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Thursday, August 21, 2014

A bloody big loss? How Tim Leiweke's departure may hurt Toronto FC

Much like the carnival hucksters surrounding BMO Field during the CNE, it is the "step right up" shtick of Tim Leiweke that has excited and frustrated TFC supporters in equal measure. The brash American CEO was brought in to fix the eternally stumbling Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment corporation on a wave of success that included wins for both the LA Kings and LA Lakers as well as the delivery of David Beckham to North American football. Unlike his MLSE predecessors, his monorail promises definitely put Toronto FC in a place of prominence next to their bigger brothers, the Leafs and Raptors - this was a new experience for TFC supporters.

While some of his bluster towards TFC has been cringe-worthy, few can argue that he really has had his eye on fixing the floundering club since day one and has backed that up with a top-to-bottom renovation that is beginning to show dividends. High-profile DP acquisitions, poaching a league wonderkid as GM and giving good lip service to supporters has healed many of the very deep wounds fostered by the likes of Tom Anselmi and his merry band of idiots who "lead" The Reds prior to Leiweke's arrival. All of which now leads to a big question: "what happens to TFC now that he's leaving?"

The whispers emerged earlier this week and today were confirmed that Tim Leiweke will indeed be leaving MLSE by next June at the latest. So just how could this affect the delicate balance that is the still-rebuilding TFC going forward? There are a few areas where fear amongst TFC fans may be warranted:

For years, TFC's front office was the justified lightning rod for TFC supporter frustrations. A rotating group of on-the-job trainers with little (or expired) connections to the league, let alone the greater football world, always left observers with the feeling that the lights were on but no one was home. They were mostly correct. The installation of MLS bright spark Tim Bezbatchenko, with Leiweke as the money man above, has been a tonic to seven years of rudderless leadership.

So what will happen to this branch of the MLSE Empire? Will the new CEO have TFC in his wallet and leave the day-to-day operations and team management to Tim Bezbatchenko? Will the young T-Bez be elevated to a higher "team president" role? These are questions that could have great impact on the club moving forward. Most supporters will agree that T-Bez seems like a very bright and well-connected steward who knows MLS intimately. Having someone like him as the "leader" of TFC would probably calm many nerves but his relationship under a new CEO will dictate that potential success.

Alternatively, a more hands-on CEO with an eye on ruling all of MLSE's properties with an iron fist may end up upsetting the fine balance and/or feel the need to install "his own men" into managerial roles. The best case scenario would seem to be allowing Bezbatchenko to grow into a club leadership role with greater autonomy under a financial overlord.

For the foreseeable future, Toronto FC will not be able to generate the same kind of revenue that the Leafs and, to a lesser extent, the Raptors can. If the new CEO is not a "soccer guy" (and that seems to be a near certainty) will he be as inclined to make millions of dollars available to sign marquee players?

Leiweke was well aware through his time in MLS that Toronto FC had fallen off of the radar of clubs that mattered. The promising start of 2007 had been squandered by fools and along with it, most of the goodwill from support. A very big splash was needed to resuscitate the patient and that was the signings of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and to a lesser extent Gilberto.

Now most observers of MLS will understand that DP's aren't the be-all-and-end-all towards a successful club but their importance is growing. While a future with no DP's is not predicted, no matter how far down the pecking order TFC drop within MLSE, these types of "Bloody Big Deals" may be the last. It is difficult to see a new CEO who may not feel passionate about the sport rubber-stamping the kind of money that was thrown around this past off-season nor does it seem likely that Leiweke's replacement will have the insider relations that the ex-AEG man has with the movers and shakers.

Before Tim Leiweke arrived, it is fairly well understood that TFC had lost its place at the main dining table of Don Garber. The promise and shine of TFC that they injected into the league in 2007 had well and truly been squandered by the management of the early years. Intra-club relations had reportedly become so poor that TFC was even limited when it came to potential trading partners. TFC was something of a MLS pariah.

