Tim Leiweke, the new chief of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., is so confident the Toronto Maple Leafs will soon end a 46-year Stanley Cup drought that he’s mapped a victory-parade route for the hockey team.
“I have it planned out and it’s going to be fantastic,” Leiweke said yesterday in his first interview since taking over the Toronto-based sports group, which owns the city’s National Hockey League franchise, as well as the Raptors basketball team and Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. While employees at MLSE were a little shocked he mentioned winning the Stanley Cup so soon after starting the job on June 3, Leiweke said the company has to focus on results.
“If you can all dream about that and get that in your mind, we’ll have something we’re all driven toward,” he said he told them.
Leiweke joined Maple Leaf Sports from Anschutz Entertainment Group, owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, which controls MLS’s Galaxy club and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and is part-owner of the LA Lakers basketball franchise. In his 13 years with AEG, the Lakers and Galaxy each won four league titles and the Kings clinched one Stanley Cup.
The challenge of moving from that winning environment to loss-prone Toronto appealed to Leiweke.
“If the teams were doing well, I wouldn’t have come,” Leiweke, 56, said in Bloomberg’s Toronto office. “What intrigued me the most is the opportunity to have an organization here that can aspire to be much more successful and a greater brand than it currently is.”
The National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 while Toronto FC has never had a winning season or qualified for the playoffs since their inception in 2007. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 this year, only to fail to make it past the first round after giving up a three-goal lead to the Boston Bruins in the third period of game seven.
Leiweke, who stresses the importance of patience as a means to building long-term success, saw upside in that stinging loss, calling it “the best thing that could have happened to” the Leafs.
“I think they need a few ass-kickings, and that’s one that will stay with them for a long time,” he said of the players. “I think it will pay huge dividends in the long term no matter how painful it was.”
Leiweke said a key component to an eventual Cup-winning Leafs squad will be general manager Dave Nonis, whose contract is being renegotiated.
“We’ll probably have some news on that very soon,” Leiweke said. “I’m a big Dave Nonis fan, and I want a culture here that is different than the one I stepped into.”
Winning is especially important for the Maple Leaf brand, which has the potential to be a Top 10 or even Top 5 global sports brand, Leiweke said.
“If you look around world, the great brands are Real Madrid, Manchester United. The Yankees, the Cowboys and the Lakers are there,” he said. “We should aspire with the Maple Leafs to be there.”
BCE Inc. (BCE) and Rogers Communications Inc. (RCI/B), Canada’s two largest telecommunications companies, acquired control of Maple Leaf Sports in 2012 to add hundreds of hours of programming they can sell to sports fans on their smartphones and tablets. The two companies together generated profit of C$4.32 billion ($4.14 billion) last year.
Having to answer to the chiefs of two publicly traded companies is a change from Anschutz but one Leiweke says he’s happy with.
“Our owners know we’ve got to be patient and stop knee-jerking like we have in the past,” he said.
In return he’s pledged to double the value of Maple Leaf Sports in the next five to seven years.
“Winning does a lot of that, 30 percent minimum comes just from winning,” he said.
One option is to bring a National Football League team north of the border. While NFL ownership rules prevent corporations from owning teams, Leiweke said Maple Leaf Sports plans to be involved in any effort to bring a team to Canada and expects one in Toronto.
“It is a safe bet to say we’ll have some role there, to be determined, but that’s on our radar screen,” he said. “I know the league well and if we can help in that we will certainly try to help.”
Maple Leaf Sports can also drive fresh profit from planned renovations to its Air Canada Centre arena and by being more creative with live entertainment and broadcasting, he said.
The company, which also owns the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, is open to acquiring non-hockey-related sports franchises in Canada, Leiweke said.
The Raptors, the only NBA team in Canada, should carry the same level of cross-country appeal as the Toronto Blue Jays, the only Canadian Major League Baseball team, he said. Much like Toronto FC, the Raptors’ mediocrity has eroded fan support.
“We need to be a lot better than we are right now, because right now we’re not very good,” Leiweke said. “We have 35 million people that are our audience. We own Canada, it is our home, our territory and our region and we have to act like it.”
“I’m not even sure we deserve Toronto,” he said.
Leiweke hired Masai Ujiri, the NBA’s reigning executive of the year for his work with the Denver Nuggets, to run the Raptors after firing Bryan Colangelo in June.
‘Suck to Be Good’
“I didn’t get along with the GM of the basketball team, so we brought in somebody who sees the world the same way I do,” Leiweke said.
Next year’s NBA draft is going to have many good players the Raptors may be interested in to build up a team over time.
The owners “are very aware that we may ultimately have to, excuse my English, suck to be good,” he said. “They understand they’re going to have to be patient there.”
Leiweke brought David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy, transforming the city’s soccer scene and MLS in the process. Toronto FC’s support has declined with the team’s underperformance. Its once-loyal fan base of ‘Red Army’ season ticketholders has dropped to 200 from 800 in recent years, Leiweke said.
“We had the best brand in Major League Soccer,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of damage to the brand.”
Maple Leaf Sports needs marquee players like Beckham to bring those fans back and improve the team’s fortunes, Leiweke said.
Multiple outlets have reported Toronto FC’s possible interest in acquiring Uruguayan international and former Chelsea striker Diego Forlan. Leiweke declined to comment on the possibility of Forlan coming to Toronto.
“We better have a significant signing or this erosion we’re currently experiencing” will continue, he said. “We’re talking to a lot of DPs,” as designated players who don’t count toward a team’s salary cap are known.
Winning above all is key to turning Maple Leaf Sports around, Leiweke said. That may mean sacrificing a few sacred cows, particularly for the Leafs, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since grabbing four from 1962 to 1967 despite being the richest team in the NHL.
“I don’t want the players walking in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre and seeing pictures from 1962,” Leiweke said. “Get rid of those pictures and tell them, this is your legacy.”