Sport is big business. Big, publicly-scrutinized business, more accurately. So it wasn’t surprising that money and fan satisfaction were common themes in the messages delivered Wednesday evening by Tim Leiweke (MLSE president and CEO), Dave Nonis (Maple Leafs senior VP and GM), Masai Ujiri (Raptors president and GM) and Tim Bezbatchenko (Toronto FC GM)—four of the highest-profile suits from the offices of the massive sports-media-real estate conglomerate that is Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment—during an hour-long state of the union of sorts in-studio on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
Leiweke espoused the benefits of his planned $120-million renovation to BMO Field, an operation that will cost nearly twice what it did to build the home of Toronto FC in the first place. The stadium opened less than seven years ago, yet is already the third-oldest in MLS and is hamstrung by its size, making it suitable only for soccer and rugby. So, there will be a roof over the stands and a proposed training facility for the Raptors and 10,000 more seats, many of which Leiweke would like to be movable so the surface can be expanded to host CFL competition. Acquiring the Toronto Argonauts as a tenant is the obvious intention, but the bigger one is landing the NHL’s Winter Classic in 2017, the the Maple Leafs’ centennial.
There was also a convincingly fired up Ujiri, discussing the inherently-Canadian fear that the world’s top sports talents don’t particularly care to come to Toronto and play in an unfamiliar country where the taxes are higher and it snows an awful lot. Ujiri called it “the biggest B.S. in the world,” urging anyone who would listen that building a winning franchise was the screw in need of turning to attract basketball’s—or any sport’s, really—best players. That theory is a little chicken-and-eggish, but what’s clear, especially in the NBA, is that it takes a considerable financial investment, in both players and facilities, to build that winner.
And there was Bezbatchenko, backed by the at times microphone-shy Nonis, waxing reflective on the intense, limit-pushing, think-big (their words) philosophy the MLSE executives all share. Bezbatchenko would know, considering the landscape-shifting transactions his franchise made this winter. And Nonis has known for some time, likely since joining the organization in 2008. “We’re very fortunate with what we have available to us,” Nonis said of MLSE’s pocketbook. “We’ve never been in a situation where we’ve gone to the board and said this is what we’d like to do and they’ve said, ‘nah we don’t’ think so.’”
And that’s what will matter, ultimately, for MLSE in its self-stated pursuit of success, championships and prestige across all entities—money, and the amount spent.
It’s no secret that the Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley deals don’t get done if Leiweke doesn’t outbid the world, signing off on two steep contracts—Defoe will earn four times what he was in Europe; Bradley, six—along with a pair of $10-million transfer fees that set MLS records for their costliness. The deals gave Toronto FC the highest payroll in the MLS—ever.
That isn’t just a promising development for FC faithful. MLSE’s paying customers can now expect that level of spending to be replicated in the corporation’s basketball and hockey properties—made somewhat more difficult, admittedly, by the NHL’s hard salary cap and the NBA’s maximum contracts—in a concerted effort for this thing to work. MLSE can’t sell fans on a frugal option. They can’t Tampa Bay Rays this one.
And to his credit, Leiweke said that he wouldn’t be afraid to make it happen. He eagerly fantasized about the day that Ujiri walked into his office asking for a heavy cheque to give to one of the NBA’s premier talents. “If we have the chance to get a guy or two,” Leiweke said, “we’ll do it.” One would assume the same level of expenditure excitement extends to the Maple Leafs, who assumedly wouldn’t have to worry about being priced out of a theoretical Steven Stamkos lottery in the summer of 2016.
It seems this will be what it takes for Leiweke and the board at MLSE as it tries to make good on public promises to turn its perpetually-unsuccessful franchises around—a great deal of money. It also takes good coaching, sound development and smart management. It also takes a core of homegrown organizational players who have been developed in-house and groomed to fit nicely into the machine. It also takes a great deal of good fortune, which, unfortunately for those in charge, is out of anyone’s grasp.
Which is why MLSE looks to be employing targeted, measured utilization of resources to acquire a specific brand of player who fits seamlessly into the mold. This is careful construction; not mindless spendthriftery.