Digging the new-look digs

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

They are cagey, your Toronto Argos.

Even on the heels of a championship season, the Argos went into last night's season-opener against the B.C. Lions with some troubling optics.

You may remember Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon campaigning for a new stadium from the day they bought the club nearly two years ago.

The Montreal Alouettes' wildly successful tenure at tiny Molson Stadium had created a template the Argos wanted to emulate: Build small, advertise intimacy and create a demand that always outstrips supply.

The SkyDome, opened in June of 1989, was showing its age. With nearly 55,000 seats for football, it had an immensely well-earned reputation as a drab, colourless place to watch a game.

On too many nights, 40,000 empty seats gave the 15,000 who showed up at the stadium graphic evidence of a misspent entertainment window.

They did go through the trouble of installing their own field for home games rather than work on the threadbare quilt rolled across the arena floor. But the atmosphere of the stadium could be salvaged only by an open roof, and then just barely.

Sokolowski and Cynamon were up-front about the SkyDome's shortcomings. They envisioned a stadium at York, ditched that plan for one at the U of T, bounced back to York and then did another end-around and headed back to the dome when the Jays, the venue's new owners, offered a sweet rent deal.

The whole thing looked like a Bashir Levingston return.

The question last night was how do you maintain fan goodwill when you've trashed the building you're now going to call home until they knock the damnable thing down in another 20 years?

Instead of ruminating on the stadium mess as they took their seats, Argos fans were more than content to revel in the dry-ice introductions, cheer wildly as the championship banner was raised and wonder why Jason, the team's new mascot, looks like he had been Botoxed.

All that didn't leave much time for thinking about what a dump the SkyDome had become. Then the lights were turned back on, the roof opened and ... Shazam!

It's not the same old SkyDome. Actually, the renamed Rogers Centre is pretty nice.

At a cost of some $10 million, the Argonauts have papered over much of their problems. Make it canvas.

The south side of the upper deck has been given over to 11 portraits saluting Rodney Harding, Paul Masotti, Doug Flutie, Dick Shatto, Pinball Clemons, Bill Symons, Condredge Holloway, Darrell K. Smith and Don Moen. Ten more canvasses bearing the club's "A" wiped out more distant seating in the upper deck.

The lower-deck seating on the north-end of the stadium has been tarped over, as well. Same deal with the first nine rows in eight sections behind the player benches.

It was a shrewd move for a team with 132 years of history. The stadium is at once less impersonal, more of a home and more intimate. The greats hover over the scene like U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore.

"It's pretty incredible. It's awe-inspiring," Argos head coach Pinball Clemons said afterwards. "I think everyone was overwhelmed when they came in and saw the presentation."

The new scoreboard, installed by the Jays, is an immense improvement. Last night, replays were delivered the instant the play ended and player information was flashed as soon as an Argonaut achieved anything noticeable.

A club employee spent the day lugging a huge flag about the place. Another videoboard, this one lining the third deck, delivered messages throughout.

After surrounding the stadium issue so thoroughly, the Argos have got it right.

There is no comparison between the static, dead SkyDome and the funhouse at the Rogers Centre that accommodated 30,712 last night, the largest crowd for a home opener since 1992.

"What we tried to do is give a sense of Argos tradition and Argos history, combined with the fact that we're trying to make more of an intimate venue," Sokoloski said.

It took some sleight of hand and the elimination of about 10,000 seats, but they got what they were looking for without ever leaving home.


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