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Shoalts: Bon Jovi buying Bills, building new Toronto stadium would be a $2-billion play

Okay, pardon me for being the latest to chime in with a Livin' On A Prayer reference, but that is exactly what the hopes are at present for Jon Bon Jovi to buy the Buffalo Bills with the help of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Larry Tanenbaum, Tim Leiweke or maybe Edward Rogers and family.

However, there is some serious manoeuvring going on to make those hopes come true.

This is especially so at MLSE, which would love to hitch its wagon to whichever individual or individuals manage to buy Buffalo's NFL team after its 95-year-old owner Ralph Wilson passes away.

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NFL bylaws prevent corporations from owning even part of its teams but they do not prevent enterprising companies from building and running their stadiums.

Tanenbaum and Leiweke, the chairman and president of MLSE, respectively, are so eager to get involved they reassigned one of their senior executives not long ago, according to someone close to the company.

Bob Hunter, who was MLSE's chief facilities and live entertainment officer, was put in charge of two special projects. These projects are so important to Tanenbaum and Leiweke that Justina Klein was recently brought back for a second stint at MLSE to do Hunter's old job.

Hunter is now in charge of two things – redesigning BMO Field to accommodate both Toronto FC, MLSE's soccer team, and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, who would be most affected by Hunter's second project. And that task is to design an NFL-style stadium to accommodate the Bills. So far, we're told, there is a design for a stadium that would cost $600-million but our informants say that won't get much these days and the final number will be closer to $1-billion plus another $1-billion (U.S.) or so to buy the Bills, making this a $2-billion play.

The reason the Bills are expected to go for that much, aside from the inherent worth of NFL franchises, was laid out by an investment banker of our acquaintance who has handled dozens of sales of NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball clubs. He found the notion of Bon Jovi buying an NFL club amusing and said simply that when Wilson dies his heirs will hold an auction and sell to the highest bidder.

Wilson's family has no interest in owning the Bills because it will be on the hook for many millions in estate taxes. To keep the team, pay the taxes and then run it would require big loans, so the course will be to maximize the price on the Bills, pay the taxes and keep the hundreds of millions left over.

That takes this deal out of the league of Bon Jovi, who is undoubtedly lobbying hard for a team and has some interesting friends aside from Tanenbaum and Leiweke, such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. But NFL bylaws say the majority owner has to have at least 30 per cent of the equity in the franchise.

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Since Bon Jovi's net worth is estimated to be around $300-million (U.S.), this means writing a cheque for the equal of his net worth is not possible. Hence Bon Jovi's chumminess with Tanenbaum and Leiweke, whose daughter Francesca is reported to be working for the rock star in his quest.

However, those who know all the characters in this drama think the real player in this could be Edward Rogers, whose family is behind Rogers Communications Inc., which is the co-majority owner of MLSE along with BCE Inc. Rogers Communications has been chasing an NFL team for years with the help of Tanenbaum, who owns the other 25 per cent of MLSE.

The Rogers family's net worth is estimated at $6.41-billion, which dwarfs even Tanenbaum and makes Bon Jovi a small player. Some insiders see Edward Rogers, 44, emerging as the majority owner in a bid with Tanenbaum and Bon Jovi, who is certainly handy as a front man for now, taking minority stakes. Indeed, there are already whispers of friction among the trio over just who will be the major player.

But many problems lie ahead, including whether or not the NFL will allow the new owners to move the Bills to Toronto or maintain a connection with Buffalo.

There is also the matter of the CFL and the Argos. It looks as though MLSE thinks the NFL will insist a condition of any sale is to look after the Argos, not drive them off, which is why Hunter is in charge of spending as much as $50-million to renovate BMO Field. That should fend off any nasty anti-trust suits.

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@dshoalts

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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