Kicking and dreaming

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:01 AM ET

Bruno Hartrell, undoubtedly the least known of all professional sport franchise owners in Toronto, has some news for the bigwigs who run Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

Your plan to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Toronto, he said, is doomed to fail. It will lose money from the start and won't last.

And furthermore, the normally mild-mannered accountant added, MLSEL is being naive and arrogant in believing that they can make high-salaried professional soccer in Toronto work where countless others have failed. (Remember the NASL)?

"If they think there's money in soccer (in Toronto), they've misjudged the market terribly," he said.

Hartrell, owner of the Toronto Lynx of the United Soccer League, which is considered one tier below the MLS, conveys that message out of anger, some spite, but most of all, out of having tried to sell and promote pro soccer in these parts for nine years, at a personal cost of close to $3 million.

"I don't know what they know about selling a soccer ticket," Hartrell said recently about his friends at MLSEL. "They haven't had to worry about selling a hockey ticket for 50 years. I could run the Maple Leafs. But they'll find out."

Obviously, Hartrell is against MLSEL's plan to acquire an MLS franchise, mainly because he feels it will kill his outfit -- the Toronto Lynx -- and everything it stands for, which is, he said, about promoting and nurturing Canadian soccer at all levels. On top of its First Division team in the USL, the Lynx operates a women's team and various age-group squads.

Hartrell is also livid with the Canadian Soccer Association. The CSA wholly endorses an MLS franchise in Toronto and he considers that a stab in the back.

"The CSA has become a cheerleader for the MLS," Hartrell said. "If I sound bitter, well, I'm very bitter. For nine years, we've been putting money into this team and the CSA has supposedly been behind us in terms of playing in a new stadium. And now it's: 'By the way, we're getting another tenant who's going to be your competition.' "

The Lynx play out of the nearly decrepit Centennial Stadium in Etobicoke. It's not really a good deal. Centennial offers the worst in quality seating for fans and was designed more for track and field than soccer.

Hartrell's team can't even play a home game until next Sunday because the pitch isn't ready. By then, they will have played six in a row on the road. The franchise has been waiting patiently for years for a soccer-friendly stadium to be built somewhere in Toronto so it can move in and give its fans a more enjoyable soccer experience. Hartrell believes that once they have a decent stadium to play in, his franchise will become moderately profitable, and that's with an operating budget of "only" about $1 million.

But if MLSEL secures an MLS franchise, Hartrell figures not only will they eventually go out of business, his outfit might die as well, particularly if it has to share a stadium, as the market would over-saturated.

"We certainly don't need the competition," Hartrell said. "We're already hard-pressed to get fans."

It's likely that a new stadium will be built at York University (despite the various false starts), and Hartrell wants to be a tenant there. But so does MLSEL.

Major League Soccer has lost millions since being formed in 1996, and has stayed afloat thanks largely to the willingness a couple of billionaire owners, Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt.

Unlike the USL, which generally targets kids as its prime fan base, an MLS franchise -- which would cost MLSEL a reported $10 million in rights fees and close to $5 million in annual operating costs -- would have to draw at least 15,000 a game to make a profit on a ticket that would cost considerably more than what the Lynx charges, which is $15 for adults and $7.50 for kids.

Still, MLSEL president Richard Peddie is confident that, despite Hartrell's gloomy outlook, it can make a go of it.

"No one's had the marketing clout, the leverage and, frankly, the sophistication of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment," Peddie said. "Extensive market research points to the fact that there is a real appetite for this in the (Toronto) market. That encourages us.

"We also know, with the diversity in this city, the way it's growing, the people who come to Toronto generally like soccer first and basketball second."

That's all fine and good, Hartrell said. But there is one problem. Traditionally, soccer diehards in Toronto support teams from the "old country" -- top club teams in the English, Italian leagues, etc.

Various professional incarnations in Toronto have failed, he said, because soccer fans consider the pro game outside of Europe bush league or, at least, second tier. That's why his franchise targets kids, not necessarily sophisticated soccer fans.

Peddie recently told George Gross of The Toronto Sun that soccer fans in the GTA want "good, not average" soccer, implying that MLS fits that bill. Again, Hartrell said Peddie is being naive, that fans in Toronto will not consider MLS major league.

"I've got news for you Mr. Peddie," Hartrell said. "They want the best soccer. And the best soccer is in Europe."

Dick Howard has been involved in soccer in Canada for decades, having played pro for the old Toronto Metros, among other squads, and in England. Now a member of the technical committee for FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, Howard, who is also a consultant with the Lynx, agrees that an MLS team could fragment the market enough in Toronto to harm both squads, as well as the USL squads in Montreal and Vancouver -- along the lines of the theory that an NFL team in Toronto would eventually kill the CFL.

What Howard would like to see is for MLSEL to throw some of its financial clout behind the Lynx, perhaps even joining Hartrell in an ownership capacity, and then market the two teams together -- the MLS squad as, perhaps, the Division One team, and the Lynx as a developmental team.

"There's been at least 10 (pro) leagues fold since the 1960s in Canada," Howard said. "You need stability and people working together for the good of the game. We can't just look at a quick fix for Toronto, trying to get people into a new stadium."

While Hartrell is certainly open for discussion with Peddie and MLSEL, that feeling has not been reciprocated, at least not to him. Peddie said he sees the Lynx as competition, but suggested that if, and when, an MLS franchise is granted for the 2007 season (the year the league has targeted for expansion), MLSEL would sit down and talk with Hartrell.

Hartrell said the most surprising and disappointing aspect of possible MLS expansion into Toronto is the Canadian Soccer Association's support of a new team. He feels that the CSA would be signing the Lynx's death certificate if it supports MLSEL's endeavours to bring a Major League Soccer team to T.O.

Kevan Pipe, CSA chief operating officer, insisted that his organization does support MLS expansion into Canada, but also the USL, and that the two can co-exist.

Pipe believes a higher level of pro soccer in this country ultimately would aid the national men's team, giving top level Canadian players a chance to play at home for some decent money. While USL players make around $25,000 per season, MLS players can make three or four times that.

Mark Abbott, chief operating officer of MLS, told The Toronto Sun last week that, if his league expands to Canada, the it would consider implementing a CFL-type rule that would limit the number of foreign players on Toronto's team, ensuring that there would be a healthy number of Canadians on the squad. A similar rule exists with the 12 U.S. teams and American players. And that, Pipe said, would be a boon to the national team.

But Hartrell doesn't buy into that theory, believing it delusional that one MLS team in Canada ultimately would raise the level of the national team. He said Canada's best players, such as Paul Stalteri (who plays in Germany for Werder Bremen) and Tomasz Radzinski (Fulham in England), will continue to play in Europe where the money is vastly superior to what the MLS can pay.

Whether Toronto is granted an MLS franchise will not be known for at least a couple of months, and there will be no deal unless a new stadium is built. But if MLSEL does acquire a team, Hartrell is fearful that the expansion will hurt the pro game in Toronto.

Howard, for his part, hopes that MLSEL will sit down with Hartrell and figure out a way they can coexist. He certainly understands why the Lynx are not thrilled with an MLS team in town, taking the prime dates at a new stadium.

"They (the Lynx) have been basically ignored in the process," Howard said. "How would you feel if you were running a corner store and suddenly WalMart comes in and says: 'I'm sorry, but we're taking over.' "


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