A 75 percent stake in MLSE was sold to Bell and Rogers for an astounding $1.32 billion. (Getty Images)
When it comes to the sale of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from a teachers’ pension plan to two behemoth communications conglomerates, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs should take to heart the words of The Who in their legendary hit Won’t Get Fooled Again.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Actually, almost nothing will change on the ice for the Maple Leafs as a result of the sale. We’ll leave that with you to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing. The team will still be wildly popular and profitable, GM Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson will remain two of the most thinned-skinned executives in the game and the team will be no closer to, and no further from, winning a Stanley Cup. And their penalty killing will still be brutal.
In hockey terms, look at this sale as the equivalent of the Maple Leafs acquiring Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators over the summer. If they wanted Franson, they had to take on Matthew Lombardi’s $3.5-million cap hit as well. In this case, the buyers wanted the crown jewel that is the Leafs and the Air Canada Centre, but also had to buy into the Toronto Raptors, the Toronto FC soccer team, the Toronto Marlies and Ricoh Coliseum. But it was obviously well worth the price to acquire the Leafs, who will now be everywhere all the time.
“Not a single person has to miss a single second (of action involving MLSE teams),” said Nadir Mohamed, the president and CEO of Rogers Communications, who teamed up with fellow communications giant BCE to purchase 75 percent of the company for $1.32 billion Friday.
Again, we’ll leave that to you to decide whether that’s a good thing. But perhaps the most important aspect of all this is that Larry Tanenbaum, who has presided over a company that has had enormous financial success but mediocre results on the ice, will continue to be the alpha male of the franchise. The Leafs have long been, wrongly in this corner’s opinion, scorned for being a bunch of money grubbers who have no interest in spending what it takes to deliver a championship to its long suffering fans. Not true. Tanenbaum and those running this franchise want nothing more than to win a championship and have been willing to throw unlimited resources at the effort to do so. Their commitment shouldn’t be questioned; the only problem is that historically they haven’t had a clue how to go about it.
Will that change now that the team and its other assets are owned by the companies that operate NHL broadcasters TSN and Sportsnet? Perhaps, but you’d have had a difficult time unraveling that mystery when the new buyers were announced Friday.
That’s because this deal is all about content for BCE president and CEO George Cope in our “new four-screen world.” Everyone involved talked about how successful franchises and championship teams would lead to more financial success for them. But that’s what the previous owners used to say all the time.
“It’s all about winning and all about championships,” Mohamed said. “Championship teams drive our network business. There’s no greater commitment from the two of us than to see Larry and the team are doing everything to build championship teams.”
“I am 100 percent convinced that the Bell shareholders will make more money as a result of this investment today on our network investments,” Cope said. “Because it accesses content in a world where everybody wants it on all four screens…and we believe the investment community will see all the merits in doing this as we go forward.”
Just warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it? And just wondering, but when the Leafs TV, radio and digital rights come up for renewal, how exactly do TSN and Sportsnet bid on something they already own?
The new owners went on to talk about how important it is to keep the Maple Leafs in Canadian hands, particularly after previous speculation that a U.S.-based private equity firm was kicking the tires. That, of course, is ridiculous. Whether a company or individual is a good or bad owner has nothing to do with his passport or where the company headquarters are located. If you need any proof, just reference George Gillett, an American who bought the Montreal Canadiens when nobody else was interested and revitalized the organization before selling it for a huge profit.
Really, about the only palpable difference fans of the Maple Leafs will see is they’ll be able to get more electronic access to their favorite team than ever before. And they’ll almost certainly pay more for it. The same day the sale of MLSE was made public, new Dallas Stars owner Tom Gagliardi announced that the Stars would be lowering ticket prices effective immediately. Here are a few words of advice – don’t expect these fellows to be following suit.
After all, somebody will have to pay to service the debt on the $660 million each of these companies spent to get the Maple Leafs. And undoubtedly it will be the people who will pay higher ticket prices to attend their games, along with more on cable TV and cellphone bills for the privilege of watching them.
But Leaf fans, who have not seen anything close to a championship in more than 40 years, have never been reticent about spending whatever it takes to watch their team. That’s why the Leafs have never reached anything approximating a breaking point when it comes to what they can charge for their product.
That’s not about to change, either.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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