It's easy to fault Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment for failing to win a championship at the company's flagship Toronto properties, the NHL's Maple Leafs and the NBA's Raptors.
It's impossible to fault MLSE for its ability to create a first-class fan experience, and its ability to separate that fan from every available dollar. On MLSE's watch, the stands are always full and broadcasts are ratings winners.
That business acumen explains why MLSE ended up acquiring another Toronto team on Wednesday by purchasing the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.
This was a deal driven by BCE Inc. chief executive officer George Cope, whose company acquired the Argos in a partnership with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum back in 2015. BCE, Mr. Tanenbaum and Rogers Communications Inc. are co-owners of MLSE: The Argos were an odd outlier.
Sources close to MLSE say Mr. Cope wanted the CFL franchise in the same professional hands that run Toronto's pro basketball, hockey and soccer team, which won its first championship last week. Mr. Tanenbaum was always on side; Rogers recently came around on the concept.
What Rogers received in return for signing off on the Argos acquisition remains to be seen. But this is not a transaction that saw serious money change hands. BCE's financial disclosure from 2015 showed the Argos were purchased for a total of $50-million; even with a Grey Cup win last month, a franchise with the league's worst attendance isn't worth much more now than it was two years ago.
As an aside, the concept of uniting a Canadian city's pro sports franchises under common ownership may also soon be playing out in Vancouver. B.C. Lions owner David Braley is in talks to sell the CFL team to Francesco Aquilini, owner of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, among other buyers, according to sources close to Mr. Braley. To date, the two sides have been unable to agree on price: Mr. Braley is looking for $25-million, and Mr. Aquilini and other potential suitors are offering considerably less.
Those who wonder about MLSE's marriage of historic arch-rivals are forgetting what they learned in first-year economics. Rogers and BCE compete in telecom, wireless and sports broadcasting, as owners of networks TSN and Sportsnet, respectively. Economics 101 taught us that oligopolies are a logical outcome after a competitive sector consolidates around its strongest players.
By gathering sports properties under one roof, MLSE enhances its broadcasting and marketing clout. By sharing in ownership of the teams, BCE and Rogers guarantee access to sports content on their various platforms, and limit the potential for irrational competition. And Mr. Tanenbaum sits at the head of the table, able to play off two deep-pocketed partners and, of late, step forward as the proud owner who is handed a championship trophy at the end of the successful season.
It's also important to keep in mind just how quickly the definition of sports is evolving. On Wednesday, MLSE announced the Argos acquisition.
On Thursday, the company announced the name and logo of its e-sports squad – it's called the Raptors Uprising Gaming Club – that plays NBA-level basketball on a digital court.
It's entirely possible that over time, the NBA online gaming team will prove more valuable than the 144-year-old CFL franchise.
In Toronto's pro-sports market, home to teams that can attract national audiences, only baseball's Blue Jays remain outside the MLSE fold. The franchise is owned by Rogers, which is openly reviewing its ownership options. Cue the speculation on MLSE as a potential new partner.