NEWS
04/07/2016 17:25 EDT | Updated 04/08/2017 01:12 EDT

Van Zeyl confident BMO Field will provide more pleasant fan experience

TORONTO — Even in football, Chris Van Zeyl says bigger isn't necessarily better.

For eight seasons, the Toronto Argonauts veteran tackle called the cavernous Rogers Centre home. In June, the six-foot-six, 275-pound Van Zeyl and the Argos will relocate to a refurbished and more intimate BMO Field.

"I think it's a place (where) the CFL can flourish," Van Zeyl said. "I don't believe the Rogers Centre was intended to be the permanent resting place of the Toronto Argonauts . . . I think the atmosphere kind of spoke to that.

"For the CFL game where you'd expect to see anywhere between 15,000 to 30,000 people at any given time, being in a place that holds 50,000-plus, it's one of those places you never fill up and always feels like there's something to be desired there."

The Argos played 27 seasons at Rogers Centre, which had a capacity exceeding 52,000 for football. Trouble was, Toronto struggled to attract spectators to the domed facility — last year's attendance dropped to 12,431 after averaging 17,791 in 2014. The major complaints among fans was the proximity of the field as well a cold and antiseptic atmosphere.

A non-fan-friendly schedule — which forced the Argos to stage four "home" games at alternate venues — exacerbated by the success of the Toronto Blue Jays, didn't help either.

The football capacity at BMO Field — owned by the City of Toronto and operated by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, the owners of Toronto FC — will be roughly 27,000. Van Zeyl, 32, feels the cozier facility will result in a better fan experience.

Seating at BMO Field will be increased to 38,000 for the Grey Cup game in November.

"Rogers Centre always felt like home . . . I don't think that was lost on the players," Van Zeyl said. "I felt it was more so the fans.

"Many felt — and this is coming from both my family and other people I've talked to who went there — it was too big. You always felt too far away from the action, there wasn't as much energy, stuff like that. That's where I think there'll be a huge improvement (at BMO Field): It will be for the fans."

"The sightlines in that building are amazing," added Sara Moore, the Argos' senior vice-president of business operations. "I think the first thing our fans are going to notice is just how close to the action they're going to feel.

"Being back at Exhibition Place allows us to be able to do things like tailgate and bring larger groups together and congregate before a game. What you're going to see is we're really going to take advantage of all of those amenities that you're going to be able to find in and around the stadium."

The $150-million renovation, which encompassed two phases, is scheduled to be complete in time for Toronto FC's home opener May 7 versus FC Dallas. The Major League Soccer franchise has opened the 2016 campaign playing its first eight games on the road.

The Argos' first game there is June 11, an exhibition contest versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Former Toronto receiver Chad Owens expected to make his Ticats' debut when the two arch rivals kick off the '16 regular season at BMO Field on June 23.

The Argos will have a lavish 10,000 square-foot dressing room under the east stand. The Argos' new owners contributed half of the $20 million needed to configure BMO Field to CFL dimensions and is paying for the dressing room separately.

Argos players will have plug-ins at their stalls for their electronic devices. White boards will be located at opposite ends of the dressing room for coaches to use prior to games and at half-time.

The visitors' locker-room in the west stand measures 6,000 square feet and will encompass the existing MLS visitors' locker-room.

Both team benches will be located on the same side of the field during games.

BMO Field's playing surface will be natural grass but the 20-yard endzones will consist of artificial turf. Soccer fans won't notice as the endzones will be covered up during Toronto FC games by six rows of temporary seats at each end.

Many soccer fans have publicly expressed concern the Argos' presence at BMO Field will damage the playing surface. But Bob Hunter, MLSE's chief project development officer, said the stadium has a backup field ready should any part of the existing one need replacing. It could be installed within 36 hours and played on 24 hours later.

There's also a third option, a hybrid field, with natural grass growing around artificial roots to strengthen the turf.

More than 130,000 bolts will have been used in the renovation and the former lighting system that was mounted on four poles will be replaced by a new one consisting of 500-plus lights spread around the roof.

The roof will help cover fans but won't provide total protection. There will be a gap between the canopy and seats which could be covered by a windscreen but won't be closed entirely due to structural issues.

For many football purists, the move to BMO Field signifies a return to the Argos' heyday when they played outdoors at Exhibition Stadium. The franchise spent 30 seasons on the CNE grounds before relocating to Rogers Centre in '89.

"Maybe I'm old school but I think that's how football is meant to be watched," Moore said. "On a beautiful day there's no better place to be than outdoors watching a football game.

"When the weather isn't good, that's where the canopy comes into play. The canopy isn't going to protect you from all of the rain and all the wind but I think it's going to keep enough off that the experience is still going to be great. You're still going to be able to focus on the game and not keeping dry or warm."

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With files from Neil Davidson.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press