Grange on MLSE: Leiweke right for the job

Tim Leiweke is the outgoing president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings.

The people that run Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment could use a few things for their sports franchises. Maybe a lot of things.

A big centre to anchor the first or second line and a proven goalie for their hockey team. An all-star or two for their basketball team. Who knows what, exactly, for their soccer team, but it’s a lot.

But it’s a company with needs, and perhaps the biggest need of all is vision and the leadership to implement it.

The combined playoff-less streak for their three primary franchises could reach 19 years if the Leafs — seven years and counting — stumble from their current perch and Toronto FC fail to make the post-season in keeping with their track record for every year of their existence.

The Raptors are locked in: No playoff appearance for them for the fifth straight year, a franchise record.

But for fans hoping that change might be coming, get familiar with the name Tim Leiweke.

No, he’s not a player, but an executive. But before you role your eyes — as if MLSE needs another suit — look at it this way: change starts at the top, and if they gave out MVP awards for sports executives, Leiweke would have his share.

The case can be made that he’s as dominant in his sphere as Sidney Crosby is on the ice or LeBron James is on the hardwood, and when it comes to executive talent there’s not salary cap, so no reason for MLSE not to pursue the best of the best.

It’s a move that would also signal the ambition of MLSE ownership.

The purchase of the sports conglomerate by Bell and Rogers (who own Sportsnet) closed last August and for most of that time the new ownership (along with incumbent minority owner Larry Tanenbaum) have been reticent to tip their hand or make any earth-shaking moves; the sudden pre-season firing of Brian Burke from the Leafs’ top job the glaring exception.

Longtime CEO Richard Peddie retired 15 months ago and hasn’t been replaced. Tom Anselmi, a respected company soldier was given the title of president and chief operating officer, but given TFC was his baby to nurture from the ground up it’s hard to get excited about direction he might take the enterprise.

Regardless, he’s been the face of the organization, leaving him the unenviable task of explaining why new owners fired Burke — a friend of Anselmi’s — without really being able to say why.

Which makes the news that surfaced on Wednesday that Tim Leiweke was in Toronto the day before and may have met with MLSE about taking over the top job there so plausible and encouraging.

First reported by web site The Fourth Period, some digging around suggests that it may not have actually been the case.

“I don’t think he was here and if he was he wasn’t here to meet with MLSE,” said one source close to MLSE. “And it would be strange for him to be here and not reach out to them.”

Leiweke is close to Tanenbaum through their roles as governors with both the NHL and MLS, but Tanenbaum is not currently in Toronto.

But just because he wasn’t in Toronto on Tuesday — or if he was, it wasn’t at the behest of MLSE — doesn’t mean the MLSE won’t reach out to him first chance.

“He’s an obvious candidate for the job,” they said. “Even if you had a one per cent chance of getting him you’d be stupid not to talk to him.”

The only sports and entertainment company that surpasses MLSE in scope and reach in North America is AEG — the Anchutz Entertainment Group –  owners of the Los Angeles Kings, part of the Los Angeles Lakers, the LA Galaxy of MLS as well as global interests like the O2 Arena in London and in Berlin.

The person acknowledged as the driving force behind the company’s ambition — it was recently taken off the market when they failed to get the $8-billion they wanted to sell for — is Leiweke, almost universally hailed as the most accomplished executive of his kind.

The company was taken off the market last week and Leiweke’s departure was announced on the same day, although no reasons have been disclosed.

He’s now the top free agent sports executive on the horizon.

“I think Tim Leiweke is the No. 1 sports business guy in the United States,” says Peddie, former MLSE president and CEO. “And I say that to mean he’s going to have options.”

Here’s hoping he accepts an opportunity with Toronto, should it materialize.

What he does with the job is anyone’s guess, but he’s described as an aggressive and innovate executive who pushes growth. In MLSE’s case that could translate into expanding their hugely successful Real Sports restaurant brand nationally. Leiweke also headed the bid to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles and would be well-suited to take up the cause to get Toronto an NFL team — a strategy MLSE has nosed around on for years. There is room for growth in the live event business, Peddie says.

But what Leiweke might ideally represent is an individual within MLSE who would automatically have the clout with ownership while also having the sports savvy to hold the feet of the team executives in charge of the Leafs, Raptors and TFC to the fire. In his career he’s been the general manager of a soccer team, a president of an NBA team and helped run an NHL team.

He would represent the rare executive voice with first-hand knowledge of how winning franchises manage themselves. He was on the Lakers board of directors and front-and-centre with both the Galaxy and the Kings, challenging management and connecting with players. Coincidence or not, the Galaxy are two-time defending MLS champions and the Kings are coming off one of the most dominant playoff runs in modern NHL history as they won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in style last June.

Kings captain Dustin Brown considers him a friend and a number of Kings and Galaxy players had personal relationships with the man who paid their coaches and general managers.

It’s a risky approach for a sports executive to take — it’s a very fine line between managing and meddling — but done well it creates a level of accountability that has always been missing at MLSE, where ownership has typically lacked the confidence and know-how to push those entrusted to build winning teams or at least the knowledge to present alternative views.

And while it’s fine for ownership to say that Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo or Leafs general manager Dave Nonis have free reign to run their franchises without interference from above, the reality is that a general manager’s primary goal — as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said recently — is to not get fired.

Someone has to be able to create a longer term vision than how to make the playoffs. Someone has to be able to show ownership the value of a championship and empower those around him to make that the goal.

Landing an executive of Leiweke’s stature would come at a huge price — a salary in the $5-million range with an even more lucrative bonus structure — and represent a significant investment.

He would be charged with plotting a vision for MLSE that would undoubtedly involve growth into a range of business opportunities perhaps not even invented yet.

The hope here is only that a new vision would put winning — the fruit that no MLSE team has been able to bite into for the better part of a decade now — front and centre.