Can Leiweke Build Lakers North In Toronto?
Tim Leiweke has been associated with champion sports franchises in Los Angeles for a long time, so when he unexpectedly became available after Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) founder Philip Anschutz decided not to sell his sports empire this spring, it didn’t take long for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) to make a play for his services.
“Tim Leiweke is one of the top sports executives in the world, renowned for his ability to build championship teams, premier entertainment events, and innovative brand and marketing opportunities,” MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum said in a press release. “Tim is a leader who understands what fans want and what it takes to build winners. With his deep leadership experience and unparalleled success at the highest levels of professional sports, Tim’s the right CEO at the right time to lead the transformation of MLSE.”
Like MLSE, AEG owns or has stakes in NHL, NBA and MLS franchises and owns or operates numerous other sports and entertainment properties. As the long-time former president and CEO of AEG, Leiweke was ideally suited to take over the post in Toronto and it was the challenge of turning the floundering professional franchises in Toronto around and re-creating the winning culture he was a part of in Los Angeles that attracted him to the job. Where the Toronto Maple Leafs have started making their turnaround already, Leiweke plans on focusing most of his immediate efforts on the Toronto Raptors.
“What intrigued me about this was the Maple Leafs and helping them win and what would happen to that franchise, the community and the fan base if we did and, believe or not, the Raptors and their current streak of not winning,” Leiweke said. “I like challenges and I love the NBA and I like the fact they have 36 million potential fans, which makes them the largest fan base in all of the NBA.”
The Raptors have missed the playoffs for the past five seasons in a row and the MLSE Board of Directors has yet to make a decision about whether or not to pick up the option on Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo’s contract for next season. With limited time left before the NBA draft, and the amnesty waiver period and free agency around the corner, the decision about Colangelo’s future is not something that should be put off any longer than necessary.
“It is more important from my standpoint to jump into the Raptors who have not had that success and begin to help the Board on the decision they have now with the leadership of the Raptors,” Leiweke said. “I am clearly, as part of my obligation back to the board, going to reach out to all of the people in the NBA that I know and ask them their opinion [about Colangelo]. I don’t think that anyone has all the answers, so one of things I have to do is get up to speed as quickly as possible on the Raptors and the decision the Board has to make and give them the best input I can.”
This isn’t an easy position for Leiweke to be placed in, but he has extensive NBA contacts to draw on and plans to start the review process immediately. The MLSE Board can expect Leiweke’s recommendation on Colangelo shortly.
“I know Bryan [Colangelo] and I talked to Bryan today,” Leiweke said. “I am clearly not in a position to be the best one to make this decision since I am joining late and I am not even going to be full-time when they make this decision. That said, the Board is leaning on me to give a recommendation and I am going out and talking to a lot of people in the NBA to get their feelings and their opinions of what the Raptors are doing right and what the Raptors are doing wrong. Bryan and I are going to sit down next week and we are going to have a long chat and I am going to try to learn as much as I possibly can. It is never easy stepping in and be part of inheriting something.”
Just like when a franchise hires a new general manager and everyone assumes the team’s coach is in danger of being replaced, speculation about Leiweke wanting to bring in his own person to run the Raptors is already underway. It isn’t hard to connect the dots to Leiweke’s friend from Los Angeles, former Lakers head coach and basketball guru Phil Jackson.
“Phil [Jackson] and I talked this week, but only because he had heard the rumors about Toronto and he called me to tell me what a great city it is,” Leiweke said. “It is too early to speculate. I am not going to deny that Phil and I are friends and that we had an amazing run here [in Los Angeles], but at this point I am probably busier trying to get [my] agreement done and making sure we handled today correctly.”
“We didn’t have any of those conversations [about a job for Jackson], nor did I feel that it was appropriate. It was inappropriate to have any discussions until we finalize [my] deal and I announced it.”
On the surface at least, it doesn’t seem like it would be much of a stretch for Leiweke to bring his friend Jackson to Toronto in some capacity.
While Leiweke brings executive level experience in hockey, soccer, stadiums and other related properties, basketball forms a significant part of his experience and his passion. At least initially, Leiweke’s biggest impact will be on the Raptors.
