Goal oriented

There's no doubt Tim Leiweke dreams big. And when the new MLSE boss came to town, he was tagged as too egotistic. But things have changed. So what's he done to convert critics into fans?

In the world of broadcasting, it is said that content is king. That reality led bitter rivals Bell Canada and Rogers Communications to spend $1.32 billion for control of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a three-sport conglomerate that controls the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs, the National Basketball Association's Toronto Raptors franchise and the Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS).

Since the purchase of their majority interest in 2012, the biggest move that Bell and Rogers have made was to hire Tim Leiweke, a US sports executive with a lengthy track record building championship-winning franchises and creating associated entertainment businesses. As president and CEO, Leiweke is MLSE's content kingmaker. Sure, most Torontonians would say his job is to bring the Stanley Cup to the city, but his lengthy to-do list includes turning the soccer and basketball teams into champs (arguably easier tasks) and, ultimately, to attract to the city a National Football League franchise.

To make Bell and Rogers content-play for MLSE pay off, Leiweke needs to increase interest — eyeballs — for the teams and, in his first six months on the job, it's fair to say he was making fans out of critics. In a city where sports fans are accustomed to solid mediocrity from their major teams, he has brought a big league "why can't we?" attitude to Toronto that he says is more in keeping with its status as North America's fourth-largest metropolis.

Leiweke's biggest, immediate impact has been felt at the MLS Toronto FC soccer franchise. If there is a sport he knows, it is soccer. He started his career in the sport and made the signature deal of his career when he lured English football star David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, which lent instant credibility and star power to the league. With the TFC, which has not made the playoffs in its seven seasons, he rebuilt the team virtually from scratch, firing everyone but the coach, and drew up a wish list of star footballers to attract to the team.

Leiweke already had the informal go-ahead for such a deal. During his interview for the top job at MLSE, Leiweke asked for and received support for a Beckham-sized deal for TFC. His target soon became UK footballer Jermain Defoe and his successful pursuit of the English Premier League scoring star featured the classic and intense Leiweke courtship. It included a face-to-face meeting of the MLSE chief, Defoe and the TFC's coach and general manager last fall. The English star was gifted with trinkets such as a custom iPad in TFC colours loaded with a personalized pitch video and a club jersey bearing his name. Defoe's mother, Sandra, was flown in on MLSE's dime for a week and her suite at the Ritz-Carlton boasted flowers from Toronto-born rapper Drake.

At a game between the Raptors and Miami Heat last November, the hard sell began. A tour of the Leafs dressing room revealed team jerseys with Defoe's name hung in every stall. And then, every Raptor player greeted Sandra. Even the greatest player in basketball, the Heat's LeBron James, was in on the act, whispering in Sandra's ear at courtside that her son would like Toronto.

All that effort paid off. Defoe signed on in January. Along with US soccer star Michael Bradley and some lesser signings, Leiweke has committed nearly $100 million in contracts to try and reverse Toronto FC's fortunes. "We knew with TFC, we had to go and find a moment," Leiweke said in a speech at Toronto's Advertising Week in January. "With designated players it gave us a chance to go and change dramatically and dynamically what you all think of us. [Not good, apparently.] I know the reputation we have: we are greedy, we only care about the bottom line, we only care about making the almighty buck, we charge a lot of money for our tickets. We had to change that dynamic, we had to make you understand we will do whatever it takes to win and TFC was our first chance to do it." Those mega contracts to Defoe et al. make it "a superclub" says Leiweke, much in the same way the Beckham deal made LA Galaxy the league's leading franchise at the time.

  Tim Leiweke (left) and newly minted TFCers Jermain Defoe (centre) and Michael Bradley (right)
Tim Leiweke (left) and newly minted TFCers Jermain Defoe (centre) and Michael Bradley (right).

It makes sense that Leiweke would go all in with TFC, says Cathal Kelly, a sports columnist with The Toronto Star. "That is the world of sport he understands best," he says. "Through the Beckham deal he began to make a lot of contacts in Europe and meet a lot of people in that business and that really is a people business. That is not just about throwing money around, it is who you know, and he has a staggering Rolodex when it comes to soccer. I would venture to say that he is the best connected soccer person in North America."

