Anything seems possible now at new MLSE

January 13, 2014, 5:13 PM

You could write a book about MLSE and its checkered history as an ownership group.

In fact, I have co-authored one on just that subject, not too long ago. Punting around MLSE as an owner was a tradition around championship-free Toronto, and it was fun, like playing darts when you’re drunk: the target moved on occasion, but pretty much anything you could throw at the wall would stick.

So what to make of the show that MLSE’s soccer team put on Monday?

What to make of a lavish press conference to announce spending $100-million on a pair of soccer players who certainly have credentials, but would have been in no risk of being mobbed as they strolled through Yorkville the day before?

How about: anything seems possible? How about: why shouldn’t the Toronto Raptors make a run at LeBron James in NBA free agency this summer, with Drake as the point man?

It may not work, but it’s clear that MLSE has ambitions for all their teams now.

“We made some bold statements when I got here, and some of them are coming true, starting with TFC,” MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke said on Tim and Sid on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Monday. “I don’t know how you can be great and aspired to be great if you don’t have high standards and goals.”

England’s Jermain Defoe and American Michael Bradley are decorated veterans of some of the best soccer leagues on the planet, but they’re not celebrity signings. They’re not David Beckham.

Perhaps more importantly Leiweke, who brought Mr. Posh Spice to North America when he was running the L.A. Galaxy, knows perfectly well that the two signings are about the steak, not the sizzle.

Leiweke and TFC spent more money than any other MLS team ever has on a pair of designated players because they can help them win, with the hope that winning will help the bottom line.

That’s in the long term. In the short-term?

“This is financial suicide,” said Leiweke, a sentence that has never before passed the lips of an MLSE executive.

“There will never be a David Beckham again; he was a unique moment and we don’t expect these players to have that name recognition,” said Leiweke. “But these are players in their prime, we got them all in one year and we paid a premium.”

Watching all of this unfold in person was Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. I showed him a tweet I sent out to the effect that if MLSE is spending $100-million on soccer players, it’s hard to imagine they won’t spend into the luxury tax for their NBA team.

Ujiri smiled at the thought, but Leiweke must have been reading his mind.

“This is a great day for Raptors and Leaf fans,” Leiweke said. “Everyone that’s a sports fan ought to walk away today – and whether you love soccer or not – the message you ought to take from all of this is: this ownership is going to do whatever they can to win now and they’re not just focused on the bottom line.”

It’s crazy talk for a fanbase raised on teams owned by a pension plan.

The sale of MLSE to Rogers and Bell closed just 16 months ago and at the time there was promise that two media owners, hungry for content, would be more aggressive when it came to building winning teams and now that Leiweke has been in the president and chief executive officer role for just over six months, it’s hard to dispute that.

Of course moving the needle with TFC is a simpler proposition. With MLS’s designated player rule each team is allowed three players that they can pay virtually anything to without affecting the salary cap.

It’s one of the cruel realities of being a Leafs fan that a team with almost unlimited financial resources has to work within the confines of a hard-cap system, with no more money to wave at players than the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Too bad there are no DPs in the NHL,” said Leiweke.

But he pledged again Monday that the Leafs will always spend to the limit, which should pay dividends eventually if the salary cap climbs to the $90-million range, as many predict.

On the basketball side the Raptors will have the green light to spend above the cap and incur luxury tax penalties when the opportunity presents itself.

“We’re not afraid of the luxury tax at the right time,” said Leiweke. “These owners are in it to win.”

Things in Toronto, they’re changing. Write it down.

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