What the sale of the Argos to MLSE could mean
The Argos will now benefit from being part of one of the biggest sports empires in North America, Bruce Arthur writes. Is there room there for the Jays, too?
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So the Toronto Argonauts are safe, but they were already safe. The team that has teetered on the edge of dissolution so many times has been purchased, officially, by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and Marlies. Now, they are in the safest neighbourhood there is.
Of course, that does leave the Blue Jays, but this isn’t about them. That’s what some people at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment will tell you, that tires haven’t even been kicked yet. Rogers Communications will say the same: they will send you a statement that reads, “As we have said, there are no plans to sell the Jays. We continue to look for the best way to get credit for our incredible sports portfolio in our overall company valuation.” Well, we all want to get credit for something, eventually.
But on Wednesday, Rogers did something it didn’t have to do: it agreed to own a part of the Toronto Argonauts. Officially, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment now owns the venerable and lonely CFL team, but it had already been co-owned by MLSE partners Bell Communications and Larry Tanenbaum since 2015. All this did was bring Rogers on board.
“Clearly, MLSE has built a winning culture with spectacular capabilities,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who now has one fewer problem on his plate. “And the fact that the Argos can be part of that culture, bring their own winning culture to the table as well, and then tap into corporate capabilities on the business side … it is good news for the league, and it’s good news for Toronto. And I’m a commissioner with a big smile today.”
So it’s great for the Argos, who couldn’t crack 14,000 last season, even in the pleasant confines of BMO Field. When the Argos were sold in 2015, then MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke tried to convince Rogers to come aboard, and it was one of the few grand visions that Leiweke couldn’t bring to life. Rogers and Bell have agreed to divide and share most of the sports universe in Toronto. But the Argos and the Jays have stayed in separate camps.
So Bell and Larry Tanenbaum suffered through two difficult years. The franchise stabilized the front office and coaching staff last season, and somehow won the Grey Cup, but it’s still believed to have lost approximately $10 million last year.
Yes, that’s a rounding error for Rogers, especially split three ways; it’s a smaller rounding error if they can goose attendance using the MLSE marketing machine. Attendance has been a tough slog, after so many years of neglect: When BC Lions owner David Braley salvaged the team in 2010, he all but turned out the lights. That’s a lot of neglect.
But Rogers agreed to share the burden, so now the Argos have access to the marketing and ticketing and influence engines and whatnot. MLSE has been batting around the Argos question for almost as long as there has been an MLSE; like Christmas, it comes up every year. They never said yes, until now.
Which means, in all likelihood, something was traded somewhere. Rogers and Bell are competitors whose existence is interlaced in hundreds of different ways, and it could have been anything.
As for the Jays, and any sale of the franchise — Rogers opened the door last week, talking about “surfacing value” — would be a much, much bigger thing, both strategically and financially. If you want to sell interest in a franchise valued at $1.3 billion (U.S.) by Forbes, that’s different than a little piece of a CFL team. It might make some sense for the Jays to be folded into MLSE, dispersing the future costs of renovating the Rogers Centre, estimated in the range of $200 million to $300 million, and creating a sports powerhouse unlike anything else in North America.
But you have to at least run the numbers, and it doesn’t sound like they have. Meanwhile, the Jays may seem crazy to be attempting to extend their competitive window in the face of a newly revitalized American League East. But if it came to that, would you rather try to sell a team with 40,000 people in the seats, or 20,000? Monster TV ratings, or merely decent ones? Team president Mark Shapiro told The Fan 590 on Wednesday, “If we were just running our teams without fans, and it was just an intellectual exercise, we probably would have hit a reset over a year ago.”
Which is another way of saying, it’s past logical to do what we figured we would do when we first got here, but someone figured out the money is great. This is probably not the ideal way to run a franchise, but here we are.
So while this might extinguish the final embers of Rogers’ dream of an NFL team in Toronto, it doesn’t necessarily pave the way for Bell to give Rogers a billion dollars to expand MLSE, and divide up the rest of the pie.
But here’s what it does do. It shows a little good faith. Maybe it’s the recent championships, the winning, new leadership at Rogers. But now Ambrosie is talking about his meetings with Sportsnet’s Scott Moore, and maybe more of a partnership there; you could even imagine a future CFL game on Sportsnet, especially if they expand to Halifax. You can see a more equitable approach to coverage from the two media superpowers. Where the Argos are concerned, you can see co-operation where there used to be a little war. As one MLSE source described it, if anything, this is like bringing flowers to a first date. It’s a nice, safe neighbourhood. And a little nicer today.