The lucrative deal with Beckham, the world's most famous, but not best, soccer player, was something rare in sports: a win for the player, the team and ultimately MLS. Forbes estimated that Beckham earned a total of US$50.6 million in salary and revenue sharing from the Galaxy and endorsement, appearance and licensing deals bumped that total up to US$255 million over his time with MLS. Galaxy won two championships with Beckham. MLS added seven franchises post-Beckham and most teams now play in state-of-the-art soccer stadiums, Forbes noted. European stars such as Thierry Henry have followed, and MLS games are broadcast nationally on NBC (the main network and NBC Sports Network), as well as ESPN. Real Salt Lake (2005) and TFC each paid expansion fees of US$10 million to join the league and the fee for the 20th MLS team is expected to be as much as US$75 million, Forbes reported.

If nothing else, the Beckham deal means that soccer stars around the world take Leiweke's calls.

Leiweke is a dreamer and he dreams big. He joined MLSE from Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), where he ran the Los Angeles Kings NHL franchise, the Galaxy and the part-owned Los Angeles Lakers. In his first round of media interviews last July, Leiweke told reporters that he had already mapped out a parade route for the hapless Maple Leafs, a team whose Stanley Cup drought is longer than four and a half decades. Sports writers roundly mocked him at the time, but they are taking him more seriously in the wake of the TFC signings.

  Leiweke hoists the Stanley Cup after LA Kins win in 2012
Leiweke hoists the Stanley Cup after LA Kins win in 2012

Tagged initially with the ultimate Toronto put-down of being too egotistic, the reality is that the country's sports media has, if anything, underestimated Leiweke's ego and drive to succeed. He did not come to Toronto simply to steer the Leafs to a Stanley Cup, although that is on his list. Operating in a league constrained by a salary cap and with middling talent, winning the cup is a long-term goal for the MLSE chief. In the short term, he has set his sights on growing the Raptors and TFC. And after six months in which he fired most of the management of the Raptors and TFC, it is fair to say that MLSE has performed minor miracles with the two outfits.

Just like with TFC, Leiweke decimated the Raptors front office after confronting a defeatist attitude when it came to issues such as attracting big name US free agents. He also successfully wooed as his new general manager Masai Ujiri, NBA executive of the year in 2013, from the Denver Nuggets. Ujiri quickly engineered the trade of the team's two highest profile players and recast the team into a solid playoff contender. No small feat for a "poor" franchise operating in a salary-cap environment.

"He is as sharp a sports business executive as there is in the world," says Brian Cooper, president and CEO of Toronto sports marketing company S&E Sponsorship Group and a former MLSE executive who has done two major marketing deals with Leiweke in Toronto. "Tim has a high-school education and he is a maverick with a purpose." (Leiweke began working right out of high school and took college courses at night, although he never graduated with a degree.)

Leiweke's Midwest affability and lack of airs have allowed him to slide easily between the movers and shakers of professional sports and ink major deals with rock stars. "At AEG he was dealing with one owner and had free rein to build an empire, and he did," says Cooper. Not content to simply manage three professional teams in LA, he oversaw the construction of sports venues, shook up the live concert business by growing the second-largest ticketing operation and organized international concert tours. "Tim has got a big vision, but he is also 24-7," Cooper says.

Leiweke is not done spending on his TFC toy. The open-air 21,000-seat soccer stadium BMO Field, built for the club's 2007 season, is no match for Leiweke's star-studded team. Standing on stage in January, he pointed to a shot of the BMO Field stands with soccer fans huddling in the rain. "That's an embarrassment, we're Toronto, and now we want to be the best club in the league," he says. He intends to spend $120 million to expand the publicly owned stadium and cover fans with a roof. The enlarged stadium would also make a nice home for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, he added.

But how does a team bringing in US$30 million in revenue go out and spend $220 million? "You change the business plan," says Leiweke. "To the credit of Bell and Rogers and [MLSE chairman] Larry Tanenbaum, I went to them and said I think we can write a brand new business plan and create a new economic model for soccer in North America." For multibillion-dollar businesses like Bell and Rogers, the investment makes sense and has them dreaming about sports fans paying a premium to watch live sports events on portable devices — on their networks of course. Content is king but live, must-watch content is where the real money is in broadcasting and that's what motivated Rogers to pay $5.2 billion to the NHL for a 12-year broadcast, multimedia rights deal that makes its competitors bit players in hockey.

