Keith Pelley shocked his colleagues at Rogers Communications Inc. with his resignation on Friday morning as president of Rogers Media, deciding to trade the airwaves for the fairways.
Pelley, 51, is a lifelong golf enthusiast who says his new job as commissioner and chief executive officer of the European Tour, the overseas professional golf circuit, is "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
It also comes with a residence next to the famous Wentworth Club just outside of London. While it isn't known if the European Tour will match or exceed the $1.8-million in total compensation Pelley earned at Rogers in 2014, the job has a long list of perks and a much higher profile than that of a Canadian broadcast executive.
Rogers is coming to the end of a rocky first year of a 12-year, $5.2-billion national broadcast deal with the NHL, which was spearheaded by Pelley and his long-time friend and colleague Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers. Thanks mainly to the collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose enormous fan base drives television ratings in Canada, advertising, cable subscription and digital revenue for the 2014-15 season is unlikely to match the $433-million annual average cost of the contract to Rogers.
Rogers president and chief executive officer Guy Laurence, who took over Dec. 2, 2013, with a mandate to remake the company into a more nimble, digitally focused enterprise, has not spared the axe in his 15 months on the job. Pelley's resignation marks at least the seventh departure among the top-level executives under Laurence. There could be more as the effects of the hockey deal are felt in the coming months.
However, even Pelley's intimates – who were kept in the dark along with everyone else – think he is leaving Rogers on his own terms, not with a push from Laurence.
"Oh no," said Bob McCown, host of Prime Time Sports on Rogers' Sportsnet 590 The Fan radio station in Toronto, who is one of Pelley's closest friends but learned of the move shortly before everyone else on Friday, when Pelley called him. "I asked how [Laurence] reacted and he said he was encouraging and wished him well."
It appears Pelley nailed down the European Tour job last weekend following a marathon negotiating session. The former commissioner, George O'Grady, announced last November he was stepping down but would stay on until a replacement was found. Pelley plans to do the same at Rogers and expects to leave the company during the summer.
In a statement released by Rogers, Laurence said Pelley has done "a terrific job" for the company.
"Keith has done a tremendous job for the company over the past five years and I'm delighted for him and his family," Laurence said.
In the same release, Rogers gave Pelley credit for reorganizing its media division in addition to directing the drive to the NHL media contract. He also "led the push to digital across the publishing brands; launched shomi and Next Issue in Canada; [and] launched Sportsnet magazine to make Sportsnet the only five-platform sports media brand in the country."
Pelley said in an e-mail message that leaving Rogers "was a difficult decision." However, he added, "I love golf and given I'll never be a professional golfer, this truly is the next best thing."
Pelley also wrote that ratings for the first few days of the NHL playoffs "well-exceeded expectations" thanks to the presence of five Canadian teams.
But during his 29 years in the broadcast and sports industries, Pelley has shown a remarkable sense of when to leave a job. He quit as president of TSN, owned by BCE Inc., in 2003 to become president of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts because of his love for Canadian football. After directing a successful 2007 Grey Cup festival and championship game (won by the Saskatchewan Roughriders) at Toronto's Rogers Centre for Argo owners Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon, Pelley left to run Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium, a joint venture between Rogers and BCE, which owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.
Ultimately, the consortium failed to produce the big profits expected from its rights deals for the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 London Games. But Pelley left the company in September, 2010, following the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which was certainly an artistic success. This resulted in controversy, as BCE offered the job of running what was then called CTVglobemedia Inc. to Pelley only to see him take the Rogers Media job at the last minute.
Now, as Pelley takes his leave from Rogers Media, there are signs of trouble aside from the hockey contract. While revenue at the division was up in 2014 to $1.8-billion, profit dipped to $130-million from $160-million in 2013.
A successor to Pelley is hard to predict, given the hard feelings between Rogers and BCE. But Kevin Crull was ousted as Bell Media's president last week, which might make him available. Another candidate is Phil King, president of CTV, sports and entertainment programming for BCE. Also, Laurence has shown no reluctance in chasing star executives, as his top hires were people from Google, Deutsche Telekom and Cisco.