Larry Tanenbaum may have failed in his bid to buy the iconic Chelsea Football Club last month, but that doesn’t mean he’s done trying to expand his sports empire. The chair of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is eyeing opportunities across all of the top-tier European soccer leagues, he revealed this week during a lengthy interview with The Globe and Mail, in which he also expressed optimism about bringing professional women’s teams in basketball, hockey and soccer to Toronto.
Critics who are frustrated with the apparent lack of alarm within MLSE over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ inability to win even a single playoff round since 2004 will not likely be soothed by the 76-year-old Tanenbaum: While he, too, admitted to disappointment, he insisted the team was “close” to success, and he promised fans they will deliver a Stanley Cup.
The usually media-shy billionaire spoke on the eve of an announcement that he had donated $20-million to kick-start the Tanenbaum Institute for Science in Sport at the University of Toronto and Sinai Health, a global centre of excellence for high-performance sport science and sports medicine.
Everyone – certainly everyone in Toronto – reading about the new institute is going to ask, ‘Will this help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup? Or even get past the first round?’
Well, let’s put it this way: My vision has always been that the Stanley Cup is what we are absolutely working for, each and every day. I know that we can achieve that goal, and I promise you we will achieve it. I know we’re close.
And do you think this undertaking is going to help?
It’s absolutely going to help us. It’s actually going to help all sports teams.
But if it’s going to help everyone, where’s the advantage for the Leafs? At least give us one year with whatever discoveries the institute makes? Just hold back something?
Something? Okay, you got it.
I know you’re joking, and I’m sorry if I sound exasperated, but, you know, it’s been a long time.
Well, of course it has, but I’m telling you, we are totally dedicated. I have president Brendan Shanahan, who feels his No. 1 mission is to bring us that Stanley Cup. We deserve better than getting knocked out in the first round, I can tell you that, between you and I.
Well, presumably not just between you and I – everyone feels that. But tell me, on a personal level, you’ve been associated with this team for 26 years, so how does it feel when it seems so close – but it just doesn’t happen, again?
Two words: disappointed, but hopeful. Hopeful, because I really feel we are close. And you know, this is not about a one-year journey, this is a multiyear journey that we’re on. And, granted, it’s been way too long, it’s been way too long since Canada has had a Stanley Cup. But we’re close. We’re close – just the result of going seven games with Tampa, and you saw Tampa beat Florida, the President’s Trophy winner.
Are the same motivations that brought you into investing in the Leafs still there for you?
It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because I’ve just finished some months of trying to – we put a bid on Chelsea [Football Club], and it was exactly the same motivations that got me interested in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. You had an iconic franchise, one of the best in its area. Chelsea, I would say, ranks among the top three clubs in the EPL. The Toronto Maple Leafs back in ‘95 was arguably the No. 1 or No. 2 [most storied] clubs in the NHL. It was probably 75 years old at the time. Chelsea is 104, 105 years old. Those franchises are, as I described to our people – it’s like buying a piece of the Rock of Gibraltar. So, that still motivates me, the idea of creating and buying teams that are in good leagues, and building them. …I’ve always felt I hold a public trust here, and that’s why I’m so anxious to win championships for our fans.
How did it feel for your bid for Chelsea to not be chosen?
We were shortlisted, in the final three … but I was working under this guideline that there would be no Russian involvement in the franchise while we were bidding on it, or after we were bidding on it. And in fact, at the 11th hour and 59th minute, [the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who was being forced to sell Chelsea] came back in and was demanding another £500-million, to be put on top of our bid, to allow him to isolate £1.5-billion for his charity, to be held in escrow. And there was no way that we were going to do that, or deal with that. In fact it would be offside Canadian rules.
Is that right?
Yeah. The sanction legislation here in Canada. I made that clear to the merchant banker, that I respected the laws in Canada, and I wouldn’t have engaged if any Russian involvement happened. But it turned out there was.
Would you hope to continue your pursuit of a Premier League team?
I think it’s more than a Premier League team. It gave me an understanding, whether it’s Serie A in Italy or Ligue 1 or La Liga, in France and Spain, there’s some wonderful opportunities, and because we’re invested in Major League Soccer [with MLSE’s TFC], there’s a very good rationale to think about looking further than the Chelsea opportunity. We’ll explore it, for sure.
Do you have a sense of when Toronto might get a women’s pro soccer team? Or a women’s pro basketball team?
We’re right in the throes of working on that. We’ve got a group within MLSE that is looking strategically how that might might work here, but we are very interested in actually all three: hockey, basketball, and soccer.
No timeline at the moment,
How about an NFL team?
Always interested in that.
But again, nothing concrete?
I do have to ask about the Argos, because the CFL seems constantly in trouble. Is there a solution to the league’s challenges?
Yeah, I thought so, and I was working on it, but I’m not sure there’s alignment among [some of] the other ownership groups of the other eight teams. The community-owned teams seem to be satisfied with what’s happening in the CFL, so we’re working to see how the Argos fit into that scenario. I’m not happy with it. I’m not happy with the structure of the league. My concern is, in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it’s not attracted the younger fan engagement. You look at value creation and, you know, quite unfortunately, these teams are not worth that much money. The hockey, basketball or soccer teams are trading at hundreds of millions of dollars, in some cases billions of dollars. And you see the Argos, you know, a 106-year-old league, and what value creation are these franchises trading at? You’ve got to look at that and say, Is that success?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.