TORONTO — As Tim Leiweke edges closer to the door at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it’s pretty clear that he’s already laid the foundation for his next big project.
The outgoing MLSE president and CEO remains under contract until June 30, but whispers persist throughout the industry that he won’t be around nearly that long. However, should the company’s board of directors decide to part ways with him sooner, Leiweke sounds like a man who won’t be out of work for more than a couple of hours.
That was one obvious takeaway from a 90-minute session with MBA students at Ryerson University on Thursday, where an enthusiastic Leiweke candidly discussed his future.
“I’ve raised a bunch of money, I have some pretty good partners, they’re waiting for me to spend their money and go build a company that I’ll own together with [them],” he said.
The business? Ticketing.
Leiweke believes there’s an opportunity to challenge StubHub on the resale of tickets in major markets (he mentioned New York, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles specifically) and plans to work directly with teams to do it. He marvels at the risk-free business-model StubHub has created — risk-free since the company takes a cut of tickets sold through its website as a middleman, but never actually owns any inventory.
“StubHub makes $150 million a year,” said Leiweke. “I think there’s a better StubHub. I admire StubHub. I believe that sometimes the greatest way to build a company is find somebody else’s idea, figure out it’s a really good idea, steal it and then go try to do it better.”
It’s clear that his own planning has gone well beyond the idea stage, with Leiweke acknowledging that he’s already hired some people to work for him.
The way he intends to improve on the StubHub model is by letting the teams in on the business. He is willing to offer $25 million up front to gain control of an organization’s secondary ticket sales and then split any profits once he’s made back that original investment.
“I know sports teams: Most of them do not want to do the heavy lifting, the intellectual work and [spend] the capital that they will have to invest to ultimately go invent that system,” he said. “So if you walk in the door and say ‘I’ve got a big idea for you. I’m going to buy your secondary business for the next 10 years and give you a cheque right now for $25 million … you co-operate, you tie me into your primary ticketing company and you give me full access to your manifest [ticket list] and then I get all of the money and once I recoup then I’ll split with you.
“A lot of teams — a lot of teams — will sit there and go: ‘Here’s the wiring instructions for that.’ They won’t even think twice about it.”
It appears that one exception will be the organization he’s due to leave in 2015.
Leiweke said that Leafs season tickets will be delivered electronically starting on Jan. 1, which allows the company to control how they can be transferred. When one of those tickets is sold on the secondary market, MLSE will oversee the transaction and “give the money back to the person selling the ticket for the original face value and then we’ll keep the upside,” according to Leiweke.
That was among a number of interesting insights he made pertaining to the future of MLSE.
For example, he believes that the NBA’s Raptors will eclipse the popularity of the Maple Leafs within 10 years because of the changing demographics in Toronto. He also acknowledged that designated player Jermain Defoe is unlikely to be back with Toronto FC in MLS next year and discussed the push towards analytics in the Leafs front office this summer.
While making it abundantly clear that he and new president Brendan Shanahan felt the team lagged behind in that department, he placed one caveat on the numbers revolution.
“Look, there are players we have in our organization today whose numbers are off the chart good and whose character is just terrible,” said Leiweke.
“We are very convinced that analytics make us smarter, we are very convinced that analytics will reduce our mistakes, we are convinced that analytics at the end of the day will be key to us getting this team back on track,” he added. “But, that said, they will never ever replace our ability to determine one’s character and passion for the game of hockey. You have to be good at both, not just one.”
Leiweke has a number of reasons for wanting to leave Toronto. The cold Canadian winters have been tough after two decades in Los Angeles — “I miss home, I do,” he told the students — and dealing with a board controlled by rivals Rogers and Bell seems to have worn on him as well.
“I live in a world today where, remember, 75 per cent of our company is owned by two companies that get up every day and try to figure out how to kill each other,” Leiweke said. “So I’m like ‘huh, I wonder what that does for my odds?’ And then, I’m strong-willed and I’ve created a lot of change. Occasionally they get exhausted by my change and they don’t agree with it and I get that there’s a different way of doing it that would be calmer, easier, more gentle.”
However, more than anything, he insists that at age 57 what he’s really in search of is a different challenge. Leiweke believes that he’ll have regrets if he doesn’t try his hand at running his own operation.
“I have worked for 37 years for somebody else,” he said. “For 37 years, I’ve disagreed. For 37 years, I ultimately get outvoted a lot. For 37 years, I’ve looked at the way I’d do things if I had the money and the choice, and I’d do it differently occasionally.
“But more than anything, for 37 years I’ve gotten up and I have been the shepherd of someone else’s flock and I realize now that if I’m ever truly going to prove myself, test myself … I need to go get up every morning and be absolutely scared shitless that I’m going to fail and I need to do it with my own money and I need to do it with my own ideas and my own stupid decisions.
“Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but I need to do it. And I need to prove whether or not I’m a good entrepreneur or a bad entrepreneur.”