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New MLSE boss Keith Pelley eager to take Toronto sports to next level



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Keith Pelley is talking a mile a minute, really the only speed he knows, telling one story, relating another and another one after that.

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And barely taking the time to breathe.

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You spend an hour with the engaging new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment on his fifth day on the job and you want another hour.

He has just completed his first full week as the new high-profile CEO of Canada’s largest and most powerful corporate sporting behemoth and, for now, for the record anyhow, he loves everybody and everything he sees.

That will change over time.

This isn’t Tim Leiweke, taking on MLSE like a hurricane 11 years ago, disrupting and altering almost everything in sight, throwing around accusations of softness and weakness.

The two, Pelley and Leiweke, did have dinner about two weeks ago in London. Pelley wanted to pick Leiweke’s brain. Pelley thanked him for transforming MLSE. Leiweke wished Pelley all the best on the new job.

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In the almost nine years between Leiweke leaving and Pelley arriving from London, where he ran the European PGA Tour, there have been a collection of almost invisible and barely known CEOs running MLSE.

But before Leiweke was shown the door, he made his mark hiring Brendan Shanahan to run the Maple Leafs, hiring Masai Ujiri to run the Raptors, making a commitment to spend big on Toronto FC — and now so many of the sporting entities of the giant company are either in doubt or in question.

Pelley isn’t in Hurricane Keith mode just yet, if he will ever be. It may not be his style. In terms of management style, he’d be closer to Paul Beeston than Leiweke or the impersonal king of buzzwords Mark Shapiro.

He already has met with Ujiri and, like most people dealing with Masai for the first time, he came away hugely impressed.

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He already has met with Shanahan and had a similar kind of reaction.

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He knows and loves Pinball Clemons from his time running the Argos more than a decade ago.

He is happy that former Canadian national team coach John Herdman has come in, in his words, to transform the soccer club.

And he’s thrilled that MLSE is now partnering with Live Nation — he already has seen Bad Bunny and Kane Brown in concert in consecutive nights at Scotiabank Arena — and there will be more shows for the self-confessed music nut.

It all has been much of a blur in the first few days — so much to take in. He says he’s in the L-L stage. “Listening and learning.”

He’ll understand more about the job, more about his power and the company he hopes to transform in the months to come.

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But he does understand from the outside the power involved in owning the Maple Leafs.

“A couple of weeks ago, I had 15-20 pals over that I hadn’t seen in ages,” Pelley said. “All we were doing was ordering pizza and sitting round the kitchen table. And all of a sudden, two guys I know, relatively passive guys, were getting emotional about the Leafs. Like really emotional. And I’m saying ‘Guys, calm down.’

“The minute it was announced that I got this job, I heard from hundreds and hundreds of people. And what I heard the most was ‘This is what you need to do with the Leafs.’ ”

The country is filled with Leaf fans and Leaf opinions and Leaf haters, some of them being the exact same people.

Pelley calls the Leafs a “trophy franchise.”

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There are very few of those in sports. He mentions the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs and Real Madrid as just a few of those kind of franchises in international sports.

That Shanahan hasn’t been able to bring the Leafs greater success is not something Pelley is caught up with just yet. His view might change in the weeks to come, just as his view on the Raptors might change as this rather dreadful season comes to an end.

He did compare Raptors general manager Bobby Webster to baseball’s Alex Anthopoulos, which seemed like something of a reach, but that gives you a rose-coloured view of what Pelley is seeing in his first days on the job.

Historically, MLSE is nothing if not a divided house. On one side, there is Rogers, the corporate owner, in business with its arch-rival Bell. That’s never been comfortable.

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In the middle of all that, is the minority owner Larry Tanenbaum, who has historically acted as though he was the majority owner.

For Pelley to be hired — and for him to accept the offer — he needed Bell, Rogers and Tanenbaum aligned.

Pelley says they are on his behalf, but interestingly enough when he interviewed for the MLSE job, he did separate interviews — one with Bell, one with Rogers, one with Tanenbaum. Not one giant interview together.

“I asked them: What is their definition of success?” I got the same answers from all three — complete alignment on winning, on and off the court or the ice or the pitch. Winning to them was winning championships. And all three were in agreement on (me).”

When I asked about the corporate rumblings that have Tanenbaum selling his stock in MLSE and leaving the company, he called it a hypothetical situation.

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“I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that,” Pelley said. “The only thing that matters to me at this time is the alignment of the three parties. They’re aligned on winning. They’re aligned on commitment to the community.”

And then I asked Pelley about the perception from the outside that MLSE is this rich, bloated, collection of sporting trophies that overcharges for its product. The Raptors, for example, had the nerve to raise ticket prices for next season, which is something of an insult to any right-thinking sports fan.

I asked him clearly: Why are your ticket prices so high?

His answer: “I don’t know. You’ll have to give me more time to answer that question.”

He doesn’t believe in what he calls “the myth of supply and demand” when it comes to pricing. He believes in the live “sporting experience” and values what goes along with that. Experiences, he said, are now worth more than ever before.

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He did say he would need more time to be able to answer questions about the teams themselves, about ticket prices, and the entirety of the business, specifically. It’s not his intention to run franchises, it’s his intention to oversee them.

“If you do not do everything with the consumer at the heart of your decision-making, you’re not running your business properly,” Pelley said.

In 2013, Leiweke didn’t like the direction of the Leafs, the Raptors or TFC when he took over. And he acted quickly. The landscape is not so apparent, now.

We’re not going to fall behind. We have the resources to be leaders. That’s the culture. That’s the mentality. I want to grow the business.

Keith Pelley

The Leafs have been regular-season successful under Shanahan. Just not come playoff time. The Raptors won an NBA championship under Ujiri. TFC won one MLS Cup and played for two others in recent years.

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Now it’s more about Pelley, fresh from his work running the European PGA Tour and, before that, a variety of high-profile television positions, ready to take MLSE, the company, to new places.

“I believe every business needs to evolve,” Pelley said. “I believe every business needs to change. If you’re not leading in AI, if you’re not leading in technology, if you’re not leading in social engagement, if you’re not ready to change, then you fall behind.

“We’re not going to fall behind. We have the resources to be leaders. That’s the culture. That’s the mentality. I want to grow the business.

“The opportunity here is enormous. I’m wildly impressed with the quality of people I’ve met at MLSE in a short period of time. This job is about growth. This job is about winning at all different levels. This job is about the globalization of sport.”

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Pelley can’t wait to get started. His mind forever racing. Can’t wait for the World Cup of soccer to make its way to Toronto and Canada in 2026. Can’t wait for the games that really matter this Maple Leafs playoff season.

“It’s always about passion,” Pelley said. “Passion for the sport, passion for business, passion for music.”

And then he pauses.

“Did you ever Heart’s rendition of Stairway to Heaven?” he asked. “It’s incredible. I love the Wilson sisters.”

That’s pure Keith Pelley. A musical interlude in a discussion about sports and business.

As Trooper, one of his favourite Canadian bands would sing: “We’re here for a good time, not a long time, so have a good time … the sun can’t shine every day.”

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