It’s in the nature of owning a big-time pro sports team that everyone thinks you are doing a terrible job at it.
If the team doesn’t win, you’re stupid. If the team isn’t interesting, you’re cheap. If things do happen to go right, that’s because you had enough baseline intelligence to understand that you are bad at sports and so hired other, brighter people to do the sports for you. But it still doesn’t make you smart.
In that context, Edward Rogers has been a pretty good sports owner. Not great, but not alarmingly awful. He took over his dad’s company – and with it, the Toronto Blue Jays – nearly 20 years ago. He bought into MLSE – becoming one of three principals of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC – a decade back. Since then, all four teams have gotten better. Each of them has or had good people in charge who seem to know what they’re doing.
When Rogers does pop to the top of the news cycle, sure, it’s because he’s done something silly. His attempt at wedging Jays president Paul Beeston out of his job was more slapstick than cunning. Attempting to nickel and dime Raptors boss Masai Ujiri was even less smooth.
But for the most part, Rogers, 52, has been a quiet presence on top. There’s a reason his father used to call him “The Accountant.”
Is this good? Sure. I guess. Let’s face it, if you or I owned the Jays we’d make ourselves chairman, general manager, manager, hitting coach and occasional third baseman. A cursory scan of the global sports landscape shows you that the urge among billionaires to meddle in things they own, but know very little about, is strong.
However, rooting for a team owned by people who are relentlessly focused on return on investment and shareholder value is not exactly a laugh a minute. A lot of the time, it’s like pulling for a very profitable insurance company.
On Monday, The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Willis broke news that Rogers is not not open to someone taking a chunk of the Jays off his company’s hands. The apparent leading candidate – himself. I guess some of us have saved a little vacation money during the pandemic, and others have put away a little ‘buy myself a baseball team’ money.
This isn’t regime change. It’s shuffling money between the chequing account and the savings account. Whatever happens, Rogers (the corporation, the person or some combination thereof) will remain in charge. That means more of the same.
Just as a thought experiment, wouldn’t it be fun if someone who was a little more of a loose cannon got into the mix?
Not so long ago, the pressure to entertain was as great on the people who owned the teams as the ones who played for them. The most interesting owners (if not necessarily the most successful ones) were carnival barkers. They made news. They played rough. Often, they created chaos.
The Leafs teams of the seventies and eighties are proof that this formula doesn’t work. But it’s fun to watch.
Salary caps and the executive star system make it close to impossible for an owner to ride herd over a team the way Harold Ballard once did. But I’m not sure we have markedly improved the show part of show business by putting the super-rich CPAs in charge.
Teams still win and lose based on the talent they have accrued (often by fortunate chance or accident). All the professionalization of the C-suites has done is convince the punters that losing is never ownership’s fault or – this is the real genius in 21st-century messaging – that losing is the smart thing to do. Lose to win. Whoever came up with that one deserves at least a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Things changed for the bland around the time owning a sports team became the equivalent of a fixed race. There was a moment when you could go broke owning a hockey team. Once you take that possibility off the table, you are a lot less likely to find yourself standing in front of a bunch of reporters screaming about what an idiot the coach is and how you’re going to fire him tomorrow.
What you’d like in an owner these days – especially an owner with a limited stake – is someone who enjoys performing.
There was a moment there when it seemed as if Drake might charm MLSE into selling him a tiny percentage of the Raptors. I’m not sure what kind of owner he would be, but I do know I would rather watch him freaking out courtside after a playoff loss than wait six months for the CFO of Bell to tell us how it impacted third-quarter earnings.
(Let’s not even speak here of community ownership. There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers and FC Barcelona are nearly always good, and it isn’t because they are football geniuses. It’s because when they lose, their owners aren’t mollified by the size of the annual dividend.)
There isn’t an owner in the world who wouldn’t buy a championship if he could, but you can’t do that any more. Odds are, despite best efforts, you’re going to lose. You’re probably going to lose a lot.
It would be nice if while losing, ownership could provide a little more entertainment value than whatever is happening on the ice/field/court. Nothing too wild. Just the occasional shot across the bows or impromptu press conference where they promise to trade for Connor McDavid. Something. Anything. As long as it’s either embarrassing, hilarious or shocking, while never veering into the criminal.
Nobody on any team makes more than the guy who owns it. But when it’s time to do the franchise’s yearly exit interviews, what amusement did they create through their performance that season? In this country, none, with the promise of none to come.