Grange: Leiweke fond of risky business

July 16, 2013, 3:22 PM

If ever there was a business that didn’t need a mission statement, it would be the professional sports business.

If you own a professional sports team, manage a professional sports team, coach a professional sports team or play for one the job is, was and forever shall be: win.

Win games. Win divisions. Win championships.

That’s the mission. Making a statement to that effect is like suggesting it’s a mammal’s mission to breathe.

That Tim Leiweke could make a stir the other day by being so bold to suggest he fully, completely and unequivocally expects the Toronto Maple Leafs to win a Stanley Cup and the Toronto Raptors to win an NBA championship and Toronto FC to win an MLS title is only because MLSE — the organization he runs and that owns the three clubs and many other things — has kind of nodded off in that regard.

Oh, and he’s given himself until 2023 — but hopefully sooner — to build MLSE from a $2.1 billion business to a $5 billion one.

Those in the industry aren’t quite clear how he can pull that off given that revenue streams are fairly mature and the other obvious play — developing some kind of regional sports network — would seem to have some significant regulatory hurdles. Moreover, the franchise’s broadcast rights have already been negotiated as part of the sale last summer of MLSE to Bell and Rogers, so there’s no big bump they can hope to stand on there.

It might be as ‘simple’ as adding an NFL team to the MLSE portfolio — albeit at arm’s length fashion due to NFL rules against corporate majority ownership. But given that the NFL has been without a team in Los Angeles since 1995 and no prospect of getting one until 2016 (when their new stadium is built) that’s no sure thing. And if it does come to pass MLSE is looking at a $2 billion investment for a franchise and a stadium.

“Can the market handle an NFL team,” sure it can, says Leiweke’s predecessor, Richard Peddie. “But where does the team come from? Who can afford it?”

Those are sensible, practical concerns. That’s what MLSE has always been about, for better and worse.

But there’s a difference between doing what’s perceived to be necessary to reach a goal and reaching a goal by any means necessary.

Leiweke, the incoming president and CEO of MLSE, is clearly in the latter camp.

“He’s a take-no-prisoners kind of guy,” says one source close to MLSE.

For example:

According to Leiweke in an interview with US-based financial news service Bloomberg: “I didn’t get along with the GM of the basketball team, so we brought in somebody who sees the world the same way I do,” Leiweke said.

That would be out with Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors previous general manager and in with Masai Ujiri. After a brief interim in which Colangelo was with the club but without specific basketball duties, he removed himself and took on one of those ‘consulting’ roles that we’d all love to have.

There was some suggestion Colangelo had been forced out by Leiweke, and based on his comments, it would appear to be so.

Chances are more MLSE executives will follow, with chief operating officer Tom Anselmi likely the first to the exit.

Whether those kinds of moves matter or not are immaterial.

Leiweke isn’t in the sports and entertainment business. He’s in the business of being audacious. It’s why he’s perfectly within character when he says he’s already got the Leafs Stanley Cup parade route mapped out.

“If we don’t take a run at (championships) in my tenure here we have failed with the Maple Leafs, we have failed with the Raptors, we have failed with Toronto FC. Winning is our priority,” he told Bloomberg, echoing comments he made when he was hired by MLSE after he left the Anschutz Entertainment Group. “Winning is what we think about every day. My priority on behalf of the owners is to build a culture and accountability now that demands winning first. The rest of it … net profit and value of the company will take care of itself if we win.”

There is no clear evidence that making those kinds of statements leads to those kinds of results. The biggest challenge MLSE faces is that all three of its teams play in leagues where spending on players is tightly controlled.

This is a big problem for a company with a lot of money and grand ambitions. What made George Steinbrenner perhaps the ultimate owner in all of sports was that he had no limits on what he would spend to reach his goals. Being a Yankees fan meant you could sleep at night knowing that every dollar you spent to support your passion would trickle down to the field in the form of the highest payroll in all of sports.

So being massively ambitious and demanding when an NBA or NHL or MLS owner has its limitations — money can’t be the shortcut to reach all those goals.

You got the sense in the latter stages of the previous regime at MLSE that they’d almost become resigned to the idea that winning titles in leagues where parity is a mandate was somewhat of a crapshoot.

Sensibly it became about positioning themselves for success rather than finding some way to be ultimately successful. It wasn’t complacency exactly, but it was a first-cousin. It was the difference between accepting fate and forging a path, fate be damned.

Leiweke is fond of the latter approach, clearly.

“The money is there,” he said. “What we don’t have is a culture of accountability.”

Leiweke is changing that one bold public statement at a time. One way or another, the victory parade — or the lack thereof — will begin and end at his office door.

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