Leiweke's other vision is the NFL. Landing a franchise in the sports world's most exclusive club eluded him in LA and that is rumoured to have led to his sudden departure as head of Anschutz Entertainment Group. Toronto could easily support an NFL team. The trick is winning one. Already, the MLSE chief has laid the groundwork. He is reported to be eyeing the Buffalo Bills. Owned by Ralph Wilson, an AFL founder who at 95 is not surprisingly in poor health, the Bills could smoothly move from economically depressed Buffalo to Canada's largest city.

Leiweke's answer to the NFL in Toronto question is both definitive and evasive. Corporations can't own NFL teams, as per the league's rules that favour paternalistic ownership. With the spiralling value of franchises, being a billionaire is almost a requirement; rules have been loosened but there still needs to be a rich individual at the top. With a US$2-billion price tag for the team and a new stadium — the Rogers Centre could only serve as a temporary home — a Toronto bid would likely take more than one deep-pocketed owner to step forward. Fortunately for Leiweke, he has two such gents who also happen to be his bosses, namely Tanenbaum and Edward Rogers of Rogers Communications.

No one knows better how difficult it is to bring an NFL franchise to Toronto than Paul Godfrey, a former politician, Blue Jays president and CEO and currently head of the Postmedia Network newspaper chain. Having worked to bring an NFL team to the city for decades, Godfrey is part of the unofficial corps that now includes Leiweke and MLSE. "I am part of their group," he confirms.

Supremely well-connected, Godfrey does not have to wait to schedule a meeting with Leiweke. The two men live upstairs-downstairs fashion in identical, half-floor condos in the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences in Toronto's Yorkville area. Leiweke lives on the 46th floor, Godfrey directly above on the 47th, with both enjoying the southern view of downtown and Lake Ontario. "We see each other either when we are out walking our dogs or when he is rushing in late at night from the Air Canada Centre or I am rushing home at night from some long meeting," said Godfrey. "We have become good friends." Discussions about the NFL occur during lunches or "in the corridors of the Four Seasons building."

The former chairman of Metro Toronto says that an expansion franchise is a long shot so Toronto needs to secure approval from the league to move a team north of the border. "I think there are several teams that could move."

From that perspective, Leiweke's time helming MLSE can best be seen as an audition for the NFL. He has already put MLSE on the North American sports map with the TFC signings. Expanding BMO Field into a MLS showcase would further that drive to prove that Toronto is ready for its NFL debut. So would a championship by one of the corporation's three major league sports teams.

Leiweke, who may be best described as relentlessly energetic and enthusiastic, has the persuasive power of a born salesman. Even speaking to a jaded audience of advertising executives, he quickly convinces his doubters. He offers a rousing and unscripted, 45-minute report on the state of MLSE, his hopes and dreams and answers a few questions from the audience. The stocky sports exec then edges through a crowd of ad industry well-wishers on schedule at 5:30 p.m. It's a Leafs game night after all, against Tampa Bay Lightning. The team's CEO is his younger brother, Tod. And the brothers are later seen sitting down to dinner at the Air Canada Centre. On this night, the elder Leiweke wins bragging rights as the Leafs win 3-2.

Today Toronto is a hockey town but Leiweke expects soccer to rival it for popularity in the future. Simple demographics are in his favour. Soccer is the most popular sport among Canadian kids at 42% (ice hockey is a distant third at 22% and basketball is fourth at 16%). Add in the world's most international city with some 53% of Toronto residents not born in Canada and you can see the appeal of soccer to MLSE.

His plan is to more than triple TFC's revenue to about US$90 million annually, a figure no professional soccer organization in North America has ever reached. "We know how to do it. We will do more friendlies, we will do more touring, we will do bigger, better TV contracts, we will sell more jerseys and yeah, we are never again going to go apologize to our fans and roll back our ticket prices to the original era. Instead we are going to spend money on Defoe and on players like Bradley. Our fans will pay $30, $35 to come see them, they just want us to win."

Fans of Leiweke's other two teams just want them to win too. After trading their best two players, the Raptors appear headed for the NBA playoffs rather than a lottery draft pick as predicted prior to the season. The Leafs will be fortunate to make the playoffs and are far from being a cup contender. The prize for the executive who brings the cup to Toronto, as veteran hockey executive Brian Burke noted, would be to have schools named after him. Only time will tell if Leiweke is feted with even greater honours by a grateful city should he pull off his ultimate goal and bring an NFL franchise to Toronto.

Tim Leiweke's road to Toronto