Come on You Reds: The Birth of Toronto FC and BMO Field

Toronto FC

Editorial — The birth of Toronto FC and BMO Field was an important moment in Canadian soccer history. Toronto FC was the first top-tier team to come from Canada since 1992. Furthermore, BMO Field was the first FIFA-sized soccer-specific stadium to be built in Canada.

This article is based on the book, Come on You Reds: The Story of Toronto FC by Joshua Kloke.

There were lots of doubts that an MLS franchise in Toronto would work. The previous team, the Toronto Lynx, played in the second-tier USL division with the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps.

The highest attendance the Lynx had was 2,795 fans in 2001. They had trouble filling in seats and it marked the dark age of soccer in Toronto. According to the Canadian Press, 2006 was the year the Lynx decided to go down to the fourth-tier US league. The Lynx folded in 2017 and no longer exist.

The Birth of Toronto FC

Toronto FC was a team born from both Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and the supporters’ groups in Toronto. MLSE, the eventual owners of Toronto FC, had the money but did not have the soccer knowledge. Before the birth of Toronto FC, MLSE was owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. MLSE, at this time, owned the Maple Leafs and the Raptors.

They also own the minor league affiliate of the Maple Leafs. The St. John’s Maple Leafs relocated to Toronto in 2005. This AHL-minor league affiliate would be called the Marlies. They currently play at Ricoh Coliseum, which is just a small walking distance from BMO Field, at Exhibition Place.

In 2005, the main form of communication between Toronto FC was not social media; it was internet message boards. Paul Beirne, considered by many as the founding father of Toronto FC, discovered these message boards of Toronto FC fans. MLSE may have the money, but Beirne and some people in MLSE didn’t know much about the soccer culture at that time.

The connection between Paul Beirne and the Canadian soccer die-hards

Therefore on Oct. 29, 2005, he registered as “mlsintoronto” on the Voyageurs soccer message board. The Voyageurs are a supporters’ group for the Canadian men’s and women’s national teams. Then on Jan. 28, 2006, he created a thread called “Market Research,” and lead off with this post.

“Full Disclosure: I’m employed by Maple Leaf Sports and I’m part of a team working on the MLS ramp up. Judging by the lurking I’ve been doing in this board lately it appears that soccer in Toronto has a huge potential, but a long way to go. I’m interested in your opinions — please dump them all here. Please resist the urge to slag us over basketball or hockey issues (but go ahead and shower us with accolades if you must). For what it’s worth, for a name, I’m in favor of simple modest soccer. Nothing flashy: Toronto Football Club.”

This was the first mention of Toronto FC being a team name. More importantly, it was officially the first time both MLSE and the Voyageurs had contact with each other. Beirne would then begin to meet these soccer fans in Toronto. This was done at the Duke of York pub in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood.

It was also the start of something special created at BMO Field. However, all that credibility could have been lost if the Toronto MLS team was given a controversial name.

Toronto’s MLS team was almost Inter Toronto

There were several names that MLSE considered including the Toronto Reds and The Northmen. However, even though Beirne mentioned Toronto FC, there was another name catching steam. This name was Inter Toronto. MLSE was convinced Inter Toronto was the name to go with.

“The idea was that you can have a supporting interest here on Saturday afternoon and you’re wearing red,” Beirne said in Kloke’s book. “But you can be at the pub in the morning supporting your club and be wearing blue.”

The name came from Italian side Inter Milan, who won five-straight Serie A titles from 2005-10. They were also one of the most well-renowned clubs at the time.

However, when the name was leaked, there was a lot of negative feedback from soccer supporters to Beirne. There were three reasons. One was the color blue still rubbing people the wrong way. However, the other two were much more important. This included not have an organic true name unique to the city of Toronto.

“Oh, it’s just like Real Salt Lake,” Beirne remembers being told. “It’s a fake name.”

MLSE also did not want to offend other fans who were not Italian and Italians who did not want to be associated with the club. This led to the decision that Toronto FC would be the name of the club.

“[The name] Toronto FC didn’t offend anybody,” said Beirne, relying on a classically, inoffensively Canadian approach to Kloke. “It better executed what we wanted to achieve.”

However, a team name was not good enough for Toronto FC to get a team. The build-up needed a stadium, something then-mayor David Miller played a big part.

The Birth of BMO Field

University of Toronto and York University

Toronto FC needed a place to play. At the early stage, many people thought Toronto FC could play at Varsity Stadium. It’s a downtown stadium, that still exists today, where many University of Toronto sports teams play.

However, Miller and other people knew this plan was going to fail. One was the capacity issue in the subway stations. The other problem was that the University of Toronto is a federation.

“And unless you did your homework, you faced the risk that not all colleges would agree properly,” Miller said to Kloke.

