Though the Maple Leafs are on ice and the Raptors will be after this week, the braintrust at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is exploring new avenues. MLSEL is preparing to invest a minimum of $10 million in order to obtain a franchise in the American-run Major League Soccer with headquarters in New York.
BILLIONAIRES ON BOARD
This soccer organization has such billionaires on board as Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt who, between them, control eight of the MLS' 12 clubs, but promised to reduce their holdings.
"Everybody is talking soccer these days," said Richard Peddie, president and CEO of MLSEL. "Of course, the people are interested only in a major-league soccer operation.
"We have done a lot of research on it and came up with positive results. But what the people want is good, not average, soccer. We are looking at putting a team into the MLS, but we are not rushing it."
Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer who came to MLS from the NFL's marketing department five years ago, is aware of MLSEL's interest in a franchise.
"We have decided to expand by two teams in 2007," Garber said. "We met several times with MLSEL executives and we are impressed with their approach to business, sponsorship, promotion and we will continue to talk to them.
"As for the franchise fees, it used to be $10 million, but the Chives USA team had to pay $25 million as the second Los Angeles team, which includes territorial rights. As far as Toronto's MLSEL people are concerned, they're a solid group."
MLS operates in a unique way which MLSEL may find strange. The league owns and distributes all the players and handles all the players' contracts, as well as the advertising and promotions. These are arrangements Peddie and the Teachers' Pension Fund will have to accept. However, MLSEL should have no difficulty getting used to the new 25,000-seat stadium on York University's lands.
Should MLSEL decide to take the plunge into pro soccer, It also may have to find a way to appease the existing three Canadian pro teams in the United Soccer league --Toronto Lynx, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact, last season's league champions.
"These three teams have done an excellent job promoting soccer," said Dick Howard, a former pro goalkeeper for such teams as the Toronto Metros and Detroit Cougars. Howard is now a member of FIFA's technical committee and a consultant to the Lynx.
The Lynx people are concerned not only about another pro team coming to Toronto, but also about the future of the fine Lady Lynx squad that includes several national team players on the roster. This is quite significant because 40% of all registered players in Ontario are females.
Is there any way the future soccer Leafs and the Lynx could co-exist?
"I can see the two groups working together even if the Leafs might view the Lynx as their farm team," Howard said. "There is hope, though, the MLS might consider franchises for Vancouver and Montreal. After all, in the former North American Soccer League we had three teams from Canada."
For his part, Garber has no problems with further expansion to Canada.
"The possible arrival of the Maple Leafs does not preclude additional expansion to Canada. We are anxious to build up the sport in North America."
CAN CARRY TWO TEAMS
I did explain to the commissioner that Toronto could easily carry two teams. Back in the early 1960s, the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League featured two Toronto teams --Toronto Italia and Toronto City with Sir Stanley Matthews, Johnny Haynes, Tommy Younger and Danny Blanchflower just to name a few. Small wonder that the matches attracted up to 21,000 fans to Varsity Stadium.
At any rate, it would be nice to hear the chant of "Go Leafs Go" for a Toronto team that's not on ice -- no pun intended.