It seems like the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League have been adrift without a direction for decades. The oldest football team in the world, established in 1873, has had a tumultuous existence it seems, since moving to the SkyDome, now Rogers Centre, in 1989. The home of the Toronto Blue Jays was built with football as an afterthought and although times were great when they first moved in, under the celebrity ownership of Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, it didn't take long for reality to set in. The Rogers Centre was not going to be a good home for the CFL. The last decade and a half has been a revolving door of ownership swooping in to save the Argos. Most groups had eyes on a new, more appropriate, home.
A number of missteps along the way led to the latest sale of the Argos in what can only be viewed as the last breath for the Argos. A great ownership situation was found, however, in Bell Communications and Larry Tannenbaum, two-thirds of the ownership group for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Bell owns TSN, the network that holds the television rights for all CFL games. With the announcement of the Argos new ownership came the announcement that the good ship Argonaut was returning to Exhibition Place to play at BMO Field.
Owned by the City of Toronto and operated by MLSE, BMO Field is what the Argos have been looking for. BMO offers a smaller capacity, outdoor seating with some protection from the elements, and better sightlines. The focus by the new owners has been to market an Argos game as an event with tailgating opportunities that haven't existed before. The move to BMO has not been without controversy as fans of the MLS’ Toronto FC have been uneasy sharing their home, specifically with regards to the condition of the soccer pitch and how football might affect it. That being said, for the first time in a very long time, the Toronto Argonauts can confidently say that they are home.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food selection at BMO Field remains top notch.
The food options at BMO Field are vast and diverse. All of the old favorites are available combined with a number of unique options which will give the patron something to think about. Hot dogs ($5.50), popcorn ($6), fries, poutine, pretzels, and sausage are all available at the main concession stands. Pizza slices are provided by Pizza Pizza ($5.75) and panzarotti is also available. There are a ton of interesting options at some of the specialty stands. Taco FC, Street Eats, Real Sports, Panini Italian Cart, Footy's Footlongs, Frites and Smoke's Poutinerie are all unique stands that provide some pretty interesting choices. Popcorn chicken, loaded baked potato fries, the Shawarmanator and various foot-longs including the Buffalo Chicken Dog are all great selections to consider for something unique. The Buffalo Chicken Dog is especially great. The BMO Field website does a phenomenal job of mapping out where all the concession locations are and highlights the most unique and interesting.
As far as beverage options go, Coca-Cola products are the soft drink of choice ($5/$8). Bottles are also available at most concession stands. Beer options are fairly significant with Budweiser and Bud Light available at most stands on tap. Other options include Stella Artois, Corona, Mill Street Organic, Goose Island, Shock Top, Tankhouse Ale, West Coast IPA and 100th Meridian ($11/$15).
There is a tangible improvement in the atmosphere at BMO Field as opposed to the Rogers Centre.
BMO Field is not exactly an architectural wonder. It is a simple, steel structure that has been expanded upon a number of times. The exterior is nothing special, but it has been improved upon with the latest upgrade which included upper decks on the east and west grandstands along with canopies that cover the east, west and south stands. The south stands were replaced to make them mobile for the longer CFL field. The stands are not the most comfortable with the vast majority of seats being plastic bucket seats on steel benches. The field is in a north-south configuration with natural grass. In a unique move, to protect the field under the mobile south stands, the last 5 yards in the south end zone are made of artificial turf as opposed to grass.
As part of the agreement for the Argos to play at BMO, advertising and logos are banned from the playing surface. This is a refreshing change as other CFL fields feature advertising on the field. Most of the fascia around BMO has been draped in temporary Argo double blue banners to give the stadium more of an Argo feel to it. Unfortunately, there has not been adequate celebration of the 16 Grey Cup victories or the list of All-Time Argos or the retired numbers which all add to the long history of the team. Hopefully this is something that will be changed in the future. The elements can be an issue at this location. The winds can be significant coming off of Lake Ontario and may be a factor especially in the kicking game. The north end of the stadium has a decent video board and the east fascia and east field levels have ribbon boards.
The game production for the Argos is decent. There is always something going on. Before the game, the Argos marketing team offers a tailgate party in Exhibition Place called the Shipyard. Tailgating parking spots are also available at $30 apiece and are located both in the Ontario Place parking lot across Lakeshore Blvd, and in a section of the Exhibition Place parking lot. Patrons are permitted to bring their barbecues and tailgating paraphernalia, however Ontario's strict liquor laws prohibit fans from bringing their own alcoholic beverages. Beer is sold in the Shipyard and tailgate lots for only $4 per can, which is far better than the $11 inside BMO Field.
One of the highlights outside and inside the stadium is the performing of the Argonotes. This unofficial band of the Toronto Argonauts does not get the spotlight that they deserve and often are attempting to play over some piped in music over the PA system. The Argos should consider making the Argonotes an official part of the game and give them some spotlight time for the entire stadium to hear. The Argos Drumline has a presence at times and the Argonaut Cheerleaders are found throughout the stadium selling calendars and performing their dance routines. The Argos' mascot, Jason, does his thing as well and performs with the cheerleaders.
Located at Exhibition Place, BMO Field is just west of downtown Toronto proper. Although it is still a short trek or long walk downtown, the immediate neighbourhood offers a great deal for visitors.
