In one of the biggest deals in Canadian sports history, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors has been sold to telecommunications giants Rogers Communications Inc. and Bell Inc.
Rogers—the parent of Citytv—and Bell bought a 75 per cent stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for about $1 billion. The deal is expected to close in mid-2012 and is subject to regulatory and league approvals. The federal Competition Bureau is reportedly going to investigate the deal.
Minority owner Larry Tanenbaum has increased his stake to 25 per cent from 20 per cent, and he will retain his position as chair of MLSE and as governor for the NBA, the NHL and Major League Soccer.
Rogers isn’t new to the sports game: it already owns the Toronto Blue Jays and the team’s stadium, the Rogers Centre; the company owns broadcaster Sportsnet and radio station Sportsnet 590 The Fan; it is the sponsor of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament and the Vancouver Canucks stadium, Rogers Arena; and has partnered with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills to bring regular-season games to Toronto.
“MLSE offers some of the richest, most sought-after content in North America,” said a visibly-excited Rogers president and chief executive Nadir Mohamed.
“This investment will secure us access to this iconic brand and content It will keep ownership of MLSE in Canadian hands and that’s an important point. It will substantially bolster Sportsnet and will complement our existing world-class portfolio of sports properties.”
Indeed, MLSE is one of the most lucrative sports organizations in North America. In addition to the Maple Leafs and Raptors, it has the Toronto Marlies, Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, as well as the Air Canada Centre and other assets.
The merger of the competing telecom companies in the Leafs could intensify on-ice rivalries — Bell also owns minority stake in the Buds’ oldest adversaries the Montreal Canadiens.
Unlikely partners Mohamed and Bell CEO George Cope both said the goal of this historic purchase is to give fans both championships and “iconic” and real-time content from games on multiple platforms.
“It will definitely bring fans closer to the action,” George Cope, president and CEO of Bell Canada parent BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE), said at a news conference.
“This is a perfect fit for Bell from a strategic perspective” as it dovetails nicely with the company’s acquisition last year of the CTV television network and its sports properties, Cope added.
Mohamed said the deal “ensures not a single person has to miss a single second. And to me, that’s incredibly powerful.”
Former Leafs general manager Gord Stellick said the deal marks a “great day for Toronto Maple Leafs fans.” The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 and last won a Stanley Cup in 1967.
“This is huge. This is the jewel of all hockey franchises,” he said.
“I think for the average fan, the handheld device they’re interested in is called a hockey stick and can they get guys who use a hockey stick better?”
The CEOs said while it’s unusual for them work together, it’s not unprecedented. The two companies partnered during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, but they noted their rivalry would resume as soon as they walked out the door of the ACC Friday.
“[There are] potential market implications, obviously. Dropping a half billion dollars on anything is a big move for any company, regardless of the size, “ 680News senior business editor Mike Eppel said.
“it’s going to be fascinating to hear exactly how the two sides of Rogers and BCE come together to break down these lucrative properties … how to put them on the various stations by both entities.”
When asked if Rogers would be bidding for CBC’s coveted Hockey Night in Canada rights, Mohamed said Friday’s announcement has nothing to do with coverage rights.
“Those games are separate and controlled by the league,” he said. “Whether any party decides to bid … it has no relation to the rights secured through this transaction.”
The sale to Canada’s largest telecom companies comes two weeks after Teachers’ said it would keep its stake in MLSE amid reports an American private equity firm had expressed interest. The deal also comes after Teachers’ spent eight months exploring options for selling its stake.
Earlier this year, the pension plan acquired the 13.5-per-cent stake previously held by TD Capital Group.
So why did it decide to sell now? Jane Rowe, senior vice-president of Teachers’ Private Capital, said after no suitable offers came in by the end of November, it received a “firm” and “comprehensive” unsolicited bid from Rogers and Bell.
“I can say with complete sincerity that this agreement is great news for all parties involved,” Rowe said. “This is the best ownership team for MLSE going forward. We will continue to cheer for our teams … but after the summer, from the sidelines.”
Teachers’ acquired its stake in MLSE in 1994.
All of the parties involved had words of praise for Tanenbaum, who is obviously pleased with the deal.
“I want to thank Teachers’ for their partnership over the last 15 years. Together, with our dedicated employees, we have built one of the finest sports and entertainment companies in the world,” Tanenbaum said in a statement.
“I am excited to welcome our new partners Bell and Rogers. I am proud this is a Made-in-Canada deal that will bring resources and expertise to help us win on and off the ice, court and pitch. This is a terrific path forward for our teams and our fans. It will ensure MLSE continues to make a positive impact in Toronto and across this great country of ours”.
With files from The Canadian Press