When it came time for Tim Leiweke to choose a new sponsorship partner for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and other sports properties, his decision was a no-brainer – he opted for a Canadian over a foreign-owned retailer.
That may have been bad news for U.S.-based retailers, some of whom are believed to have been interested in the sponsorship. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. owns the wildly popular Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies, Air Canada Centre, among other properties.
But Mr. Leiweke, the new chief executive officer of MLSE, said he chose to go with Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. because it's a "unique asset of this country and this culture …"
"I'm very loyal now to Canadian Tire," he added. "This has a lot to do with the fact that it's a Canadian company."
The 10-year deal, which will allow Canadian Tire, for instance, to put its own and Sport Chek logos on centre ice and in other locations, underscores the Toronto-based chain's race to bolster its sports offerings as a way to differentiate itself from newcomers such as Target.
Canadian Tire replaces troubled home improvement specialist Rona Inc. as the exclusive sponsorship retailer for sports teams.
After Rona bowed out of the sponsorship in its bid to save costs, "several" other retailers vied to take its place, Mr. Leiweke said, without naming them.
"Companies are always looking for new ways to connect with consumers," said Steven Lewis, president of marketing sponsorship agency XMC in Toronto.
Mr. Lewis said Target, Wal-Mart Canada Corp. and other retailers undoubtedly considered the MLSE opportunity when Rona didn't renew its contract.
But for Canadian Tire, the tie-in with hockey and other sports works well as the retailer wraps itself in the Canadian flag as it faces off with Target and other foreign players in a competitive marketplace, Mr. Lewis said. In the past year or so, Canadian Tire has announced other sports deals and sponsorships, including an eight-year partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Michael Medline, president of Canadian Tire Sports, said the retailer's MLSE partnership goes beyond a standard sponsorship deal, underlining the "the power of sports."
Among other moves, Canadian Tire will set up one of its Sport Chek stores across from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, replacing an MLSE apparel outlet.
The partnership will involve Canadian Tire's namesake brand as well as Mark's, Partsource, National Sports, Pro Hockey Life and Atmosphere, all retailers it owns. It will run MLSE apparel shops in some of its flagship stores, and Mark's will become the official uniform provider for MLSE staff at Air Canada Centre.
MLSE properties also include the MLSE Foundation, BMO Field, Ricoh Coliseum and Real Sports Bar & Grill.
Under Mr. Leiweke, MLSE is trying to breathe new life into the Maple Leafs and other teams. He has "instilled a new level of confidence and urgency" in the company, Mr. Lewis said.