Too soon to say Rogers has placed a ‘for sale’ sign on Blue Jays

Fans celebrate following the Blue Jays' ALDS Game 5 win over the Texas Rangers in 2015 at Rogers Centre. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

TORONTO – At this point, it’s too soon to say that Rogers Communications Inc., has definitively placed a “for sale” sign on the Toronto Blue Jays. There don’t appear to be any firm plans, processes or timelines in place to put the club out on the open market, and any potential transaction will be very complicated.

Still, the possibility, to some degree, is quite clearly getting very serious senior-level consideration as made clear by chief financial officer Tony Staffieri during a Q&A session Tuesday with analyst John C. Hodulik at a UBS Global Media and Communications conference in New York on Tuesday.

Asked whether it still makes sense for Rogers to own a sports team, Staffieri said there are “other ways we can get the exclusive content through renting it, much like we did with our NHL deal. And so, we’re looking at ways to better surface values for the Blue Jays, for example. That’s become a very valuable asset for us that we don’t get full credit for. And so, like some of the other assets on our balance sheet, we’re looking at better ways to surface value for them.”

“To be clear,” he added, “there isn’t anything imminent that we’re about to announce, but we’re certainly looking at the alternatives.”

The concept of surfacing the value – or ensuring that an asset’s full worth is reflected in a company’s share price – of non-core company assets such as the Blue Jays has been mentioned by senior Rogers leaders before, most notably by CEO Joe Natale during an October conference call with analysts.

But Staffieri’s comments were the most specific public indication to this point that the idea of selling the Blue Jays is far more than a concept being casually tossed around, and triggered a corresponding frenzy of speculation about the team’s future. Adding fuel to the mix is Natale telling the Globe and Mail this week that Rogers intends to increase investment in its wireless network over the next two years, an endeavour that could cost billions.

Asked for further comment Wednesday, Rogers’ director of media relations Sarah Schmidt provided the following statement: “We have terrific sports assets including the Toronto Blue Jays that have performed really well for us. As we have said, we would like to surface value and get credit for these assets in our overall company valuation.”

Forbes valued the Blue Jays at $1.3 billion in April, well before the lowly Miami Marlins sold for $1.2 billion in September. Some estimates peg the Blue Jays more in the $1.6-billion range, but either way, finding a buyer won’t be a simple task given that the pool of billionaires is limited. If a transfer were to occur, Major League Baseball would likely prefer the team go to an individual, as opposed to another corporation, with Edward Rogers, currently the club’s chairman and son of the telecommunication giant’s founder Ted Rogers, one speculative possibility.

Edward Rogers is the Blue Jays’ control person with Major League Baseball.

Staffieri said that sports will continue to be a focus of Rogers’ business on the media side – “sports content continues to grow at healthy margins,” he said – but later added that, “I would like to get the content without necessarily having the capital tied up on our balance sheet.”

A commitment to keep the club’s broadcast rights with Rogers would no doubt impact any potential sale, as would the need for hundreds of millions in renovations at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays’ home.

So there’s plenty to untangle before a sale can go down.

The news comes just as the off-season’s business is set to pick up ahead of the winter meetings next week in Orlando, and is sure to prompt the representatives for any free agents the Blue Jays are speaking with to ask some tough questions.

Despite that, general manager Ross Atkins, speaking Wednesday afternoon during the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual awards luncheon, said he and his staff continue to operate on the plans they’ve already laid out.

“We have so much freedom and flexibility the way that we do operate and the way we’ve articulated our strategy, our resources, our goals to agents, other teams, nothing has changed on that front,” said Atkins.

Atkins praised Edward Rogers, Natale and Staffieri for their support and for “having helped us be a better organization. That will remain to be the same, as far as I’m concerned.”

The club’s plan for this off-season remains to try and compete for a post-season berth in 2018 and the news won’t cause the team to alter its course.

“My respect for the way our set-up exists and the direction we’ve been given and that Mark gives me, and Edward, Joe and Tony give us, is sound and clear. We feel we have everything that we need to run a good business and a good baseball team,” said Atkins, adding later: “We understand what our resources are and what we have to operate with – they are plenty. We are comfortable with where things stand.”

Shortstop Alemdys Diaz is the only major add the Blue Jays have made so far in a largely slow moving market, and much work remains augmenting a club that finished 76-86 in an injury-riddled 2017.

There are holes at multiple spots in need of upgrading and the club remains on the hunt for another versatile player to bolster Diaz, who is coming off a difficult 2017 and has an option remaining.

“We know we need to complement our infield further, our outfield further, our pitching further,” said Atkins. “Potentially even complement our catching situation in some way.”