, when the Houston Dynamo (2-4-4) come to visit Toronto FC (3-4-0), Leiweke estimates 10 per cent of the building will still be a work in progress. But fans probably won't notice.

Leiweke's enthusiastic voice-over to a tour of the stadium is punctuated by a nagging cough, no doubt from the dust that is everywhere.

It's one of the final big projects on his beat. Leiweke is slated to leave his job by June 30, 2015. While he enjoyed the Raptors' run this season, the soccer team and its stadium are dear to his heart.

He believes he leaves both on a sound footing.

"This has been the thing that I've loved the most, about my time here, is this project," Leiweke said fondly. "And just changing the vision or what people think about TFC. Not just here, but in the league.

"I'm not sure they get what's about to happen here. I think this changes the dynamics of the league"

He believes the stadium and revenue it will generate will ensure that Toronto will always be able to afford the best designated players available.

Leiweke firmly believes that a superstar like Ronaldo who may contemplate coming to Major League Soccer will no longer restrict his destination to New York and/or Los Angeles. Toronto will be a real option.

The stadium renovation is a key part of that.

BMO Field was built on a wing and a prayer, not to mention a bare-bones $62.5-million budget, in time for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the arrival of the MLS team.

It was charming in a spartan sort of way. But no amount of lipstick could dress it up, or make it comfortable in a rainstorm.

"As nice and as cute and as quaint as it was, now we're real," said Leiweke.

Today it really does look like a proper stadium, as Phase 1 of a $120-million-plus renovation nears completion.

A new upper tier looms large on the East Stand, upping stadium capacity by 8,000-plus to 30,665. It should be sold out Sunday, with PCL purchasing 1,100 seats in the new tier and giving a pair to every worker who helped build it.

Leiweke proudly notes it will be the largest soccer-specific stadium in North America, bigger than the StubHub Centre in Carson, Calif. And it can be expanded to 40,000 for a Winter Classic or World Cup.

A $3-million (two-sided) scoreboard has replaced the existing one in the north stand. New elevators have been installed in the stands.

There are spacious new suites in the East stand and more premium options everywhere. The new Tunnel Club becomes BMO Field's equivalent to the Platinum Club at the Air Canada Centre.

There, a select 200 can eat and drink, watching the players walk past to enter the pitch. Membership will cost you $1,300 a year plus $2,500 to $3,700 for your pitchside seat.

Those are now plush racing seats that looks like the kind managers occupy at English Premier League games.

The made-in-Slovakia custom-designed seats have been a headache for MLSE. The manufacturer missed the deadline and there was a port strike issue in Montreal.

The first batch of 200 red seats had to be flown in. On Sunday, there will 1,000 around the field.

Is there a name for them, Leiweke is asked. "Expensive," he replied.

The existing second-floor Rogers Club in the West Stand has been expanded to accommodate some 700 people. For $550 or so, you can eat and drink in privacy.

For the first time, there are kitchens at the stadium. Previously food had to be brought in from the nearby Ricoh Coliseum.

The pizza will be fresh and the beer cold, promises Leiweke. Fans can congregate before the game at a new beer garden in the East Stand.

Supporters groups will largely be situated in the south stand this season. A new patio overlooking the stand will provide plenty of beer options, as well as a killer view of the neighbouring Hondy Indy Toronto.

Phase 2 of the renovations, which will start when the 2015 season ends, will see a roof installed over the east, west and south stands as well as a new sound and lighting system and a hybrid grass surface.

The current sound system consists of four speakers on each of the two light poles at the north end.

"Pretty antiquated," said Leiweke.

The new LED system of lights will be tucked into the roof, as will the speakers.

Leiweke will be a man in motion Sunday, marching to the stadium with fans, greeting spectators around the venue and perhaps even talking to the team.

"We'll be bouncing," he said. "I like bouncing.

"As long as I get to watch the game. That's all I ask. I told them once the game starts, I want to watch."

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