Photo by RICK MADONIK / GETSTOCK
Ever since Tim Leiweke took over operations last June of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, diehard Toronto sports fans have been waiting for a big splash - the kind of game-changing move he was known for while serving as head of Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of some of the hottest, most successful sports properties in Los Angeles.
Leiweke has certainly brought some Hollywood pizzazz from La-La Land to the front office of Canada's pre-eminent sports company. MLSE owns the Maple Leafs hockey team, but its multi-billion-dollar holdings also include the NBA Raptors, Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, as well as ownership of the Air Canada Centre and three television networks: Leafs TV, NBA TV Canada and GolTV Canada.
At Real Sports Bar and Grill on January 13, Leiweke unveiled his first "bloody big deal," at least that's what MLSE's newspaper advertising campaigns dubbed the signing of English footballer Jermain Defoe to Toronto FC. American Michael Bradley was also signed, but Defoe, a striker from the English Premier League, is the centrepiece tapped to revive the fortunes of MLSE's troubled soccer franchise after a disastrous 2013 season.
The international soccer stars entered from behind a curtain on the makeshift stage, beaming million-dollar smiles as the Red Patch Boys, Toronto FC's most loyal supporters, sang jubilantly, welcoming the stars with chants of "This is your house," a turn on their traditional "This is our house." It was a jubilant and hopeful scene, a rarity in the TFC camp of late.
Leiweke tried to make it clear that bringing such talent to Toronto was the work of many. But few doubt that these moves were the new CEO's brainchild. And with the acquisition of a giant, marketable star in Defoe, who's seemingly happy to be making a living playing in Toronto, Leiweke has firmly asserted himself as the overtly confident head of a once largely faceless conglomerate.
The St. Louis-born Leiweke has done what Brian Burke, former GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was never able to do: put a media-savvy face on the company. His affability with reporters is a polar opposite to Burke's chippy, defensive approach.
A big deal for fans? That's what Leiweke would have us believe in television ad campaigns that show stereotyped Britons spitting their tea and pints over the news. The ad is attempting to intrigue a town that's mostly hockey-mad.
But the deal is just as notable for MLSE's new majority owners, media giants Rogers and Bell, which have an 80 per cent stake in MLSE after buying up the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan's controlling share for $1.32 billion in 2012.
Rogers and Bell's purchase of MLSE effectively cornered the sports market - the two own all-sports channels TSN and Sportsnet and affiliated sports radio stations - which is why the Competition Bureau and CRTC both initially raised concerns before approving the deal.
Before Rogers and Bell came along, MLSE planned to launch its own network to carry its teams' games. In his 2013 autobiography, former MLSE president Richard Peddie, who preceded Leiweke, frankly admitted that without the specialty channels they developed and purchased, including the soccer-focused GolTV, MLSE's teams wouldn't be worth what they are today.
According to Leiweke, the Defoe and Bradley moves were made first and foremost for long-suffering fans.
"These fans, for seven years, have been unbelievable," he said at the press conference. "They taught us all what it truly means to be a passionate fan of TFC. This is a payback to them today. They earned it, they deserve it, and this is full credit to you and your seven years' worth of patience."
Leiweke's trademark braggadocio was absent in an interview with TSN later. "We haven't done anything yet. We've created an opportunity. The hard work is ahead of us."
But it's also true that television audiences have also dropped significantly, with TFC viewership on Sportsnet down 29 per cent.
TFC paid about $10 million for each player, the largest amount in Major League Soccer history. TFC's payroll has vaulted into the largest in the league, with the team set to pay out over $34 million in 2014, twice their 2012 profit.
But after six years without a playoff berth and terrible 2013 season, fans left in droves. The stands were around half-filled for last year's final home game. Some season ticket holders expressed their dismay with the team's ongoing futility, among them former mayor David Miller, a season ticket holder and driving force behind the construction of TFC's BMO Field. He made a public point of returning his tickets and issuing a public letter decrying the management instability at the top and MLSE's plans to expand the facility and install artificial turf.
Miller sounds way more optimistic about the team these days. "The signings are brilliant," he tells NOW. "It's like 2007 all over again, only better. Credit has to go to Mr. Lieweke, and the MLSE board, for aiming far higher than ever seemed possible, and succeeding."
However, Duncan Fletcher, a long-time TFC fan and manager of Waking The Red fan site, sees the Defoe and Bradley signings more as a desperate attempt to win fans back than a reward for their loyalty.
He points out that MLSE capitalized on the team's popularity by hiking ticket prices aggressively each of the last five years before declining attendance and public pressure forced the company to roll back prices to 2007 levels last year. "That wasn't enough to stop the bleeding," says Fletcher, "so now they've had to go all out."
Cary Kaplan, president of sports marketing firm Cosmos Sports, thinks Leiweke has figured out a formula to get TFC fans excited again, at least in the short term. "Hope sells tickets. They've been the least successful team in the history of Major League Soccer. But they've maintained a fan base because of the passion of the market."
Throughout the team's seven-year existence, groups of organized fans such as Original 109 and SG111 have garnered reputations for their ability to generate an energetic atmosphere. Toronto's African, Latin and Caribbean communities are visibly represented by the Tribal Rhythm Nation in Section 118. The sheer passion of fans at BMO Field is no surprise to Tim Morgan, director of publicity and promotions at the Toronto Soccer Association. "It may not garner attention like some other sports, but it has always been integral within our communities."
How bringing players with celebrity status into Toronto FC's locker room will affect team chemistry remains to be seen. Televised broadcasts of the Real Sports press conference repeatedly showed Scarborough-born TFC all-time leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario, who left TFC in 2011 amid publicly disastrous contract negotiations and returned unceremoniously after TFC picked him up recently, sitting expressionless in the crowd.
MLSE is awarded a soccer franchise by Major League Soccer; city council votes to contribute $9.8 million to the construction of a waterfront stadium. MLSE agrees to contribute $8 million toward the costs and also purchases the naming rights for the stadium for $10 million, which the company sells to the Bank of Montreal for $27 million.
After an online fan poll, MLSE announces the team's name, Toronto FC, hoping a nickname will develop organically.
TFC kicks off its inaugural season with a 1-0 loss in the home opener to the Kansas City Wizards and a 2-0 loss to Chivas USA. Four straight goalless losses follow before a 3-1 victory against the Chicago Fire on May 12.
TFC trades Scarborough-born Dwayne De Rosario, a leading scorer and fan favourite, to the New York Red Bulls. De Rosario had taken to celebrating his goals by mimicking the signing of a cheque.
TFC loses 6-2 to Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, TFC's best showing so far in the tournament.
MLSE hires Tim Leiweke as CEO and president. The former president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, was instrumental in bringing David Beckham to MLS in January 2007.
TFC's 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact in a nearly half-empty stadium closes the season, with the team in 17th place in the 19-team league.
The Montreal Impact in a nearly half-empty stadium, closing the season in 17th place in the 19-team league.
After seven consecutive losing seasons, TFC officially unveil its newest acquisitions, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.
Joshua Kloke is a contributor to NOW's music section. He has followed TFC since their inception and was terribly saddened when Torsten Frings announced his retirement.