When it comes to sports-business free agents, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. landed the biggest of them all in new president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke – who promised Toronto fans his priority is to make champions out of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC.
While Leiweke’s recent role as directing billionaire Philip Anschutz’s drive for an NFL team and stadium for Los Angeles immediately raised the question of the same thing happening in Toronto, he said that is something for later.
Right now, he has to fix the Raptors, which means Bryan Colangelo could be out as president and general manager of the NBA team. And there could be a soccer superstar in TFC’s future, although Leiweke had kind words for TFC president and GM Kevin Payne, whom he knows from his Major Soccer League dealings, as well as Maple Leafs GM David Nonis.
“But that’s not my mandate,” Leiweke, 56, said of chasing an NFL team for Toronto. “My mandate is what we have today, and how to make that better. My mandate is success with the existing [MLSE] assets.
“It makes the building look at lot brighter and you look at lot better when you’re hanging those [championship] banners. That’s what we have to do at Maple Leaf Sports.”
MLSE announced Friday its new leader was Leiweke, who surprisingly ended a 17-year business relationship with Anschutz when he stepped down as chairman of the sports and entertainment conglomerate Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) on March 14.
Leiweke, who took a hands-on role with AEG’s main L.A. sports properties – the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and MLS’s Galaxy – and saw both of them win their respective league championships last year, will take over on June 30. He also played a role in the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, which AEG co-owns with the Buss family.
Leiweke said the challenge of bringing the Stanley Cup to Toronto for the first time since 1967 and turning around the perennially woeful Raptors was what attracted him to the job. Those who know Leiweke, who came to be friends with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and former MLSE president Richard Peddie when they worked together in the NHL and MLS, say he has the drive and the talent to do what he promises.
“He has the amazing ability to keep a lot of balls up the in the air,” Peddie said. “He only knows one gear, that’s the forward gear, a high-speed gear. He’s very innovative.”
Leiweke is no stranger to big, splashy deals. He signed soccer superstar David Beckham to what would add up to a five-year, $50-million (U.S.) contract to play for the Galaxy in 2007. Beckham helped the Galaxy win the MLS crown in 2011 and 2012, before departing for a team in France.
“I happen to think the fans of the Toronto football club deserve that kind of player if you can find them,” Leiweke said. “I’ve been told by the [MLSE] board and the owners if we find the right guy, we’ll be all in.”
Leiweke’s arrival means a step back for Tom Anselmi, who was promoted to president and chief operating officer of MLSE last year, when Peddie retired, but the board of directors withheld the CEO title. After Leiweke split with AEG, MLSE quickly started courting him.
Two sources familiar with MLSE plans said the company’s directors hope Anselmi, who is keeping his role of COO despite losing the president’s title, will stay with the company, although that is not certain. Leiweke has spoken to Anselmi and expressed the same sentiment. He said he is a big-picture, visionary style of leader while Anselmi is skilled at the details of the day-to-day operations of a large company.
AEG also moved into various sports and entertainment ventures under Leiweke. It now owns and manages arenas around the world, including London’s O2 Arena, as well as the Staples Center and the L.A. LIVE entertainment complex in Los Angeles.
“This guy is at the top of the class,” said Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship Group of Toronto, a sports marketing company. “Every sports executive I know who deals with him has nothing but the highest regard for him.”
The MLSE appointment also raised the question of the company’s plans for growth in what appears to be a saturated market.
Leiweke was also in charge of AEG’s bid for an NFL team and stadium for Los Angeles, which raised the question of the same scenario for Toronto, where Tanenbaum and MLSE co-owner Rogers Communications Inc., have tried unsuccessfully for years to land an NFL team.
Another possibility is putting all of the city’s major-league teams under one corporate roof (Rogers owns baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays).
However, even though his long-term goal is overall growth for MLSE, Leiweke said the immediate task is to make champions of “the big three:” Leafs, Raptors and TFC.
Since the NFL prefers individual owners rather than corporations, Leiweke pointed out MLSE is not likely to get a team, but did say he would lend his help down the road if someone wants to chase one. He also played down the notion of MLSE expanding overseas.
“I don’t think this board is interested in Europe and China,” he said. “What they’re interested in is here in Canada.”