The University of Toronto voted down the proposal due to concerns of cost and disturbance to students. They then tried to do the same with the Keele Campus of York University. However, York University ended up not going through with the plan.

BMO Field

Miller knew the only place suited for Toronto FC was Exhibition Place. The area used to have a sports stadium called Exhibition Stadium. It was originally just the home of the Toronto Argonauts until 1977.

This was when the Toronto Blue Jays were born and also started playing in Exhibition Stadium. The stadium was permanently closed in 1989 as the Blue Jays and the Argonauts moved to the SkyDome — now known as the Rogers Centre — in 1989. Exhibition Stadium was demolished in 1999.

Miller knew that Exhibition Place could be used as a home for Toronto FC.

“One of the benefits to public investment in a stadium of this kind is a spinoff of local communities in terms of customers to local bars and restaurants,” he said to Kloke. “The logical place for this to happen was Liberty Village. And on the other side of the tracks, the King and Dufferin area was undergoing a job revitalization at the time.”

At the time there were no professional sports teams at Liberty Village and Exhibition Place had only one with the Toronto Marlies. So, this was a good move on Miller’s part.

The Birth of BMO Field

“I need you to publicly say that Exhibition Place is the right place for us,” Miller told MLSE CEO and President Richard Peddie.

It might have been considered playing hardball, but the Canadian Soccer Association at the time was desperate to get the stadium built. This was because Canada was set to host U-20 World Cup in 2007. However, there was no flagship stadium in Canada’s biggest city. This would have resulted in Canada losing the rights to host the U-20 World Cup. The stadium issue was already “on the edge” before Miller’s plea to Peddie.

BMO Field was Born

Then in October 2005, it became official. The Toronto city council voted 25 to 13 in favor of the new Exhibition Place sports stadium that would later be known as BMO Field.

“We look forward to working with the three levels of government as we prepare for construction of the stadium in early 2006 and while we finalize our franchise agreement with MLS,” Peddie said, when the announcement was made.

All three governments and MLSE all contributed to the building of BMO Field. Through Infrastructure Canada, the Canadian government paid $27 million, the Ontario provincial government $8 million and the city of Toronto $9.8 million. Furthermore, the city of Toronto would retain ownership of the stadium.

Furthermore, an agreement was reached between the city, Exhibition Place, Canadian Soccer Association and MLSE. This agreement required MLSE to manage the stadium and spend $18 million. They would also provide a $2 million guarantee against operational losses. This agreement allowed the city of Toronto to take in half the profits but accept none of the losses.

There was just one thing left to do. This was to approve an MLS franchise into Toronto. The main person responsible for making this happen was Peddie.

The Approval of Toronto FC

Peddie was determined that Toronto gets the first MLS franchise in Canada. His determination impressed MLS commissioner Don Garber and his MLS staff.

“It was a little bit of manna dropping from heaven,” Garber said to Kloke.

However, the true test came from CSA. Peddie, in his pitch to the CSA, said that the team would grow soccer in Canada and make the men’s team more competitive. Now with a team, a brand and a stadium name announced, the only thing left — besides players or coaching staff — was a marketing slogan.

All for One

All for One, the slogan for Toronto FC meant that no one would be left behind. Duane Rollins, a well-established soccer journalist in Canada, knew it was a marketing slogan. However, he also knew “it meant something.”

“They were able to strip down the resistance,” Rollins said.

The significance of All for One was that everyone works together. This is what MLSE, the supporters’ groups, the three levels of government and CSA all did together to bring the atmosphere that is now present in BMO Field. They showed MLS how to properly support a team with an enthusiastic supporters’ group.

The slogan All For One has been turned into a television series following Toronto FC players. Throughout the season, the series follows Toronto FC players, their lives, families and ambitions.

Analysis of Toronto FC, BMO Field and their Birth

The birth of Toronto FC took many years. MLSE wanted the team to be financially viable. However, unlike other large and big corporations, MLSE involved the soccer supporters in the birth of the team. They should be given credit for their vision for the team as they involved the supporters’ groups into the game.

This played alongside former Toronto mayor Miller, who played a major role in the building of BMO Field. Without him there would be no BMO Field. Perhaps, that might have meant no Toronto FC.

Finally, credit for this article should be given to Kloke. Kloke is a Toronto-based writer for Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, The Hockey News and Sportsnet. His book Come on You Reds: the story of Toronto FC is a must-read for any Toronto soccer or sports fan. This article looks at a vital, but small part of his book.

In 2007, Toronto FC drew an average of 20,130 people, according to world football. This was third in MLS attendance. It also officially ended the dark age of Toronto soccer, which started with the death of the first-tier Canadian Soccer League in 1992.

 

 

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