Toronto Ownership Blahs – Part 1

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 4) – The tale of professional sporting woe in this city has continued unabated through the winter, spring and summer months of 2014 with a few different twists and turns, but the same result: Mediocrity or flat-out abomination.

In this argument, I will exclude the Toronto Raptors. By our city’s standard, the NBA club took an immense stride – losing in the first round of the playoffs. Given that “playoffs” has been largely a foreign term around here, the Raps are way out in front. It is a much-different story with the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Argonauts (I don’t follow Major League Soccer closely so I’ll leave out Toronto F.C. as well, though at the rate of one coach per season, you can probably fill in the blanks).

To summarize, the Toronto teams in question are either owned reluctantly and absently; by bitter rivals, or chiefly to generate mobile communications content. Winning championships, if even on the priority list, is near the very bottom. As such, we have a National Hockey League team with arguably the largest; most zealous and resilient following on Earth that has missed the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons and hasn’t competed for – let alone won – the Stanley Cup in nearly half-a-century. We have a Major League Baseball team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 20 (soon-to-be 21) years since ruling the country with consecutive World Series championships. And a Canadian Football League team that has spiraled from Grey Cup titlist to something that barely resembles the sport in just more than one season.

Trust me: It ain’t a pretty picture.

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BELL CANADA CEO GEORGE COPE SPEAKS OF MUTUAL LOVE BETWEEN HE AND EX-ROGERS COUNTERPART NADIR MOHAMED AT THE DEC. 9, 2011 ANNOUNCEMENT THAT THE COMMUNICATIONS RIVALS HAD BOUGHT MAJORITY CONTROL OF MAPLE LEAF SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT. NATIONAL POST IMAGE

The bizarre ownership tandem of Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) and Rogers Communications (equivalent to an Israeli-Syrian alliance) is obviously not culpable for the Maple Leafs’ near-complete failure in the past decade. It has controlled parent company Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for just more than 3½ years, having inherited quite a mess from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board. Nor has the BCE/Rogers collaboration been frugal. Millions of dollars were spent hiring CEO Tim Leiweke; hoping to improve Toronto F.C. with a couple of world-class players (Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley); adding a high-profile president of hockey operations (Brendan Shanahan) and ensuring the Raptors’ most indispensable commodity (Kyle Lowry) did not sign elsewhere. Though frequently mis-spent, the Leafs have shelled out cap-limit dollars since the advent of a payroll ceiling in 2005.

So, MLSE is not cheap. It is, however, difficult to envision a shred of corporate harmony. Imagine how the 37.5% stake of BCE (which owns TSN) reacted when the 37.5% Rogers stake (which owns Sportsnet) usurped national TV hockey rights for the next 12 seasons. The first Board meeting after that would have been quite the love-in. TSN must now settle for televising Maple Leaf games on a regional basis while its “partner” controls the national airwaves until 2024. We must also remember that Bell and Rogers are the two biggest communication conglomerates in Canada; fierce rivals, and that acquisition of the cable, telephone and mobile-device consumer takes priority over ancillary capital (Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto F.C.). It might be the most unique collaboration in professional sports history.

To its credit, the BCE–Rogers–Kilmer Sports triumvirate (Larry Tanenbaum of Kilmer owns the other 25% of MLSE) hired the much-respected Leiweke and provided him (through constant bickering) full control of the operation. Leiweke lured Defoe and Bradley to Toronto F.C.; re-hired Masai Ujiri to become general manager of the Raptors (Ujiri had been assistant GM to Bryan Colangelo from 2008 to 2010 before moving to Denver as GM of the Nuggets) and brought in Shanahan to run the Leafs. So, there appears to be functionality at the top of the sports chain, though MLSE will now have to find another person to fill Leiweke’s large boots. Still, it is difficult to comprehend that BCE and Rogers wrangled co-command of MLSE for the central purpose of winning championships. They joined forces to prevent the other from snagging the entire Leafs monolith. The people in charge are savvy enough to realize that winning is good business yet sage enough to understand the Leafs do not have to win for business to thrive. As such, I’m not convinced the BCE–Rogers tandem is particularly concerned about what matters most to long-suffering hockey fans in this city.

The same applies to Rogers’ ownership of the Blue Jays. It furnishes Sportsnet with 162 days and nights of programming between April and October and has full control over mobile content related to Canada’s lone Major League team. The voracious Rogers empire owns the former SkyDome (now Rogers Centre); the ball club, and is liable – at any moment – to make a hostile bid for the C.N. Tower and every high-rise office building within a three-mile radius.

Winning the World Series? Meh.

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THE MOMENT IN OCTOBER 1993 – NOW AN EVER-DISTANT MEMORY.

You may have thought differently in the winter of 2012-13 when Rogers opened the vault for the first time and encouraged its baseball wing to compete with the big boys in the American League East (New York and Boston). GM Alex Anthopoulos spent like a tycoon – acquiring such lucrative commodities as R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes after securing Edwin Encarnacion on a three-year, $27 million pact (which quickly became a bargain). The multi-player swap with Miami that brought Reyes, Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto coupled with the acquisition – a month later – of Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young Award recipient with the New York Mets, convinced Nevada oddsmakers to elect the Blue Jays as World Series favorite for 2013.

That anointment was trashed by the end of April.

And now, as the 2014 Blue Jays wallow just above the .500 mark in a futile playoff stab, it appears the Rogers commitment was a one-off. It’s as if the company told Anthopoulos “Here’s your lone opportunity to make the team competitive. If you can’t, forget about it.” Given, as mentioned, that the overwhelming Rogers’ concern is cable/Internet/mobile subscription (sports/entertainment income in 2012 represented a measly 2% of consolidated revenue), it is easy to surmise the Blue Jays would be far-better served by another owner – one that favors winning on the diamond over the accumulation of content.

Who knows what might come of the baseball team if advertising revenue to offset the 12-year, $5.2-billion hockey commitment lags behind the company’s projection? It’s not hard to envision Joe Carter, at 83 years of age, shuffling into town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Blue Jays last title (“touch at least one, Joe!”).

END OF PART 1

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