TORONTO - The Ontario Teachers Pension Plan is about to cash out its controlling stake of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment empire -- selling to a pair of media giants.
Sources have told QMI Agency that a deal worth as much as $2 billion is close to being settled with telecommunications behemoths Bell Media and Rogers Communications, who have been rivals in the past for the much desired 79.5% shares of MLSE.
Bell and Rogers represent TSN and Sportsnet, the No. 1 and 2 sports broadcasting powers in Canada, but they will call a truce and split the shares with so many lucrative deals to be spun off their union.
An announcement could come as early as Friday, but there are many moving pieces that could delay the final sale until closer to Christmas. MLSE runs the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, the Air Canada Centre and has high profile real estate holdings. They also own LeafsTV, as well as basketball and soccer television holdings. Rogers, meanwhile, owns the Toronto Blue Jays, making the baseball team an obvious addition to the new combined network.
Of course, any purchase of the Leafs and the Raptors would have to be approved by the NHL and NBA, respectively. Bell also owns 18% of the Montreal Canadiens with naming rights to its arena. But an NHL executive indicated Thursday night that the league is aware there is an imminent change in the Toronto ownership situation. One of the matters to be settled is Bell's 18% interest in the Montreal Canadiens, which must be divested at some point under NHL rules.
It was just two weeks ago that the Teachers announced they were taking the shares off the market after an eight-month search did not produce the desired price. At the time, industry analysts concluded that only a joint venture of some kind between broadcasting kingpins would fetch the big dollars that Teachers was seeking and the November announcement can now likely be put down to a game of high-stakes poker.
Others say that the early-season success of the Leafs and the possibility of big playoff gates in coming years has made MLSE more attractive than ever.
There was speculation that inability to agree on the sharing of broadcast rights and on-line streaming of hockey games was a potential deal-breaker, For the local sports fan who has grown frustrated with the MLSE's teams doing poorly in competition -- the Leafs have not made the playoff in six years -- there is a lot to like about a change. Presumably, a pair of communications firms with lots to gain from high ratings and ancillary revenues would put a lot more interest in supervising the finished product than a faceless pension fund.
A sale to Rogers and Bell would also mean that construction magnate Larry Tanenbaum, who holds the remaining 20.5% interest in MLSE, will not exercise his right of first refusal on the shares, or that he tried and failed with a plan of his own.
MLSE officials were silent all day Thursday, first when the Toronto Sun requested an update on the search to replace president and CEO Richard Peddie, who is set to retire in three weeks, and then in response to the QMI report. There is speculation that John Tory, a former president and CEO of Rogers, will play a role in the new operation.
Laval University business profressor André Richelieu noted it made sense for Bell and Rogers to get together in this case.
"We can already see small battles between the two giants on the broadcast rights," he told QMI. "The big risk is that the Leafs fans find themselves taken hostage."
- With files from Steve Simmons and Joe Warmington