It's Time for a Permanent, Real Grass Baseball Field in Rogers Centre

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The era of the multipurpose stadium is over.  After watching the Jays play yet another season on the ragged-looking turf of the Rogers Centre, the thought of installing natural grass seems even more appealing.  The turf at RC is looking even more trampled, worn out and unsuitable for baseball this year than in years past, and RC is now only one of two MLB stadiums that still use plastic grass.

During the Blue Jays’ State of the Franchise meeting in early February this year, the Jays acknowledged that they were considering the possibility of putting a grass surface in Rogers Centre in order to appease their unhappy fans.  General Manager Alex Anthopolous conceded that some free agents were unwilling to sign in Toronto because of the prospect of playing on artificial turf, which is harder on a player’s knees and legs over an 81 home game season.

Installing grass in RC simply cannot be done so long as the stadium is being used for football and soccer.  Both sports require the stands to be shifted to accommodate a rectangular playing field.  The parts of the grass baseball field which would be covered by seats for football would be damaged or destroyed.

Rogers Centre has rarely been used for soccer, so doing away with those games is far less of an issue.  Four friendlies with international clubs have been hosted since 2010, with each game played on a temporary grass surface.  In March 2012, Toronto FC used Rogers Centre for their home opener, although Robbie Keane and David Beckham of the visiting L.A. Galaxy openly criticized the artificial turf field that the game was played on.  Although not optimal, occasional soccer games could be held on a baseball configured, grass field at RC, just as was done this year in Yankee Stadium for a Chelsea exhibition match.

The lease agreement with the Toronto Argonauts at RC expires after 2012, and I am dearly hoping that Rogers does not renew with the Argos.  It is ridiculous that Rogers keeps artificial turf in RC in part to accommodate the maximum 11 home games of a football team that nobody in Toronto cares about.  The Argos were dead last in CFL attendance last year, and they are second last this year with an average of just over 22,000 fans per game.  Rogers Centre is far too big for the Argos, and the football team needs to find a smaller, more intimate venue much like the Montreal Alouettes did when they moved to Molson Stadium in 1998.

Unfortunately, Rogers has extended the Buffalo Bills Toronto Series to 2017, meaning that one Bills football game is scheduled to be played at RC every year for the next five years.  The Bills’ Series will cost Rogers $78 million, and it’s unclear if Rogers makes any profit from these games.  If Rogers wants to make RC a baseball-only, natural grass facility, they are going to have to break or opt out of their contract with the Bills, neither of which seem very likely at the moment.

If an NFL franchise did permanently relocate to Toronto, Rogers Centre would have to be extensively renovated to increase its seating capacity, or a brand new stadium would have to be built.  As Toronto Mayor Rob Ford alluded to earlier this season, such a renovation plan would likely involve digging the floor of the Rogers Centre deeper into the ground to create more seating space.  Such a renovation would dramatically alter Rogers Centre and would make it inhospitable to baseball.  One only has to look at the Oakland Coliseum to view the negative effects of a football-only renovation to a multi-purpose facility.

Rogers cannot justify maintaining the status quo to accommodate the Bills or Argos, when five Buffalo games cost Rogers so much money, when there is no prospect of luring a permanent NFL team to Toronto in the near future, and when the Argos’ attendance is so poor that they cannot possibly be generating much profit for Rogers.  The Jays play a minimum of 81 games each year in Rogers Centre, and are the most frequent, most revenue-generating sports tenant, yet they somehow are forced to suffer with a playing field that is inadequate for their needs.  According to Forbes Magazine, the Blue Jays and Rogers Centre represent a $337 million investment; it’s time that Rogers started treating them as such.

Making the Blue Jays the sole sports tenants of RC and putting in a permanent grass baseball field makes perfect economic sense.  Any dip in revenue lost from the football games could be partially offset by the increased attendance which would result from having a more appealing baseball facility and attracting better free agents who would boost the team’s performance.  Increased team performance could translate into higher advertising and merchandise revenue as well.  And Rogers Centre could continue to hold select non-sporting events to bring in other revenue during the year.

Perhaps the artificial playing field wouldn’t be such a big deal if Rogers actually took any of the money made from the Bills Toronto Series and the other events at Rogers Centre and started increasing the Blue Jays’ payroll.  Toronto currently sits 23rd in the Majors with a $75 million payroll in 2012.  Rogers, and many Torontonians for that matter, seem to forget that the Blue Jays are the only “Big 4” sports franchise in Toronto to have won a championship in the past four decades.  Making the Blue Jays the sole sports tenants of RC and bringing in a grass baseball field is what Rogers must do to show that they are truly committed to making the Blue Jays a priority.

…and that’s the Last Word.

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