Toronto NFL bid doomed from the start

Photo: Mark Blinch/CP

If Toronto ever gets an NFL franchise—a prospect more distant than ever it seems—maybe this will all be forgotten.

But if the city never does get to be the first international entry in that most American of pastimes—or if it takes another 40 years as local movers and shakers first begin nosing around the idea in the early 1970s—then the opportunity that came and went over the past six months should be remembered as the time the city missed its moment in the most Toronto of ways.

The only move was to do something financially crazy, and those trying to bring the NFL here aren’t that. As a result, they were never really in the running to get their hands on the Buffalo Bills.

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On surface, the Toronto group bidding for the team had all the elements of a serious player.

There was money and sports industry know-how in the form of MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who teamed with Paul Godfrey in an attempt to lure an NFL team to Toronto in the early 1970s, and Edward Rogers III, the deputy chairman of Rogers Communications. It was his late father, Ted, who partnered with MLSE and Tanenbaum eight years ago to begin schmoozing then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in earnest.

The ill-fated Bills in Toronto series, where Rogers poured nearly $80 million into the coffers of the Bills for the privilege of hosting nine buzzless dates at Rogers Centre, should have at least bought some goodwill.

When Tim Leiweke joined MLSE from Los Angeles and connected Tanenbaum and Rogers with rocker and bid frontman Jon Bon Jovi, believed to have the ear of all kinds of NFL decision makers, there seemed to be momentum.

When Bills founder Ralph Wilson passed in March at age 95, forcing his estate to sell the franchise, there seemed to be a chance that may never come around again.

“For Toronto this was a huge opportunity,” said one sports industry executive with experience buying and selling a franchise. “But it’s a missed opportunity.”

Buying a sports franchise typically requires some degree of crazy. “You’re selling sizzle—the opportunity for very wealthy people to differentiate themselves from their very wealthy friends. No one ever does these deals for the balance sheet,” said the source.

The epitaph for the Toronto bid will likely read: “Not crazy enough.”

On the surface, the Toronto group still seems like they’re in it. There are three widely reported bidders—the Toronto group; blowhard-in-chief Donald Trump; and Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres.

The Associated Press reported that this Monday is the deadline to submit purchase agreements—binding documents that require groups to submit a formal bid as well as establish the terms and conditions of a potential sale.

But in reality the contest is there to be won by Pegula, who has a net worth of $3.5 billion as well as local credibility. The real challenge for investment banker Morgan Stanley—running the sale for the Wilson estate—and the NFL has been to create at least the illusion of competition to make sure that the Pegulas are kept honest.

No one is really taking Trump seriously. As one source put it: “Strike one is he’s a loudmouth; strike two is he sued the NFL (as owner of the New Jersey Generals, Trump championed the USFL’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the NFL back in the mid-1980s). You don’t need strike three.”

Which leaves Tanenbaum and Rogers—each declined requests for interviews—and their frontman, Bon Jovi.

They are serious bidders, but not nuts, which is why they won’t get this team. Given their obvious ties to Toronto and the NFL’s stated desire to keep the team in Western New York, the only real chance they had was to go all Steve Ballmer. The new Los Angeles Clippers owner and former Microsoft mogul is the gold standard for doing whatever it takes to get what you want in the rarified air of major North American sports franchise ownership, of which the NFL has the highest standards of all.

There is no rational way to explain why he was willing to spend $2 billion on the Clippers other than he badly wanted to be an NBA owner and he had the money needed to clear up the mess left by Donald Sterling quickly and scare off any other bidders.

In retrospect—even in prospect—that was the only viable path available to a Toronto group. The only way the NFL and the Wilson family would sell to a group who had the ultimate aim of moving the franchise from Buffalo would have been to pay a premium they couldn’t refuse.

Given the league is determined to see a sale price north of $1.1 billion, according to sources, and ideally something in the neighbourhood of $1.3 billion, the best bet for the Toronto bid would have been to come in pre-emptively and aggressively at something in the $1.5-billion range.

Then the group would have had to either have enough powder on hand to pay $400 million to get out of the Bills’ current lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium (and that would only come into play if the courts allow the lease to be broken, which is considered highly unlikely) or have the stomach to attend home games with a security detail to get them in and out of Orchard Park safely until they could exercise the one-time $28.4-million buyout of the lease available that would allow them to move the team in 2020.

Oh, and while all that was going on they’d need to build a stadium somewhere in Southern Ontario which could easily run them another $750 million or more. And who knows what the NFL would charge as a relocation fee.

Does the Toronto bid group really want an NFL team so badly they are willing to commit north of $2.5 billion?

There was a leaked story on Friday that suggested that Bon Jovi had split with the Toronto group, fuelling speculation Tanenbaum and Rogers were contemplating going it alone.

It was suggested that Bon Jovi’s financial resources meant the Toronto group’s upper ceiling was about $1 billion. Under NFL rules if the rocker wanted to be the frontman on the bid he’d need to throw in 30 percent of the purchase fee, and the highest he could go was $300 million. If Bon Jovi is out Tanenbaum and Rogers could hypothetically go higher, be crazier.

Except the story wasn’t even remotely true, according to sources. “Bon Jovi brought these guys to the party—there is no way they would toss him aside now,” said one source close to the bidding process. “That’s not how they do business.”

Regardless, Tanenbaum and Rogers aren’t in position to cut blank cheques either. There is no Steve Ballmer move coming.

The Bills will be sold to the Pegulas and the Toronto group’s real role at this point is to at least provide the semblance of competition so the NFL can preserve its franchise values. It’s a goodwill gesture that could conceivably pay off if another opportunity comes to bring the NFL north, an idea that has been 40 years in the making with no horizon in sight.

After all that time Toronto’s NFL dreams remain what they always were: something closer to a fantasy.

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