Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

photo credit: CP/Sean Kilpatrick

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by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail

 

Good morning sports media watchers. Thanks to everyone who participated in an excellent comment thread last week. Lots of stories this week. If I missed something you want to discuss, please start the conversation below. As usual, please let me know if you spot any typos or errors.

 

MLSE Finally Gets Its Man

 

Poor Mr. Leiweke is finally free. He’s been trying to leave for almost a year now and has been stuck running one of the most valuable entities in pro sports while the board at MLSE tried to find a suitable replacement. The suit that will be replacing Leiweke is Air Canada executive Michael Friisdahl. It is fitting that the only person the warring media giants could agree on is someone from a company that rivals Rogers and Bell on Canada’s most hated list. 

 

Rick Westhead who has been following the MLSE CEO search since Day 1 had the story on the new guy. David Shoalts at the Globe (NOT 15% owned by Bell) looks back on Leiweke’s time in Toronto.

 

We have come a long way from the old pension plan days. All the MLSE teams spend lavishly on coaches and players and marketing and fan experience. So the new CEO just has to keep the gravy train running and avoid mentioning parade routes, and presumably he will be fine. That said, the end of the Leiweke era took much longer than anyone could have reasonably predicted. One wonders how many projects were put on hold until a new guy was found.

 

The main explanation for why MLSE had so much trouble finding someone to take one of the most high profile jobs in pro sports management is that Rogers and Bell couldn’t find someone who was free of the stains of the other. As we have seen with the Rogers hires from Bell (Brace, Pelley), almost everyone has worked for one side or the other at one time. Rather than being a non-issue due to how pervasive it is, this reportedly became the hill to die on in the hiring process.

 

That said, we have not read many articles lately about the toxic board room culture at MLSE and perhaps Friisdahl will usher in a new era of peace in the realm. I do wonder how many compromises were made in terms of other priorities just to satisfy this one big hiring requirement. To discuss these questions I turned to Rick Westhead and he agreed to answer two of them. Here is what we discussed:

 

1) Pro sports was a big part of Leiweke’s existing portfolio when he was hired. The new CEO has little to no pro sports experience. MLSE is obviously much more than just the teams it owns, but does having a sports guy at the helm matter?

 

RW: I guess it’s a subjective question. I can see both good and bad with hiring a sports guy. Hire a sports guy and you would think he comes with a good network of contacts in the sports industry. That could help a new president learn faster about best practices employed by other teams and leagues. And it could smooth his relationship with the media, which is an important part of the job since the president if MLSE’s public face. But at the same time, this is not a sports job, per se, so it’s not critical that the president has an encyclopaedic knowledge of sports or even sports marketing. He’ll bring a fresh perspective and presumably won’t have allegiances to either Bell or Rogers. Seems like he’ll be well suited to play the role of Switzerland. And like I said on TSN radio on Thursday, consider what this specific job actually is. Tim Leiweke won approval from Toronto city hall for permits to build a Raptors practice facility and to expand BMO Field. That requires registering as a lobbyist and a soft touch when negotiating with city councillors, as well as someone who can navigate corporate construction companies. There are issues about sports gaming, particularly now that MLSE has as partnership with DraftKings. So relationships with the CRTC federally and perhaps the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario provincially. And then there are relationships with sponsors and fan engagement events. This new guy is a high school graduate who started and later sold his own company. I think that makes him a little more human to the general public, perhaps a little more accessible than Leiweke, who came with such pedigree. At the same time, Friisdahl may not be able to say he ran AEG, but he did oversee the startup of a new airline, Air Canada Rouge. That’s no small task.

 

2) This search has lasted much longer than anyone would have expected. The popular explanation for why so many people turned the job down (or weren’t considered in the first place) is that finding someone who can simultaneously serve the interests of Bell and Rogers is extremely hard. What will Friisdahl need to do succeed in his job?

 

RW: Way too early to say. It’s tough having bosses who have disparate interests. Look at the CFL. I’m told that former commissioner Mark Cohon was largely able to be successful in that job because he really didn’t need the money. So he was able to tell the owners, “if you don’t like what I’m doing, go ahead and fire me.” But let’s see how this plays out. At the end of the day, Friisdahl told me Thursday that both Bell and Rogers have a common interest – to field winning teams. That’s true to a point. Bell clearly has more at stake with the Argos than does Rogers. If Friisdahl is smart, he’ll spend his first 90 days doing what he told me he’ll do – meeting top, mid and lower-level employees and building relationships with them, establishing ties to everyone from Dave Hopkinson and Tom Pistore to Shannon Hosford and Michael Bartlett. (Wouldn’t hurt him to take former MLSEers like Richard Peddie, Tom Anselmi, Chris Overholt and Brian Cooper out for lunch either.)

 

 

Thanks Rick. You can follow Rick here.

 

Over to you: How much longer will we be stuck with this unholy alliance? Is a Bell/Rogers partnership actually a good thing for us, since the alternative is one of them owning all the local sports teams? Does forced cooperation insure against mutual assured destruction? 

