Soccer deal is a good one

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

When public officials start talking about sports facilities, history tells us to be skeptical. Suspicious, even.

The old "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" rule applies.

What happens, then, when you fool me 10 times? Or 20, as politicians have done over the generations?

So, if nothing else, the great stadium debate of 2005 already has revealed plenty of agnostics among us and that's healthy. These kinds of deals need more scrutiny, not less.

Having said that, at some point this week, we imagine city council is going to vote overwhelmingly to put its stamp of approval on a $72.8-million Exhibition Place stadium deal that will finally give this city's soccer afficionados a first-class facility and a professional soccer team to play in it.

And, as long as we can believe the deal as it has been represented, council will have done the right thing. Such a stadium is long overdue, though we wish the soccer community and that includes the Canadian Soccer Association, could have played a larger financial role in the proceedings.

As it stands right now, a larger financial role is defined as a nickel, a dime, a quarter. Anything. The CSA purports to represent millions of soccer players and fans, yet when it comes to drumming up a little dough, they are both hopeless and helpless.

So, we are going to pay for this 20,000-seat stadium with public money but if anybody thinks this is the next SkyDome fiasco, then he hasn't read the fine print.

First of all, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is assuming responsibility for all construction cost over-runs and there is a real chance there will be over-runs. Once they get approval, construction will have to be maintained at a breathtaking pace to get the building ready for the start of the Major Soccer League season in April 2007, well ahead of time for the world under-20 championship later that summer. At best, MLSEL will have about 15 months to get the job done.

"We have assumed all the financial risk on construction," said MLSEL CEO Richard Peddie, "and, yes, we're tight for time. As far as we're concerned, everything should have happened yesterday."

Second, MLSEL is going to cover annual operating losses up to $250,000 and share equally with the city any losses beyond that. In addition to running the stadium, MLSEL will own and operate the Major League Soccer team but any losses incurred by the team will have no bearing on the profit or loss on stadium operations. The MLS team will pay rent commensurate with other teams in the league and well in line with those paid by major tenants in other stadiums.

Of course, MLSEL doesn't expect to lose money on the operation of the team, or the building.

"We're in this because we wanted the team," said Peddie. "We think Toronto is ready for a team like this. And we also believe we can put enough events in there to make the stadium an economic success, as well. We expect to be able to fill 100 dates."

The entire pitch will be enclosed, with seating all around, though only about 2,500 seats will be located in the end zones.

An important feature, perhaps a lookahead to the day a few years from now when the Argonauts want out of the Rogers Centre, is that the stadium will be constructed in a way that 10,000 seats could be added at a later date. It is entirely likely that, if the Argos ever come up for sale, MLSEL will be among the suitors.

During the 18 days of the annual Canadian National Exhibition, the stadium would be available for various events related to the Ex and, at other times when it is not in use by its regular tenants, a number of community and cultural events will gravitate to the stadium. You also can expect the new park to see plenty of international soccer friendlies, as well.

In the final analysis, it is hard to imagine such a place becoming a white elephant, simply because of its location in the midst of all the facilities that already exist at the CNE grounds.

So, all you skeptics, take your best shot. The ghosts of stadia past surely have earned all your suspicions. This time, though, the deal looks clean.

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THE COST OF A SOCCER STADIUM

A look at the proposed soccer stadium at the CNE:

- Cost: $72.8 million

- Financial breakdown:

- Federal government $27 million

- Province of Ontario $8 million

- City of Toronto $19.8 million (cash, land)

- Maple Leaf Sports and Ent. $8 million

- Naming rights: $10 million (to be sold by MLSEL)

- Ownership: City of Toronto

- Management: MLSEL (20-year contract)

- Target date: Spring 2007

- Construction cost overruns: MLSEL

- Profit: Shared equally between city and MLSEL

- Losses: MLSEL responsible for first $250,000, annually. City and MLSE share equally all losses beyond that.


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