Leiweke, and his subsequent addition of Bezbatchenko, turned that on its head. Suddenly TFC had two of the league's more influential "insiders" fighting in their corner. MLS is a funny league where the single-entity side of things can often devolve into a secret society of handshakes and future favours. Being on the outside of the inner circle looking in is not a place where TFC, under a potentially aloof CEO with eyes glued only to the NHL, wants to return.

Of all the endeavours that Leiweke undertook at TFC, the "renovation" of BMO Field may be the one that ends up having TFC fans looking back on his tenure with less than rosy memories. Leiweke pushed for an expanded and improved BMO to not only cater to "TFC 2.0" but also to host marquee events like the Grey Cup and the NHL's Winter Classics. There was/is a hitch though. To get this done means welcoming local orphans the Toronto Argonauts in as bed-buddies… a plan that makes most TFC supporters’ skin crawl.

Not to worry though - according to Leiweke at the time - the "soccer experience" would only be enhanced! A better stadium with the unaffected sightlines, no gridiron markings and a bigger capacity. Promises upon promises that the TFC supporter wouldn't even know that the Argos played there on match days. While many of us (some us more so than others. Hello.) are skeptical of this, there was at the very least the hope that Leiweke knew what real footy should look like and would at least aim to make this happen.

BMO Field expansion is going ahead with or without Leiweke now. Within the new plans are major provisions outlining the impending arrival of the Argos. It's happening - in the words of an ex-TFC leader "get used to it". However, if the new CEO is not someone that understands why those nutty soccer fans can't just watch their little sport with CFL gridiron lines and long end zones visible - who will push back? Yes TFC supporters will end up leaving in droves but it will all be too late at that point.

There is a big chasm in the MLSE hierarchy between the very few that "get" football (real not pointyegg) and the many that are Leafs-first old boys. BMO Field could end up being a legacy that Leiweke leaves behind but one that looks nothing like he envisioned.

Really this ends up being the factor that will soothe or aggravate all of the other concerns. Where will TFC end up in the pecking order of importance at MLSE? Many optimistic fans point to the growing demographics of the sport and that MLSE "surely sees" the positives of nurturing football. That is probably a giant pie in the sky.

If MLSE was full of big thinkers with their finger on the pulse of more than their profit margins, the teams under their command would not all be the recent laughing stocks of their individual leagues. They would also not have had to hire Tim Leiweke in the first place. The truth is, MLSE is a tremendously dysfunctional organization when it comes to their on-field product and hoping they "learned their lesson" under Leiweke is naive.

No matter who is hired, they will not have the affection and influence towards Major League Soccer and the sport in general that Leiweke has. Chances are most likely that the replacement will be a more traditional hire and one with orders to get "the Leafs problem" fixed. The Raptors of course have plenty of potential profit-making to whet the appetite of the stockholders which leaves TFC somewhere down with condos, facilities and special events. Without a built-in affection for the club or the sport, there will not be the financial reasoning for a new CEO to spend as much time, or money, on TFC as the current regime has.

The points above are not meant to exalt Tim Leiweke as some infallible leader capable of no wrong. The aforementioned monorail salesman part of his modus operandi irks many. TFC has become so oversaturated by sponsorships under his watch that you can barely use a urinal at BMO Field without personally being sponsored by Evian; the BMO Field expansion will most certainly bite fans in the ass in a few years; and, the promises of renewed supporter engagement have mostly been lip service with few results in the stands.

However, for his faults, Tim Leiweke is the devil TFC fans know. His sideshow ways may pop up too often but we never had the feeling that he wasn't thinking about how to improve the club. We have lived through leadership that was watching a Leafs game in a BMO Field private box while TFC was playing in front of them. It did not go well.

Just as TFC has seemingly turned a corner towards respectability a big curve is suddenly on the horizon. The direction TFC goes in will be dependent on MLSE's hire. The club could be allowed to keep moving forward under the power of the remaining football people left in the organization, or, sent hurtling in reverse to a time where they were MLSE's testing ground for the likes of Tom Anselmi. Whether the club fulfills its potential as a bloody big deal or ends up simply big and bloodied will be decided in the Bay Street boardrooms very soon.

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