Tim Leiweke may have one of the hardest jobs in corporate Canada: turning Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s sad-sack franchises into legitimate contenders. Though rolling in profit, MLSE has failed to win where it matters: on the ice, on the pitch and on the court. The Leafs have gone 46 years without a Stanley Cup, Toronto FC has yet to produce a winning season, and the Raptors can’t keep talent long enough to build a team.
Enter Leiweke, a 56-year-old, straight-talking St. Louis native who spent the last 17 years shaping Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) into a championship factory, with titles from basketball’s Lakers, hockey’s Kings and soccer’s Galaxy. Now, Leiweke’s being asked to do the same for Canada’s richest sports conglomerate. The man doesn’t lack self-confidence. Soon after touching down in Toronto, he began talking about parade routes for the Stanley Cup celebration, and suggested the Leafs take down old photos of former greats and start living in the present. Not surprisingly in sports-mad Toronto, controversy ensued.
Leiweke says he regrets being so bold (well, sort of). But as the new CEO of MLSE, he understands just how big this job is: a complete rebuild of a long-neglected corporate structure. The future of some of MLSE’s key assets may depend on it. Job one, he argues, is for the organization to start acting—and talking—like it wants to win again.
These teams haven’t been the most successful franchises in recent history. Why on Earth would you leave L.A. to take this job?
Because of that reason. Who would want the job if you were winning all the time, and all you were doing was continuing to maintain that tradition? The great jobs in life are the ones with the biggest challenges. That’s why we are here—to push ourselves, to find the biggest mountains we can possibly find to climb. And this one’s a big one. These are teams of significance. These are teams that matter, teams that are part of the life and the history and the tradition of an entire community. So if you could win here, it would be absolutely remarkable, and you would change the market forever (1). I like that. And I think that, in the past, maybe that scared some people here.
When you think back to when you arrived in L.A., what similarities do you see coming into Toronto?
None. I wish. In L.A., it was a build. In the case of hockey, the Kings were pretty insignificant, because Gretzky had left. Soccer didn’t exist. And we really weren’t ingrained in the Lakers, because AEG was the minority partner and they weren’t playing in our building yet. Here, it’s a very big company (2). You come in and you inherit people, you inherit culture, you inherit tradition, you inherit a way of doing business that had already been set in stone, in some cases. And so now what you are doing is, instead of building things, to some extent you have to tear a few things down to rebuild them. You’ve got to change the thinking, the culture and the way we operate as a company day to day. This is much more difficult.
As the new CEO, nobody expects you to win off the bat. What sort of window do you give yourself?
I think the Leafs should expect to win, and because of the year we had last year (3), we want to continue to build upon that success. There is an expectation there, and we accept it. I have not been shy of saying that the soccer team will be completely fixed. We cannot be afraid of winning. For too long here, we’ve been afraid of expectations, and they’ve crushed us. We’ve been afraid of winning, and it has destroyed us. Great organizations don’t back down from the challenge. I learned that with the Lakers. The Lakers are not afraid to admit that they are expected to win. We need to have that kind of culture here.
Now, the Raptors are going to take time, because of the system that we have with the NBA and the reality of not only the contracts, but our lack of resources—we didn’t have one pick in the draft this summer—so that may take a little bit more patience. But you will immediately see a different team, a different tone.