T.O. joins MLS

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:31 AM ET

Toronto's pro soccer team now has a name -- Toronto FC -- and a smart new logo, unveiled yesterday at the Ricoh Coliseum.

There's a new $62-million soccer stadium scheduled for completion a year from now. The stadium, being built on the CNE grounds and financed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the federal government, the province and the city, is on time and budget, according to Bob Hunter, MLSE's executive vice-president, who's also running the facility.

Yesterday there were fireworks, dignitaries and kind words. Don Garber, the commissioner of the Major Soccer League, was on hand, talking about how an MLS team will become a feeder system for a beefed up Canadian national team looking for a berth in the 2010 World Cup, like what happened in the U.S. after the MLS got going 10 years ago.

So it was a good news day for MLSE and soccer enthusiasts. But it was acknowledged the hard part is about to begin.

That's doing what other long deceased pro soccer franchises in Toronto failed to do well enough -- getting out into the community, especially Toronto's multicultural communities where passion for the sport runs deepest, convincing people to buy a ticket and put their butts into seats.

If you build it, they won't necessarily come, not with the bounty of entertainment options in the city.

That's something Richard Peddie, president and CEO of MLSE, which owns the MLS franchise, admits wasn't handled well with the company's American Hockey League franchise, the Toronto Marlies, which played in front of mostly empty seats this season.

"We learned a lot about how to market soccer from marketing the Marlies," he said.

"More group sales, get out into the community. We took the hockey connection, the Leafs, for granted. We want to add 10 more people to the (Marlies) sales force. You can't just open the door and expect them to come. You have to be hunters, not just gatherers."

Said Hunter: "This is going to be a tough go. You pay the franchise fee and contribute to the cost of the stadium. You have to sell a lot of tickets to get that return on investment."

So that's the next phase.

Toronto FC is the MLS's 13th franchise, its first international club, and Garber says the objective is to expand that to 16 franchises by 2010.

The league is looking to change its playoff format. Currently, the top four teams in both conferences get in, but Toronto's entry tilts the balance. The conference which Toronto joins will be determined later this year.

The team, wearing red and white colours to reflect its Canadian identity, will start play in April 2007.

Following that will be the FIFA under-20 World Cup Championship at the new stadium in July, the third chapter after the opening of the stadium and the start of the MLS season which Canadian Soccer Association chief operating officer Kevan Pipe says will, "change the face of the game in this area overnight."


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