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Toronto Lynx a costly labour of love, millions lost over 10 year history

The Toronto Lynx have been a labour of love for Bruno and Nicole Hartrell. A costly one.

Bruno Hartrell estimates he and his wife have lost some $4 million in the 10 years they have operated the soccer franchise.

That's a lot of red ink on a team whose franchise fee was a modest $50,000 a decade ago.

``And it's just wasted,'' Hartrell lamented in an interview.

With Toronto FC, an expansion franchise in Major League Soccer, set to kick off in a brand new stadium next year, Hartrell says he couldn't even give away the USL team now.

``They've put us out of the pro soccer business,'' he said.

Hartrell compares it to The Home Depot opening up down the street from a corner hardware store.

``You could stay in business just out of pride, but you'd never been able to compete with these guys.''

So the Hartrells are downsizing their losses _ and their franchise.

The Lynx announced this week they are leaving the first division of the United Soccer Leagues to join the Premier Development League in 2007. That's two tiers below their current level _ and a world away from MLS.

The Lady Lynx will continue to play in the W-League. And the Lynx will operate eight youth boys' and girls' team.

``The smart thing for us is just to focus on the base, which we've got, which doesn't cost a lot to run, which can actually make money. And then wait it out to see if they (MLS) sticks around,'' Hartrell said.

The Lynx men's roster become free agents, signalling the end of a senior side that produced the likes of Canadian stars Paul Stalteri (Tottenham, England) and Dwayne DeRosario (Houston, MLS) along with fellow internationals Adrian Serioux (Houston, MLS), Atiba Hutchinson (FC Copenhagen, Denmark) and Chris Pozniak (Haugesund FK, Norway).

Despite the setbacks, the 56-year-old Hartrell is not bitter. In fact, he almost sees the glass half-full, enthusiastically talking about plans for the Lady Lynx and all the franchise's developmental teams.

He cites planned new stadiums at the University of Toronto, York University and McMaster. With new partners, who knows what the future holds? The Hartrells' soccer dream is not yet over.

But theirs is a cautionary tale, another in a long list of soccer hard luck stories in Canada.

At the beginning of the Lynx, the Hartrells had two partners and a decent, albeit decaying, downtown home in Varsity Stadium.

Hopes were high as the partners agreed to put in $50,000 each, with perhaps another $50,000 needed down the line.

Hartrell says together the partners lost $2.5 million for the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons, with his losses amounting to a ``million and a little bit.''

At the beginning, they thought it would take five years to get the finances in order _ projecting collective losses of $1 million over that period.

``We lost in one year what we thought we'd lose in five. It was that bad.''

Not surprisingly, the partnership dissolved. Still the Hartrells kept at it.

``From 2000 to 2006, pretty much (we lost) almost $3 million of my own and Nicole's money,'' Hartrell said.

Did friends and family tell them to get out of it?

``Every year,'' said Hartrell, adding his accounting partners said: ```You're crazy. Don't go back.'''

So why stick with it?

``I'm not smart enough,'' he said. ``I mean that.''

Hartrell runs a small accounting firm, but he and his wife also have real estate interests that have helped fund the Lynx losses.

While he hasn't enjoyed losing the money, he says he will survive.

``If I have to retire I'm OK,'' he said, adding ``but I couldn't afford a soccer team.''

Hartrell had hoped his team could find a new stadium home and stand tall as the top soccer club in the city, with Lynx ownership reaping the rewards if the franchise was ever sold.

The stadium came, but with another team attached. And Toronto FC arrived with a deep-pocketed owner in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment that has extensive sponsorship and marketing ties.

``The regret is that we spent so much time and money at it and basically weren't able to grow to our expectations,'' Hartrell said. ``Even though we're left with a very solid base which we expect to continue to grow and we expect to stay in soccer a long time if we're healthy enough.''

Knowing an MLS team was coming, Hartrell said he considered all options for his team.

``Including trying to get more investors to back USL 1 (soccer). But you can imagine we weren't doing well without MLS. And nobody can see how you're going to do well with them.

``No one that I could find in the city was willing to put up money in any form or fashion. Basically I was willing to give away the USL 1 franchise if someone would back most of it.''

The USL champion Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact are now Canada's lone teams in the USL first division, which according to Hartrell now charges a franchise fee of US$350,000.

Other Canadian PDL teams are the Ottawa Fury, Thunder Bay Chill and Abbotsford Rangers. The Lynx men expect to play in the Great Lakes division, facing teams from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Hartrell said he looked at playing in the USL second division but the savings didn't warrant it. He reckons costs will drop by at least $500,000 by moving from the USL first division to PDL, compared to just $150,000 from USL first division to second.

The PDL plays 12 games a season compared to 28 for the USL first division (and 24 for the second division).

There's no payroll in PDL, which uses collegiate players who get a travel per diem. There's also no air travel, just buses.

The Lynx spent $300,000 on payroll last season and $95,000 on travel. Next year, the payroll will be zero and the travel $25,000. League fees drop to $8,000 from $35,000.

``There's corresponding reductions in every budget line,'' Hartrell said.

Last season, the budget for the men's team was just under $1 million: $300,000 for player payroll (an average player made $2,500 a month for six months), $50,000 for coaches, $250,000 to the front office, $150,000 for travel (air, bus and per diems) and ``the rest just adds up.''

The total budget for the PDL team will be about $175,000.

Compare that to MLS, whose salary cap is US$1.9 million this season.

At its last season in Varsity Stadium in 2000, the Lynx drew crowds of 11,000 to some games _ most paying, even if they were $4 tickets. This season, the Lynx averaged less than 2,000 en route to an 8-12-8 record and 10th place in the 12-team league.

Sponsorships also ebbed and flowed, with Hartrell saying the federal government's sponsorship scandal having an effect on his team when the plug was pulled on that money.

The Lynx will continue to play at Centennial Park Stadium in Toronto's west end.

If the MLS wasn't in Toronto and the Lynx found a new home, Hartrell said he would have kept going at a higher level.

But that didn't happen.

``The Lynx is like a fickle girlfriend,'' Hartrell said. ``It showed signs of life and everything was going good . . .''

The love affair is not over for the Hartrells. But realism has replaced romance.

``We did our bit,'' said Hartrell.

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End: Toronto Lynx a costly labour of love, millions lost over 10 year history

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