As a highly regarded sports-business expert at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, David Carter has studied Tim Leiweke and witnessed first-hand Leiweke’s still-born attempt to bring a National Football League franchise to Los Angeles.
Tenacious, energetic and enthusiastic are words he uses to describe Leiweke, and L.A.’s so-far unrealized NFL dream hasn’t diminished what Carter sees as Leiweke’s value to Toronto’s or any other city’s bid for an NFL franchise. “Whether he’s specifically the right guy to bring a team to Toronto is one thing,” Carter said. “But if you want somebody who knows how to massage the league office or other NFL owners? He’s a good guy to have on your side. Really, nobody gets to the level he’s at without impressing and disappointing people.”
It was little reported in Toronto when Leiweke was appointed president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., but Leiweke’s departure from the Anschutz Entertainment Group came after Philip Anschutz decided to take his company off the block. That, in turn, raised some hackles among politicos and businessmen who were on board with AEG’s attempt to bring an NFL franchise to L.A. Anschutz, the reclusive Colorado-based businessman, became the target of much of the anger, but Leiweke wasn’t spared. Now, Leiweke has found himself linked with another NFL bid, this time a reported play for the Buffalo Bills that would involve rocker Jon Bon Jovi, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and, possibly, Edward Rogers of Rogers Communications. Including a new stadium, the total tab would reportedly exceed $2-billion (U.S.). The Bills have a lease with Erie County and the state of New York that runs through 2022 and which can be exited only by a $400-million break fee starting in 2019.
Just in time for this coming weekend’s Bills-Atlanta Falcons game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.com reported on Sunday that Bon Jovi was positioning himself to make a bid for the Bills when owner Ralph Wilson dies. The Wilson family has said it would eventually sell the team due to inheritance-tax implications.
However, on Monday, Bon Jovi’s publicist, Ken Sunshine, said: “The Bills are not for sale, and he [Bon Jovi] has too much respect for Mr. Wilson to engage in any discussions of buying the team.” Of course, what else would a publicist say?
Meanwhile, Dave Haggith, a spokesman for Leiweke, said on Monday that “out of respect for the Bills playing here this week, Tim does not want to comment further at this time.” But on Friday, Sports Business Journal reported that Leiweke talked up Toronto at the Sports Entertainment & Venues Tomorrow conference in Columbia, S.C. “The NFL game on Thursday night [Saints-Falcons] outdrew the NHL in Canada. Nothing outdraws the NHL in Canada, except Rob Ford on the nightly news,” Leiweke said in a keynote address. “They love the NFL up there. It’s unbelievable. Toronto is a vibrant, deep market. People talk about the great marketplaces in the world for live entertainment and sports. No. 1 gross in hockey? Toronto. Top-10 gross still today in the NBA? Toronto. Top-five gross in Major League Soccer? Toronto. Music – there’s the O2 in London, Madison Square Garden, maybe Staples Center and then Air Canada Centre, which had 60 shows last year, all sold out. There’s so much money up there. But we’ve got to find a stadium, got to find owners and got to find a team.”
In addition to L.A., the NFL has become increasingly intrigued with the possibility of putting a team in London, England. Where would Toronto fit on the NFL’s priority list? “I’m not sure Toronto is at or near the top,” Carter said, “but what it does offer is a way of remedying a stadium-revenue issue. So this may be less about Toronto as it is ‘If not Buffalo, where?’ Toronto would certainly be a much softer landing place for the Bills than, say, L.A. The key is the stadium deal; it has to work for the team and set precedent moving forward.”
So, could Bon Jovi, the NFL and Toronto make beautiful music? Carter guards against dismissing anything out of hand. “It’s remarkable how often you see a team sold and then everybody sits back and says: ‘We should have seen it coming.’ Just because we don’t see a deal right in front of us doesn’t mean contingencies haven’t been discussed.” For now, Toronto, that’s the best you’ll get.