So that’s it, then? No Stanley Cups since 1967, an NBA team that has issues with legitimacy within the game, a Major League Soccer team that would be a decent second-year expansion club (even though it’s in its sixth year) and, basically, you go and plaster one of those Keep Calm and Carry On posters all over the Air Canada Centre?
Why not? Tom Anselmi may not be the most inspired or sexiest choice to be the new president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. but he’s good enough that he won’t interfere with the raison d’être of MLSE: continuing to make money hand over fist the way his predecessor, Richard Peddie, did for all those years.
And here you thought it was all about winning.
There are people out there with the misconception that Peddie’s replacement would come in and cure Brian Burke’s tendency to collect third- and fourth-line and backup players or turnaround Bryan Colangelo’s luck in the NBA draft. They are the same people who rail at Gary Bettman or other league commissioners for not being advocates for the fans, when the truth is, there isn’t a commissioner alive who is anything other than a chief executive officer beholden to his employers: the owners of his franchises.
In an interview on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Prime Time Sports (full disclosure: I’m the host of a show on the same Toronto station), Anselmi, who retained his title of chief operating officer, hit all the right notes about winning and working with Maple Leafs general manager Burke and Raptors GM Colangelo. But his most interesting comment was his suggestion that it was time to “simplify our lives a bit” – in other words, to temper the public perception of MLSE as a corporate octopus with its hands in real estate and broadcasting as well as sports, even at a time when a new ownership structure has taken hold after the joint purchase of 75 per-cent of MLSE by Rogers Communications and Bell Media.
“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve been in a growth mode,” Anselmi said later on Tuesday, expanding on the statement. “Something new was coming down the pipe every 15 minutes. Maybe it’s time to hunker down and focus on our knitting – or, focus on the fans.”
Anselmi, who for now will answer directly to the board through chairman Larry Tanenbaum, has been with MLSE since 1996 as an executive vice-president. Popular with the Toronto media and within the company (while his deal was finalized last week, there are those within the Air Canada Centre who have operated for weeks happily under the assumption he’d get the job), Anselmi has been involved in many of the group’s real estate projects but it is his tortured stewardship of Toronto FC that has made his name most familiar to Toronto sports fans. You can argue that no team in the history of this city has frittered away as much die-hard fan support as quickly as the Reds, and Anselmi has faced the criticism head on, meeting at one point with supporters groups. The exercise was, Anselmi admitted, a learning experience.
“I learned that you need a different level of grassroots communication with your customer these days,” Anselmi said. “In some ways, it’s a little more intimate. That’s a lesson that’s applicable anywhere.”
Anselmi joked about how MLSE wasn’t really all that big, that it was “Mickey Mouse” in size compared to the companies that own it. Still, he knows that winning is the only thing that will change the perception of MLSE as a group of suits sitting on top of the Alberta oil sands of North American sports, that without successful teams and big-name players a vacuum is created that is most often filled with conjecture about the front office. Content is the new real estate for MLSE, and Anselmi knows winning content is better content.
To that end, the most anybody in his position can do is hire the right people when he gets the chance, and then get out of the way.