Now that Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan is going to hang on to its 80-per-cent share of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the company can come out of its state of suspended animation.
The to-do list, roughly in order, is to resume the search for a successor for retiring president Richard Peddie who will depart on Dec. 31, pray for the return of goaltender James Reimer in the next few days to keep that Toronto Maple Leafs playoff bandwagon moving toward a cash bonanza in the spring, get ready to rake in millions, probably from Bell Media, in a new radio deal and quietly, very quietly, hope the Toronto Raptors lose as much as possible in the lockout-shortened NBA season so they can get the first overall draft pick in 2012. Then, once all of that is out of the way, get started on that regional sports network for which MLSE already has a licence, tentatively called Real Sports, which will combine Leafs TV, NBA TV Canada and Gol TV, as first reported by The Globe and Mail more than a year ago. But more about that later.
First, the search is officially back on for a new president, although MLSE types are keeping quiet about potential candidates. Maybe that’s because the front-runner internally is Tom Anselmi, MLSE’s chief operating officer.
Anselmi has been working hard to get the job since Peddie announced his plan to retire Dec. 31. Peddie was going to leave as early as July 1 but agreed to stay when Teachers’ put its shares up for sale. But now that Teachers’ is staying, Peddie will definitely leave on Dec. 31, according to an MLSE source.
At this point, it looks like Anselmi will either be named acting president or assume Peddie’s duties and keep his title as COO in a sort of audition for the top job until a permanent president is named. The rest of the management team will remain in place.
The trouble with finding a new president for MLSE is the same as finding a buyer for Teachers’ share of the company: There are few qualified candidates. MLSE’s varied holdings require expertise in a lot of areas, from sports to media to real estate.
In the NHL, for example, the most obvious candidate is Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive officer of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the Los Angeles Kings in addition to other sports teams, the LA Live entertainment venue and various arenas around the world.
He has a friendly relationship with Peddie and MLSE. But he’s worked for Philip Anschutz for many years and probably has an equity position in his company which would complicate a move to Toronto.
The radio rights for the Maple Leafs come up for auction at the end of this season. Even though AM 640, the present holder, is not expected to bid, MLSE can anticipate a sharp increase in the current fee of $1.5-million a year. Bell Media sees those rights as the key to the future of its sports radio station in Toronto, TSN Radio 1050. What remains to be seen is how eager Rogers Communications is to get them for its own station, Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
As for a regional sports television network, MLSE is biding its time until 2015 when the Leafs’ local television rights expire, since those are the ones that will make this venture pay. The important stuff, the licence, is already in place, so the company has four years to build Real Sports into a network as successful as its sports bar namesake.
Like Peddie told The Globe and Mail in October of 2010: “Imagine a channel that had Leafs, Raptors, TFC and Marlies games on it. Imagine what you could charge for that.”
THE GREAT ONE AND THE LEAFS
If the Toronto Maple Leafs ever do get a new owner, do not expect Wayne Gretzky to automatically be part of the mix. Somehow that notion was planted when it was mistakenly reported Gretzky was approached by Providence Equity Partners to be part of a bid for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Gretzky’s representative, Darren Blake, said Sunday that Providence never approached him and the other groups that did were “people kicking tires.”
It turns out the key party in this drama, Toronto-Dominion Bank, was never mentioned in any of the stories about this. For almost all of the discussions – and they were all informal – about Gretzky taking a role with MLSE were with TD.
One of Gretzky’s major endorsement deals is with TD. Before TD sold its 13.5-per-cent share of MLSE to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan last May, its executives often asked Gretzky about one day joining forces with the Leafs’ parent company. But these discussions always came up at various corporate schmoozes and never went beyond the informal stage.
Gretzky never jumped up and said, “Yeah, let’s go,” only that he would be interested under the right circumstances. The right circumstances would be a version of the deal he had with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he was essentially paid to be a minority owner and he would only have to make a few appearances a year for the Leafs.