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Reports say Rogers in talks to buy MLSE; fans say: so, will the Leafs win now?

A crowd of people gathers inside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Wednesday, December 1, 2010. Talks are ongoing for communications giant Rogers to buy out the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan's 66 per cent controlling interest of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

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A crowd of people gathers inside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Wednesday, December 1, 2010. Talks are ongoing for communications giant Rogers to buy out the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan's 66 per cent controlling interest of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

TORONTO - Reports that Blue Jays owner Rogers Communications also wants control of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and other sports teams have fans asking one question: So, will my team start winning now?

Leafs and Raptors owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment—now controlled by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board—has been criticized for years by Toronto hockey and professional basketball fans, for teams that have produced losing records and rarely made the playoffs.

Financially, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has turned in sparkling profits despite the poor performance of its teams on the ice or hardcourt. Fans now want some of that money put back into improving the franchises if there is a new owner.

"MLSE is one of the final pieces in the upper management category that needs to be taken out," one person wrote on a Leafs discussion board.

"Rogers seems to have the interest in winning. I think that they will be able to provide a large amount of money to make this team a success."

Despite their losing ways, the Leafs are still among the most valuable properties in the NHL, with consistent sellouts and huge branding and concession revenues.

The Leafs have missed the playoffs the past five years and are on track to make it six in a row.

The Raptors have won exactly one playoff series in their first 15 seasons and it looks like Year 16 will mark the 11th time they fail to reach the post-season.

While some analysts discussed costs, communications and cross-promotions from the $1.3 billion Rogers proposal, fans of Toronto's much loved—and much hated—hockey team and the floundering Raptors talked competition.

"Rogers has a history of trying to win with the Blue Jays to a point," wrote a commenter on a Raptors discussion board.

"Perhaps as part of such a coup, part of the strategy will be simple, make a bang, win all 4 championships ASAP."

Rogers initially boosted the major-league payroll after it bought the Blue Jays in September 2000, but then sharply cut spending from 2002-05 amid heavy losses.

Over the past year the Jays have dramatically increased their spending on scouting and player development, allowing general manager Alex Anthopoulos to invest in his vision for talent procurement and retention. But so far the Jays have failed to match the team's early 1990s sucessive World Series titles under different owners despite spending on high-profile free agents.

If Rogers does end up with the majority stake they will have more of an incentive than the pension fund to have their teams win because winning teams will drive up TV ratings, which would allow them to charge more for advertising, said Rotman School of Management sports marketing professor Richard Powers.

"(The pension plan) was using it as an investment and from their perspective it was doing very well for them, although I think at this point they probably maxed out the potential there," he said.

"The seats are full, the ticket prices are some of the highest in the league and there's not a whole lot more they can do there to generate more revenue."

Even if the deal happens fans likely don't have to worry about a virtual Rogers monopoly on professional sports—only the Toronto Argonauts would be otherwised owned—driving up ticket prices, Powers said.

Rogers could afford to leave them where they are and capitalize on other revenue streams, he said.

In fact, sports fans might be able to purchase Leafs, Raptors and Jays packages, the way they are currently able to buy bundled hockey and basketball tickets, said Matt Akler, a sport management professor at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont.

In addition to hopes of seeing winning teams, fans and other consumers should expect to have new viewing experiences if the deal happens, such as interactive content on cellphones, said Iain Grant, a telecom analyst with the SeaBoard Group.

"I think if they're clever, if they're imaginative, if they exploit the power of their mobile network and their cable network to offer compelling new services, I think it could be very much a game changer," he said.

But, Grant said, there is a danger that fans who aren't Rogers customers could get shut out.

"The company should resist the temptation of restricting the type of access that we have now to its customers and focus itself on augmentation of the experience, and that would be sufficiently compelling to perhaps drive more customers to the core networks," he said.

Rogers said in a statement Wednesday that there is no change to its current relationship with MLSE. The reputed seller of the majority stake—the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan Board—won't comment.

Besides owning Canada's largest wireless phone business and one of the country's biggest cable companies, Rogers also has media properties including the Sportsnet specialty cable channels and the Rogers Centre stadium where the Blue Jays play their home games. MLSE also owns the Marlies of the American Hockey League and Toronto FC soccer team.

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