To the north of Exhibition Place, on the other side of the Gardiner Expressway, you will find Liberty Village and King West Village. This area of Toronto offers a ton of funky little spots to grab something to eat or drink before or after the game. There are some recognizable chains if you wish to head as far north as King St W. However, there are a plethora of original spots that you would be remiss if you just strolled past without any consideration. Fans should consider Mildred's Temple Kitchen, The Craft, Williams Landing, School, Local Public Eatery or Brazen Head.
Toronto is a fantastic tourist city and there are a ton of things to do in the city. In the immediate area of Exhibition Place there are a couple of options. Medieval Times is right on the Exhibition Place grounds and is a popular place to take the kids for a Medieval meal and sport demonstration. There are a number of big events that take place at Exhibition Place throughout the year, including the Honda Indy Toronto, Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and Canadian National Exhibition. The former location of Ontario Place is on the water immediately south and although it is not running at the moment, the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre still runs in the summer months and offers a number of outdoor concerts and shows. To the southwest of Exhibition Place, you will also find Toronto's beaches and Marilyn Bell Park as well as the current location for the Argonaut Rowing Club. Following Lakeshore Blvd. to the east you will find major tourist attractions like the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium. Shopping is also plentiful to the north, there is lots to see at Harbourfront, and Toronto's Theatre District is second only to New York.
If you are looking for other sporting options, BMO Field is shared with Toronto FC of the MLS and just across the parking lot is the Ricoh Coliseum, home of the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. To the east is the former home of the Argonauts, Rogers Centre, which is home to the Toronto Blue Jays. A little further east and you will hit the Air Canada Centre which hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto Rock. Collegiate sports can be found to the north at the University of Toronto where the Varsity Blues feature basketball, hockey and football among a whole host of other sports. You can also find Ryerson University, where the Rams play basketball and hockey in the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
There are not a ton of places to stay in the immediate area of Exhibition Place. Hotel X is currently under construction and will open soon on the Exhibition Place grounds. The Gladstone and The Drake Hotel are north of the Gardiner Expressway and close, but a bit on the pricey side.
Toronto Argonaut fans remain an enigma.
The move to BMO Field was designed to attract more fans. The beginning of the 2016 season has shown an increase in fan support with an average of over 24,000 fans for the first two games. However, the third home game of the season, the game that was reviewed, had just over 12,000 fans in attendance. There are some extenuating circumstances for this low number. The date for this game was a Wednesday evening, not a traditional CFL evening. Also, Exhibition Place was a mess with preparations for the Honda Indy Toronto and Duran Duran was playing across the street at the Molson Amphitheatre. That being said, Argonaut fans are going to have to come out with more consistency to make this move successful.
The move to BMO has been a positive for those fans in attendance. The opportunity to be louder is taken advantage of and the fans do more to add to the atmosphere than they were able to do at Rogers Centre. The steel structure gives fans the opportunity to be a part of the game, creating thunder especially on defense. The signature Argonauts call of "Arrrggoooooos" can be heard throughout the key moments of the game. It is fair to say that the fans in attendance are more hardcore fans at the moment. The Fan Zone behind the south end zone is the Argos attempt to create a supporters' section, and thus far it has been successful.
Getting in and around Toronto can be challenging.
Exhibition Place is located west of Downtown Toronto proper, nestled neatly between Lakeshore Blvd and the Gardiner Expressway. Travel from the east or west is often better using Lakeshore as the Gardiner is often very busy and not a quick travel route. Coming from the north is not a great option directly and taking highway 427 in the west or the Don Valley Parkway in the east are better.
That being said, there are a number of public transit options that are available to get you to Exhibition Place. There is a GO Transit station at the north end of Exhibition Place and the Toronto Transit Commission has streetcars, buses and the subway nearby. Check out the GO Transit and TTC websites for maps, schedules and fares.
There are around 5,000 parking spots on the Exhibition Place grounds. Parking for Argonaut games goes for $25. There are also spots across the road at the former Ontario Place. It must be noted that Exhibition Place can be a busy place and it is imperative to check the BMO Field website to see if there are any other events on the grounds that will affect the parking availability.
Gate entries are at the four corners of the stadium. The ticket windows for BMO Field are at the northeast corner of the stadium, outside at Gate 1. There is plenty of space in this area and getting tickets is not usually an issue there.
Getting around BMO Field is not too bad, however the gates only open an hour before kickoff. The washroom facilities at BMO are more than adequate.
The move to BMO Field for the Toronto Argonauts has significantly improved the return that the fan receives. The top ticket for an Argonauts game is $250 and is essentially on the field. The 55 yard line seats are between $85 and $100. The rest of the seats in the stadium run from $20 to $50. There are plenty of opportunities to find affordable tickets for an Argonaut game. The sightlines at BMO are all good and it is less of a concern to find a great seat as it was in Rogers Centre. Parking and concessions can get a bit on the pricey side, but the improved atmosphere at BMO Field help make up for those issues.
Items deserving an extra mark include:
The 143 years of history that the Toronto Argonauts have accumulated.
The huge positive for the Argos in moving to BMO.
And finally, the Argos fantastic rivalry with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The move for the Toronto Argonauts to BMO Field is not yet the answer to all of the franchise's problems, however it is definitely a step in the right direction. Now it is possible for the Argos to have a place they can call home and the fans can really be part of the action and make a difference. Only time will tell if this move is the franchise-saving move that many hope it will be, but for now it is great that the Good Ship Argonaut is finally docking at home.
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