When the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan owned a majority stake in the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and parent Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., fund executives bristled at those who accused them of milking the franchise for money, rather than trying to win.
Jane Rowe, the executive managing director of Teachers who oversaw the $1.32-billion sale of the pension fund’s stake in MLSE in 2012, said at the time: “Did we not want them to win? That I find to be a very mind-boggling question."
The Raptors’ magical spring, which culminated in their first title on Thursday night, captivated the country. It also means money, and lots of it. Winning alters the value of a sports franchise, often permanently. In 17 years as an owner of MLSE, Teachers made an estimated fivefold return on its investment, but never got the big score that comes with fielding a champion.
That windfall is coming instead to Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who stand to turn the Raptors’ championship into a serious win at the cash register.
The two telecom companies each own 37.5 per cent of sports company, which also owns the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and soccer club Toronto FC. Mr. Tanenbaum holds the remaining 25 per cent, and is a more traditional pro sports owner who bought into MLSE in 1998 after successful investments in paving and cable businesses.
For the Raptors, clinching the team’s first NBA title is a "massive marketing and merchandising event’ that matches the recent end of long-running championship droughts at two storied baseball franchises, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, said Matt Powell, vice-president and senior adviser on sports for New York-based consulting firm NPD Group.
“If I was running the Raptors, I would renegotiate every commercial agreement on merchandise and sponsorship, and I would look at increasing ticket prices to the extent I could do so without alienating fans,” Mr. Powell said.
“Those would be my secondary priorities," he added. "My first priority would be re-signing Kawhi Leonard.”
From both a marketing and personal point of view, the team’s three owners stand to reap rewards that are hard to measure, but far more valuable than selling more Raptors swag ahead of Monday’s victory parade in Toronto.
They’re winners: Weeks of gripping playoff games and one wild night of partying across Canada have washed away years of disappointment. The Raptors’ championship adds new lustre to its backers and their brands.
“There’s a direct benefit that comes from winning,” said David Soberman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who specializes in marketing. While a portion of the windfall is easy to calculate – a run on Raptors’ T-shirts and caps, a spike in TV advertising at Bell- and Rogers-owned cable networks – Mr. Soderman said the larger and longer-lasting benefits come from building brands that help consumers distinguish between otherwise interchangeable products such as cellphones or savings accounts. Mr. Soberman said: “Even if they don’t admit it, subconsciously, people will sign up for Bell or Rogers phones because they associate the logo with the Raptors.”
The halo of success around Canada’s only NBA team will last longest for companies with brands or a value proposition that line up with what the team represents. Ken Wong, a professor at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, said there’s a short-term boost for companies that jumped on the Raptors bandwagon with TV advertising campaigns, such as website developer GoDaddy Inc.
A winning season forges deeper tie for sponsors such as Tangerine, the online bank owned by Bank of Nova Scotia. Mr. Wong pointed out that the Raptors’ ethnically diverse, digitally savvy fan base is neatly aligned with Tangerine’s target customers. “Sponsors have far more to gain if their brand and the Raptors’ build off each other,” he said.
Winning is fuelling an already impressive run in the value of Toronto’s NBA franchise. The Raptors played their first game in 1995, after the team’s original owners paid the league a record expansion fee of US$125-million. By the start of this season, the team was worth an estimated US$1.68-billion, slightly under the league average of US$1.87-billion.
By comparison, the Toronto Maple Leafs are valued at US$1.45-billion, far above the NHL’s average team value of US$630-million. Sports economist John Vrooman of Vanderbilt University says winning a title boosts the Raptors’ value into the upper echelon for NBA teams, as it’s the long game that matters most for team valuations. Hoisting the Stanley Cup matters less than market size for NHL valuations, he says, using the oft-beleaguered Leafs as an example. But in basketball, Mr. Vrooman said: “Consistent winning over a cumulative five-to-10-year span is relatively important for NBA club values.”
With a file from Josh O’Kane
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