TORONTO - Toronto Argonauts owner David Braley has people kicking the tires of the franchise he hopes to sell, but his top priority is securing the team a lease at BMO Field.
The Argos and B.C. Lions — the CFL teams Braley owns — have been for sale since last September when the 73-year-old Hamilton businessman stated he'd sell one or both by his 75th birthday. Braley said Tuesday he has several potential suitors for the Lions but refuted a Toronto Star headline stating he had "multiple offers" for the Argos.
"I don't have multiple offers," Braley said in a telephone interview. "I've had multiple people approach me, that's the truth. It's now three but that's beside the point."
Braley wouldn't say if Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment — which owns the NHL's Maple Leafs, NBA's Raptors and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer and also operates BMO Field — was one of the parties interested in the Argos. But Braley was adamant his top priority is reaching a lease agreement with MLSE for BMO Field.
"That's the first step in the process," Braley said. "I would say that's not out of the question . . . I believe there's a very good chance we'll get this thing sorted out.
"Then the second step is are they (MLSE) interested in buying it? That's a separate issue."
Time is of the essence. The Argos' lease at Rogers Centre expires after the 2017 season.
MLSE has proposed a $120-million renovation of BMO Field, with the first phase expected to be completed in time for next summer's Pan-Am Games. The opening part of the project went ahead without $10-million funding commitments from both the provincial or federal governments, resulting in the third and final phase — which included the installation of a playing surface capable of accommodating a CFL franchise — being placed on the back burner.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon expects the Argos and MLSE to resume talks in the coming weeks. Should either the provincial or federal governments not commit financially to the BMO Field expansion, Cohon said the league will look at how it could raise the $10-$20 million needed to ensure the third phase went ahead.
"I think what's most important is we come up with the right lease agreement that works for MLSE as the operator of BMO Field but also works for the future of the Argos and can make them a profitable franchise," Cohon said. "Then the next phase after that would be the discussion around other incremental areas we can support BMO Field.
"The important thing is for our fans and partners to know there's a solution at hand and we're trying to work through that. If we can get them in there it makes the team a lot more attractive for a future purchaser. That's what we're focused on."
A move to BMO Field would seem the most practical and logical for the Argos. The facility is outdoors, permanent seating would be increased to 30,000 — and could expand to 40,000 for special events — with parking and transit nearby. It would provide a more fan-friendly and intimate atmosphere than the cavernous Rogers Centre, which can hold over 50,000 spectators for football.
More than 53,000 fans watched Toronto beat Calgary 35-22 there for the 100th Grey Cup in November 2012. But the momentum from that event has never translated into bigger home crowds for the Argos, who are averaging 17,562 spectators per game this year.
After finishing first in the East Division last year, Toronto (3-8) has struggled yet remains tied with Hamilton (3-7) and Montreal (3-8) atop the conference standings.
Braley, who bought the Argos in 2010, has been criticized this year for being an absentee owner and running the Argos on a tight budget. Players anonymously expressed their frustration having to practise at multiple venues this summer before moving into a permanent facility at Downsview Park late last month in a multi-year partnership with MLSE.
In the front office, Toronto is currently without a head of ticket sales, director of corporate sales and a marketing director.
Braley admits he's been bothered by the criticism he's faced.
"I guess a little bit but I have to take the blame, I'm the owner," he said. "But I have no intention of throwing the keys on the table.
"I'm making sure it's supported properly, there's been no shortage of funds. It's an embarrassment we were almost three-to-four weeks late getting into our new quarters, that caused aggravation among people and I apologize. But we spent a considerable amount of money putting absolutely new facilities in place for the team to practise."
Braley still intends to sell one — or both — of his teams come his 75th birthday. He says he has "several buyers" in place for the Lions franchise, which he bought in '97.
"Those discussions will proceed after the end of the season," he said. "We'll see how real they are for sale now, one year from now or down the road.
"That's just the normal process. I have multiple people, the question is to pick the best one for the team and for the league. That's the tough part."