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Various photos of hockey fans during the Toronto Maple Leafs' season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. PHOTO BY FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL (Fred Lum)
Various photos of hockey fans during the Toronto Maple Leafs' season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. PHOTO BY FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL (Fred Lum)

Part 3 of 3

MLSE preaches patience Add to ...

"It was like doing an all-night term paper in college. You had to put together this whole thing with pros and cons, financial projections and e-mail it to all directors and have them read it, then set up a conference call where everyone puts in their two cents," one insider said. "Sometimes you have 30 minutes to do a deal or it's off the table."

Uzumeri swears that kind of micromanaging, to the extent it happened, is a thing of the past.

"One thing I learned [from winning]teams is that for the most part there was one or two people in the organization calling the shots, and it wasn't the owners and that's consistent with what we're doing," he said.

They had seen the benefits provided by putting their basketball operations in the hands of Bryan Colangelo, a two-time NBA executive of the year hired away from the Phoenix Suns with a lucrative four-year, $16-million (U.S.) contract in March of 2006. Insiders suggest that it's that pedigree and a new-found sense of patience internally that will allow Colangelo the opportunity to sign a new contract even as the Raptors have struggled of late.

The hire-the-best mantra led MLSE on its extended courtship of Brian Burke for Leafs GM in the winter and summer of 2008, and a move likely to be imitated on the soccer side after they cleaned house last month.

Competitors have taken notice of the new approach.

"Brian Burke is as good a GM in the league as there is, and [the MLSE board]is now on the same page on their philosophy," said Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which, like MLSE, own franchises in the NHL, NBA and MLS, among others. "They are not only doing it the right way but with the resources Burke has up there and with that organization, they're scary. They are going to be really good in the next couple of years."

Fans of the Leafs, Raptors and TFC had better hope that the view inside the sports industry - where MLSE is a forward-looking ownership group to be envied and respected - is an accurate one, and that eventually solid ownership, good management and time will deliver winning teams.

The chances are slim that Teachers will step away any time soon from an investment that has increased 15-fold under its watch and generates nearly $500-million in revenue annually - and not because Teachers executives enjoy the perks of ownership too much, as some on Bay Street scoff. Owning three of Toronto's major sports franchises and one of the busiest arenas in North America, among other assets, continues to be good business for a pension fund trying to keep up with the growing retirement needs of an aging teaching population.

A brief inquiry into the possibility of purchasing an English Premier League soccer franchise helped convince Teachers how good it had it. The possibility was nixed when it became clear that the Premiership's lack of a salary-cap structure was a ticket to financial risks Teachers was unwilling to take.

But it drove home the advantage Teachers and MLSE have owning franchises in a large, rich market in leagues where spending on player salaries is capped. While Manchester United of the English Premier League has run up a reported $1.7-billion debt, MLSE is cash rich, owns its building outright and has new revenue sources poised to come on stream - a state-of-the-art sports bar with a Las Vegas-type sheen, a gourmet restaurant, a hotel, and perhaps a wholly owned sports channel.

To Uzumeri, it means Teachers can act responsibly as an owner and focus on generating a handsome return for its members, while also delivering competitive - even championship - teams.

"The way the leagues are structured in North America, you can do both, be fiduciary and a winner," he said.

And are the two goals complementary? Does being owned by a pension plan somehow hobble the product on the ice, floor or field? Or is winning MLSE's final corporate frontier?

"Look, we have decent financial people at MLSE, it's not some dusty company with one guy in the back with a calculator," Uzumeri says. "We know very close what the short-term impact [of a championship] but the value in some ways is priceless. You create a Stanley Cup champion and it's my kids, 20 years from now, who will be the ones buying the season tickets. It creates long-term franchise value.

"Can you imagine Toronto if you had a team contending for the Stanley Cup?"

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