“I have been a part of the NBA for 30 years,” Leiweke said. “I go way back with Commissioner [David] Stern and soon to be Commissioner [Adam] Silver and we have had a lot of conversations about, not only this opportunity, but that franchise and as I mentioned up front, that 36 million fan base is an amazing resource, but we haven’t tapped into it, so that is going to be a high priority.
“Toronto is the number four marketplace in North America and I will be honest with you, I was a little puzzled when I was learning and doing some due diligence on the Raptors that there seemed to be some belief and people speculated that it was a place that players didn’t want to go to and players didn’t want to stay at and maybe it wasn’t as hot an NBA marketplace as it could be. I disagree with that. It’s 36 million potential fans and Toronto is the heart and the soul and the business capital of Canada. So I think if we can activate and the league in particular sees that they have a guy that has NBA in his blood for 30 years and good relationships with everyone in the league and they understand the priorities that the Raptors have now, it is going to help us not only compete for and land an All-Star bid, but have a higher degree of success and respect as to what people [players] think about this organization and this city. That is going to be probably the highest priority I have – to fulfill the potential that this team should have and we have work to do there. Clearly the All-Star game would be a good first step in gaining some credibility and traction in making people understand that this is an organization that is very committed now to fulfilling its role. A 36 million fan base would make it the number one organization in the NBA and I want to act like it now.”
Leiweke knows from experience that winning enhances the value and perception of all the assets in a sports empire and the best way to increase the value of MLSE’s existing properties is to create champions.
“I always thought what made Staples Center and L.A. Live special was the content,” Leiweke said. “You had the Lakers winning six championships during that period of time. It makes you look a lot brighter and it makes the building look a lot better when you’re hanging those kind of banners and as an organization, I think we had so much credibility and respect because of that success. That is what we have to do at Maple Leaf Sports. We all agree that winning those championships and earning that respect and reputation makes whatever growth and whatever potential we have with the rest of the business units a lot more successful.”
Toronto has never acted like a franchise with the biggest fan base in North American, especially when it came to the Raptors. Leiweke believes he can change that perception and change the organization’s culture to act like the powerhouse sports and entertainment business that it is.
“I think what allows us to think big and act big and be dominate is that quite frankly this is an organization that is generating some of top revenues in the league,” Leiweke said. “That gives us the resources to go out and put it right back into the product, put it right back into the facilities and put it right back into the fan experience. I like that. I think it is the balance you have to achieve of earning the respect of your fans, maximizing the revenue necessary in order to be like the Knicks, or the Bulls, or the Lakers, or the HEAT in the NBA and that is who we have to strive to be.”
This new bolder message must have struck a nerve with the MLSE Board and the team’s new media giant ownership. Leiweke has been told the priority is to produce winners and producing winners in Leiweke’s experience has meant spending money. Now that’s a message Toronto fans have been desperate to hear for years.
“What the Board told me unequivocally in this dance that we just went through is they want to win and they want that to be my highest priority,” Leiweke said. “I told [the Board], as they will hear from L.A., I got up every day trying to push everyone towards winning championships and that is what we are going to do now in Toronto and we have the resources to do it.
“We won’t be crazy and we won’t do stupid things because occasionally, and I won’t mention names here because we have to play them now, but there are teams in all the leagues that occasionally do stupid things and it comes back to haunt them. The Raptors have to aspire to be the HEAT and the Lakers, a team and a city that people want to be a part of and that is what we are going to build, that culture here.”
Can the Toronto Raptors become Lakers North? This isn’t something anyone would have believed prior to the sale of MLSE to Rogers Communications and Bell Enterprises last year. However, in previous years, hiring a long-time senior sports executive like Leiweke to run MLSE wasn’t very likely either. Leiweke is saying all the rights things and the two media giants that presently control MLSE should be motivated to build championship caliber content, but Raptors fans should be forgiven if they remain just a little skeptical. MLSE has been one of the most profitable sports empires anywhere for a long time and the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Raptors have only made the playoffs five times in their 18 seasons. At the very least, with Leiweke on board, the Raptors’ bid for the NBA All-Star game suddenly looks a lot stronger.