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Friday, December 9, 2011

Rogers and Bell bundle their package

"Your call is important to us... please hold."

At the end of day there was no Arab Sultanate, no oil-rich Russian oligarch or even any American financiers. No, like a giant, wireless Voltron-like creature - Canada's two largest media giants, and bitter rivals, Rogers and Bell joined forces today to purchase 75% of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. The deal which will see the much-maligned Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan receive $1.2 Billion dollars suddenly creates one of North America's largest sports and media conglomerates along the lines of the Time-Warner Network and the YES Network - the New York Yankees based sports broadcast giant.
MLSE will still exist in name with Larry Tanenbaum managing to up his hold on the company to 25% while also holding on to his title of club governor to the NHL, NBA and MLS. Rogers and Bell will both own 37.5% of the company respectively while also agreeing behind the scenes on future broadcast sharing plans. While Rogers claims that their existing ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays is not officially part of this deal - in theory, an entity with many tentacles now controls four local sports clubs, three sporting facilities, valuable downtown real estate and a near monopoly over regional sports broadcast rights. It is a monumental deal no matter how you feel about its future prospects.
There will be advantages to the new structure once the OTPP officially hands over power next summer. MLSE will stay in Canadian hands, something which will please the patriots in the crowd; there will be revolutionary advances in wireless media options available to fans of the Leafs, Raptors and TFC; the continuing presence of Larry Tanenbaum will keep a fulcrum of power between the two faceless media giants; and, perhaps a silver lining for the sports fans, is the feeling that for the broadcasters to make the most profit out of this deal, their teams will need to be competitive and for the most part - winners.
On the other side of the coin of course there are fears. Did one giant anonymous profit-driven group step aside to be replaced by two anonymous profit driven groups? Will bitter rivals Bell and Rogers, as well as the mercurial Tanenbaum, eventually butt heads creating and air of chaos at MLSE? Is the groundwork being laid for a premium cost regional cable network which will house the broadcast rights for all of MLSE's clubs at a heavy cost to fans' wallets? Truly, only time will tell.
Being that our only real concern in this deal is the effect on Toronto FC, feelings are mixed. There will be the natural fear to think that TFC will now drop from its place as 3rd most important club down to 4th (with the Jays joining the family) and this may indeed be the case. However, the real aspect to watch will be if the groundwork being laid by TFC as a club, such as the Academy program etc., will be honoured going forward. You would have to hope that much of the structure of TFC as it exists now will be preserved but listening to Rogers' President Nasir Mohammed continually failing to mention TFC at today's press conference, as well as Tanenbaum forgetting the name of the MLS Cup, was worrying. The Leafs and Raptors were trumpeted as the jewels of the deal - let's hope TFC aren't relegated down to a multicultural marketing tool for cell phones and little else.
At the end of the day, things may not end up looking that different. Will the ownership still be a faceless unaccountable boardroom? Yes. Will we pay increasingly higher prices to attend matches as well as watch them at home? Yes. Will this deal really help bring trophies to the city's beleaguered sports fans? Rogers and Bell Customer Service is standing by.... please hold.