Tim Leiweke Report Card

On Tuesday, Elliotte Friedman was the first to leak news that Tim Leiweke was leaving MLSE for a “new challenge”.

 

MLSE and Leiweke were quick to deny the report and as it stands today, Leiweke is here to stay… for now.

It’s hard to believe Leiweke has only been with MLSE for a little over a year. A lot has happened since he became the face of the franchise. Let’s see how he’s handled the challenge that is Toronto sports so far. It’s report card time!

Toronto Maple Leafs – B

The Leafs are the cornerstone of the MLSE sports empire. According to Forbes, the Leafs are worth US$1.15 billion. But despite the team’s popularity, the Leafs haven’t won the Cup since 1967 and the drought is no closer to ending under Leiweke’s leadership.

Leiweke is not a hockey guy, and early on it showed. The Leafs are built on tradition. Players like Bower, Sittler, Clark, Salming, and Armstrong. So obviously fans got worked up when Leiweke talked about taking down the photos of yesteryear from the halls at the ACC. It was misguided but I understand what he was trying to do. The Leafs needed a culture change. He’s since changed his tune.

The Leafs are an interesting project for Leiweke. His bread and butter is marketing and branding. But photo shoots are not what the Leafs need. The team is already one of the biggest sports brands on the planet and they sell more than enough tickets and hot dogs. They just need to win.

However, unlike the NBA or MLS, Leiweke can’t resort to buying the best players thanks to the NHL’s hard cap. The freewheeling executive’s hands are tied. This means turning his attention to where he can spend as much money as he wants; by hiring the best hockey people possible for the team.

Last offseason, he extended Dave Nonis for five years. This summer, Brendan Shanahan was introduced as the team’s President (the hockey guy Leiweke needs to steer the ship). Then they hired 28-year old Kyle Dubas out of the OHL and pried Brandon Pridham away from the league office to usher in a new way of thinking.

I think Leiweke is putting the team on the right track. He needs to hire the best personnel, get out of the way, and hope for the best on the ice. His focus will shift to the team’s centennial celebrations as the Leafs look to host the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game, and the NHL Draft in 2017.

Toronto Raptors – A

Toronto might as well be Siberia to the majority of the league’s American players. The team has had a hard time recruiting and retaining star talent since the team’s inception in 1995. So Leiweke’s celebrity and contacts has been a breath of fresh air for the franchise.

In short order, Leiweke has helped make the Raptors relevant again both at home and beyond the border. There’s been an attitude shift that started with bringing in the league’s top GM (Ujiri Masai) and recruiting Drake to be the team’s global ambassador. That was followed by an unexpected but super exciting season.

Let’s admit, Leiweke got lucky with the team’s performance on the court but he did all he could to capitalize on the team’s play. The “We the North” campaign was launched 18 months early and it was genius. For the first time ever (or at least since #15 was Vince Carter), the Raptors were Canada’s team. They had an identity. And the massive crowds outside the ACC for the playoff games definitely caught the attention of ESPN and American media outlets. Leiweke said he wanted to align the Raptors as Canada’s team like the Blue Jays have done, and he’s achieved that so far.

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The season was followed by an offseason of resignings. Back are Lowry, Vasquez, and Paterson. The players want to be in Toronto and that’s the first step into making the city a destination. That’s how the Blue Jays have done it. You need players that want to be there in order to recruit top free agents. We’re seeing that now with the Raptors push to sign star guard Kevin Durant in 2016.

It’s exciting times in Jurassic Park, but there’s plenty of work to be done. The team is now gearing up for it’s 20th anniversary season in 2015 and they will host the All-Star Game in 2016. It’s the first time the Game has been held outside the United States and you can bet Leiweke was a factor. Things are aligning for a big 2016/2017 season and Leiweke’s work is a big reason why.

Toronto FC – A

Toronto FC was in dire straits when Leiweke arrived on the scene. But he promised to turn things around and he delivered in a big way. The man who lured David Beckham to North America, first signed on Tim Bezbatchenko as the team’s GM. Then under Leiweke and Bezbatchenko’s direction, the team signed Gilberto, Dwayne De Rosario, Michael Bradley, and Jermain Dafoe, turning TFC fans from near revolt to tears of joy.

The signing of Dafoe spun off a “Bloody Big Deal” campaign to begin rebranding Toronto FC from doormat to contender. The signing immediately turned things around at the gate. Before the Dafoe signing, TFC season tickets languished around 15% but skyrocketed to 92% after the news broke. Since then, BMO Field has been sold out, merchandise sales are way up, and the team is winning thanks to the moves that Leiweke has made.

With that said, the team has yet to make the playoffs in franchise history (but it’s looking good this season) and MLSE is set to embark on a $110 million dollar renovation to BMO Field. Leiweke spent a lot of money to turn the team around, and the business case is still up in the air. The hope is that an expansion will give TFC the ability to host more friendlies, generate more gate revenue (with 40,000+ seats), and land the Leafs the 2017 Winter Classic.

Conclusion

Leiweke has breathed new life into MLSE since arriving in Toronto. I’m a fan of his go big of go home attitude. He’s changed the culture and I believe he’s setting the teams up for success in the coming years with the Raptors push for 2016, the Leafs centennial in 2017, and Toronto FC’s revival. It would be surprising if he didn’t want to see these things through.

If he left MLSE tomorrow, he should be remembered for doing good. Unfortunately, he’s been publicly mapping out parade routes since coming north. So the truth of it is, if Leiweke doesn’t deliver championship banners to Toronto, I think he will be remembered as the guy who failed to deliver and skipped town too soon.

We’ll have to wait and see what script he goes with.

Adam Puddicombe

Adam Puddicombe is a digital marketing professional who, by day, works in the ad agency world, and by night, covers the intersection of Canadian sports, media, and technology. Adam holds a degree in commerce, with a focus in marketing, and previously worked for Hockey Night in Canada’s Play On! and the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL. Follow him on Twitter @adampuddicombe.