 

Deitsch Takes Over PTS

 

The FAN touted this appearance for the past several weeks: Richard Deitsch (156,000+ followers) of Sports Illustrated would join Bob McCown (29,000+ followers) in studio for the entire week. Deitsch has been a frequent guest on PTS over the years and he and Bob have developed a good rapport, despite the latter often wasting the segment by getting Deitsch to talk about random things Bob had on his mind that day.

 

To say the shows lived up to the hype would be a vast understatement. Deitsch was his usual intelligent and professional self and Bob stepped up to the task of running his show for the benefit rather than the detriment of the audience. The producers were also on their A-game for the most part, keeping the usual “insider” suspects off the air and booking guests who would bring out the best in the hosts. Bob was engaged, friendly, and refrained from talking about himself too much (even when there was a gambling guest on). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Bob would probably admit that this was one of his best weeks in a long time.

 

The highlight of the week came in Deitsch’s first segment, when Bob and Richard interviewed newly introduced Jays president Mark Shapiro. All three parties were in top form. Bob and Richard asked all the tough questions and one thing became immediately evident: Shapiro is nothing like AA. Alex could talk for minutes at a time without saying anything, all while getting everyone to like him (“such a great question guys!”) even though he was giving you nothing. Shapiro, by contrast, is direct, concise, and does not seem to care much about making friends. At one point he replied to a question by saying “that’s not a constructive discussion.” Loved it.

 

The rest of the week included guests on the Leafs, Raptors, MLB, lots of NFL, some horse racing, and more. Again, the producers — Matt Marchese and Jeff Azzopardi — did a great job mixing up the topics. This is the kind of week that should be the rule rather than the exception on Canada’s most listened to sports talk show. I’m sure this was also a very expensive week for the FAN, so the reality is that this kind of week won’t happen all that often. However, the recipe for great radio is right there in front of us: get rid of the Sportsnet insiders, have a co-host who could be off doing other things and isn’t just happy to be there, and look for a range of topics and guests that will keep the content fresh and interesting. (I have written at length in the past about what Bob’s exit strategy should be.)

 

As we all know, thanks to Bob and Shoalts, McCown’s contract is up soon and there is little chance he will continue to do 5 days of PTS when the clock runs out, if not before. The challenge for Cadeau and others at Sportsnet is what you do with the time that is left. Rotating through big names as co-hosts seems like a great way to both pay tribute to all PTS has done for the FAN and protect the timeslot for whoever comes next. (For my 2 cents: pay whatever it takes to get Rob Becker up here for a week.) Why not end the show on a high note rather than the sad one that has been playing on a loop for most of the last few years.

 

Over to you: what did you think of Deitsch’s visit to PTS? Who should be next? How did you enjoy the roundtable?

 

Quick Hits

 

The guy who was fired from a sunshine list job at Hydro One for defending FHRITP on TV has been rehired. My best guess: his bosses were advised that he had a decent wrongful dismissal case and this was the better option. As far as we know he is still banned from going to TFC games.

 

I love lawyers. Here is a wonderful lawyer’s argument: the Redskins name is totally not racist, but even if it is then it should still be protected because lots of racist and offensive speech is already protected. If you know anything about American free speech law, nothing is more sacred than racist speech, and I’m certain this argument will succeed.

 

The Toronto Star is in financial trouble. Their iPad app (not compatible with iPhone) is fantastic but their losses are even more impressive. They also boast one of the biggest sports sections in the country. If cutbacks come to the Star, how soon until they hit the sports section? They have a lot of high priced writers on their roster.

 

Ex Astros player Lance Berkman spoke out recently against protections for LGBT rights with perhaps the greatest ‘window into the soul of bigotry’ quote in recent memory: “Tolerance is a virtue that is killing this country.” Outsports.com (which is co-managed by the excellent Cyd Zeigler) gave fuel to the fire by publishing this poorly argued piece that does little more than trade insults with Berkman. A much better (and much longer) argument appears in this great article by Dave Zirin.

 

Bell joined Telus and axed a bunch of jobs in Toronto and Montreal this week. Bell’s George Cope is quoted as saying that their restructuring “is really the result of the CRTC rules, so we will be changing our cost structure to reflect that going into 2016.” Add this to the long list of tone deaf corporate quotes for 2015. All eyes are now on Rogers and whether they will do the same, or if the good news coming from the Jays playoff run and recent cell phone gains will delay any mass firings. Best wishes to those of you looking for work.

 

Low Hanging Fruit

 

  • Dave Feschuk of the Star delivered easily the worst article on the Leafs so far this season. He criticizes the coach for agreeing to lead Canada’s World Cup team this summer. I debated whether or not to link to the awful article but decided I wanted to support the Star, so here is a pity link.

 

  • Bryan Hayes did a great job fending off Feschuk and Naylor as they tried to tear down Phil Kessel on his way back in to town (Oct 30, Hour 1). Feschuk in particular was all too gleeful in going to his bank of insults. Hayes, by contrast, made a bunch of sober and balanced points about the good and bad of Phil Kessel.

 

  • I am not going to talk about the Kane case or the Hardy case this week. To different degrees both cases involve complex legal and moral issues and I need more time to think and to learn. In the meantime you can consider what this deep thinker had to contribute:

 

 

  • Al Strachan has been lobbing bombs at various people in the industry over the last month and it has been very entertaining:

 

 

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thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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