Now that BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. have the go-ahead from the Competition Bureau, their acquisition of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is that much closer.
The sale of the Toronto Maple Leafs/Raptors/Marlies/TFC parent company must still clear this summer, of course, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission needs to give its okay. Also, there is the touchy NHL issue of Bell's ownership stake in the Montreal Canadiens. But the Competition Bureau's approval was a key hurdle.
"Good shot it gets done before NHL, NBA seasons start," Phil King, president of CTV Programming and Sports, said in an e-mail to Usual Suspects, "but really that is just symbolic, doesn't really matter from a biz [point of view]"
The first step when the deal clears will be the installation of a management structure. Specifically, will Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and Raptors counterpart Bryan Colangelo report directly to the chief executive officers of BCE and Rogers? Or will there be an intermediary/intermediaries between the men who run the teams and Nadir Mohamed (Rogers) and George Cope (BCE)?
It's hard to see busy CEOs preferring a series of callers to just one source, but Burke and Colangelo may have contractual clauses that stipulate direct access. Because the sale has not been completed, the two broadcasters currently have limited access to those contracts. (Once the sale is final, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum will increase his share to 25 per cent of the company.)
If there is an intermediary, it's likely BCE and Rogers will be very interested in having their own person(s) in that post. The two broadcasters possess specialty all-sports channels that compete furiously for stories, putting a premium on the information that emerges from the Maple Leafs and, to a lesser extent, Raptors.
As one former Maple Leafs employee told Usual Suspects about previous MLSE boards, it was hard to keep secrets when "each person reported to two people and they reported to two people." And that was when the team was predominantly owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Now, imagine Burke trying to decide how much to reveal about a crucial "lower-body injury" to team owners when they both want the scoop for their 6 p.m. news show.
It's just one of the wrinkles to be ironed out as the deal moves forward in what will be a unique sharing of power.
And don't get us started on what might happen to the partnership when the MLSE partners approach the NHL about national TV rights starting in 2014. …
A BAD RAP
One ramification of the two companies purchasing MLSE is splitting the Maple Leafs/Raptors rights between their respective radio stations. Don't expect too many tears at Sportsnet 590 The Fan over losing half the inventory of Raptors games, however. With the NBA team finishing out of the playoffs the past four seasons, having Raptors rights has been something less than a blessing. Handing off half the games to rival TSN Radio 1050 will be addition by subtraction.
DECEMBER TO REMEMBER
With no movement yet on a new collective agreement between the NHL and NHL Players' Association, some are suggesting Jan. 1, 2013, as the drop-dead date for the sides to have a deal in place and start the season. But the recent announcement of another HBO: 24/7 documentary series – this one featuring the 2013 Winter Classic participants Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings – probably means the league needs to get back to work by Dec. 1, if the cameras are to have anything to shoot.
The format requires three shows leading up to the Winter Classic and then a fourth episode dealing with the annual outdoor game itself, which is scheduled for the University of Michigan on New Year's Day. It seems unlikely that, having built equity with HBO and American TV audiences, the NHL would forgo all the powerful exposure it gets over whether players get 49 per cent or 50 per cent of gross revenues. But goofier things have happened with la Ligue nationale de hockey.
ESPN HOCKEY LOVE
Since ESPN lost the NHL rights in the U.S., it has treated hockey like a skin rash. Outside of former coach Barry Melrose's appearances on SportsCenter, the NHL gets little love on the World Wide Leader. That led the Sherman Report, a U.S. blog, to ask Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice-president and director of news, why the all-sports cable giant hates hockey.
"We don't hate hockey," Doria told Ed Sherman's sports media website. "There's probably not a better in-the-house sport than hockey. Watching it live.
"My own personal feeling is that it never transferred well to television. I'm not exactly sure why that is. … It's a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you're a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you're a hard core fan. But it doesn't translate to television, and where it really doesn't transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do."
Now you tell us.