BUSINESS

Bell, MLSE chairman Tanenbaum announce purchase of CFL's Argonauts

05/20/2015 01:40 EDT | Updated 05/20/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Sixty-five years after watching his first Toronto Argonauts game, Larry Tanenbaum is taking the storied franchise back home.

Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, was introduced Wednesday along with Bell as the new owners of the CFL club. And they'll relocate the 142-year-old franchise to BMO Field, pending renovations to accommodate football, starting next season.

A return to the lakefront soccer stadium is significant because it's located at Exhibition Place, the same grounds where the Argos thrived in the 1960s and '70s before relocating to Rogers Centre in 1989.

But Tanenbaum's association with the Argos goes back even further to the 1950s when they played at Varsity Stadium. It's at that time the chairman of Kilmer Van Nostrand Co. Limited, a Toronto-based investment company, dreamed of one day owning the CFL franchise.

"It's every kid's imagination, you're either playing or owning the team," Tanenbaum said during the news conference at BMO Field. "I couldn't play so I'm glad to be able to own the team.

"It's especially rewarding as we look back at the history of this team to be here today at BMO Field. We look forward to bringing back the Argos to the Exhibition Place grounds . . . where we hope to celebrate many Grey Cup championships right here in front of our fans."

The deal also reportedly calls for two Grey Cups to be held in Toronto, including the 2016 game. But CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge politely declined comment.

Twelve Grey Cup games were held at Exhibition Stadium, the last being in November 1982 when 54,741 spectators watched the Edmonton Eskimos beat Toronto 32-16 in a game affectionately dubbed "The Rain Bowl."

The transaction is expected to close Dec. 31 with Bell and Tanenbaum working closely with present owner David Braley this season. The Argos will play at Rogers Centre this season.

The Argos' lease at Rogers Centre, also the home of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, was scheduled to expire after the 2017 campaign. But they had the option to leave earlier if they found a new home.

"When I purchased the Argos (in 2010), I thought it would be a two- or three-year journey and I'd have the problem solved," Braley said. "Under Bell and Larry Tanenbaum's ownership, the Argos have a very bright future.

"They're the best choice to move the Argos forward."

Braley, a Hamilton businessman, fondly remembers watching his home-town Tiger-Cats facing their arch rivals at Exhibition Place. Wednesday's announcement capped roughly a year of talks between Braley, who also owns the B.C. Lions, and MLSE.

"My mother used to bring me over from Hamilton and we'd watch the games around the 10-yard line," he said. "To be playing at the same location is something special.

"Sometimes you have to be patient while people have different points of view and sort out the problems and get the job done. In the long run, people usually do the thing that's right and this is the thing that's right."

Wednesday's sale also drew a thumbs up from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, a former minority owner of the Argos with late actor John Candy and former L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall.

"The reality is you need the franchise in Toronto to be stabilized," said Gretzky, in town for a child safety charity fundraiser. "Hopefully the sale will help stabilize this franchise and help the entire league.

"I think it's great for the CFL."

The sale and relocation of the Argos would appear to resolve the CFL's issues in southern Ontario. Last year, the Ticats moved into their new facility, Tim Hortons Field.

Absent from the deal is Rogers Communications, which is part of the MLSE ownership group with Bell and Tanenbaum. Rogers, which owns Rogers Centre and the Jays, was reportedly not interested in acquiring the 142-year-old franchise, likely because it has no ties to the CFL while Bell has a vested interest through its broadcast affiliate TSN.

But drastically dampening Wednesday's announcement was the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring Mike Babcock as coach, a move that drew the ire of Argos defensive end Ricky Foley.

"D--- move announcing Babcock news the day #Argos r finally sold," the outspoken Foley tweeted. "Guess some people still jealous we the only who wins in this city. @CFL"

Fans have long complained about the lack of atmosphere at Rogers Centre, where Toronto averaged under 20,000 spectators last year in a stadium that can hold over 50,000 fans for football. Also, the Argos have found it difficult to secure decent home dates because of stiff competition from baseball and special events.

In a glaring example of that, the Argos were forced to schedule their '15 home opener against Edmonton in Fort McMurray, Alta., due to conflicts with the 2015 Pan Am Games and Jays.

Such logistical nightmares for North America's oldest existing sports team are unlikely at BMO Field. While Major League Soccer's Toronto FC will remain the stadium's primary tenant, it requires far fewer home dates than the Jays.

Some soccer fans oppose the conversion of BMO Field for the Argos, contending CFL play will impact the quality of the playing surface. But Tanenbaum said those concerns are unwarranted.

"I don't believe they should have anything to be worried about," he said.