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BURNABAY, BC – Bringing a title to Toronto will always be the highlight of Masai Ujiri’s resume in the NBA. He has done a lot of great work with the Raptors, the Denver Nuggets before him and especially with the Giants of Africa charity. Bringing that group together, two bold trades for future Hall of Famers hold strong for a large number of people.
It’s not a small achievement though: making the raptors relatively normal. To be fair, this started during the tenure of Brian Colangelo, who brought Ujiri to Toronto, as director of international scouting, for the first time. Colangelo didn’t win many of his battles with the Raptors’ corporate ownership structure as his successor, but he began to pay attention to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s board of directors when he saw that the Raptors were lagging behind in many aspects.
It was Ujiri, who was impressed by new (and short-lived) MLSE CEO Tim Leiweck, that led the Raptors to modernize. It took Bruno Caboclo’s first year wasted, but the Raptors got their own D-League (now G League) team in 2015. In 2016, they got a new practice facility, the OVO Athletic Center. And the exercise room is tucked away on the third floor of Scotiabank Arena. NBA coaching and front office staffs are ridiculously large, but the Raptors’ resources have helped balloon the staff size.
Now that the Raptors are down, you can point to the usual things — Ujiri’s decision-making, players not delivering on their promises, coaches not getting much out of their roster, etc. Damage is a regular issue. Ujiri, the Raptors’ president and vice chairman, and his counterpart with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Shanahan, have control over their teams’ operations. They are accountable to the MLSE Board of Directors, but both have more autonomy than their predecessors. They can succeed or fail on their own merits.
That’s why MLSE’s refusal to aggressively pursue an expansion WNBA team this week is so troubling. The league announced a new team in the Bay Area on Thursday, and The Athletic reports that the league is also strongly considering giving an expansion team to Portland. The Toronto Star reports that, among other things, Edward Rogers’ strained relationship with Ujiri played a role in MLSE’s decision.
Rogers is chairman of Rogers Communications, one of the three major stakeholders in the MLS, along with Rogers’ main telecom competitor in Canada, Bell and construction major Larry Tanenbaum. The latter is chairman of MLSE’s board of directors, but it emerged over the summer that Tanenbaum was close to selling some of his stock to OMERS—the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. (Bell and Rogers reportedly threatened to sell Tanenbaum a stake.) Tanenbaum led an effort to bring an expansion NBA team to Toronto in the early ’90s, eventually leading the Raptors to buy the Maple Leafs basketball team and the arena known as the Air Canada Center in 1998.
To be clear, Rodgers seems like a convenient scapegoat for Toronto not getting a WNBA team. Edward Rogers is a prominent voice on MLSE’s board of directors, and three of the board’s eight members have direct ties to the company. However, that still leaves five other board members — three Bell employees, Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman, chairman of the Goodmans law firm. If everyone on the board felt strongly about pursuing a WNBA team, MLSE would do so. Although Rogers is leading the charge, MLSE is by design, not tyranny.
First of all, that’s pretty bad for basketball fans in Toronto. There were 19,923 fans at Scotiabank Arena for the WNBA exhibition game between Minnesota and Chicago last May. The league is as big as ever and women’s sports are as prominent in culture as ever. Forget the public debate about the need to bring a WNBA team to Toronto; If MLSE doesn’t see franchise ownership as an important part of its sports portfolio, which includes Toronto FC, along with other teams and facilities, its thinking seems short-sighted.
This city is clearly ready to support a WNBA team, and hopefully it can happen with or without MLSE.
That the personal relationship between the ownership group and its most public-facing staff played any role in undermining the experiment is more than upsetting to those eager to bring a WNBA team back to Toronto. It is also a concern for groups already under the MLSE umbrella.
The current structure of MLSE is Since his acquisition in 2011, when Bell & Rogers bought a controlling stake in the company, Tanenbaum has not only been a swaying voice and anchor between the two telecom companies, but the board has remained in place. Member is most concerned about the results of the groups. He doesn’t need to be drawn as a supporter of the city’s teams, but he clearly cares about winning and losing.
In particular, he has been vocal in his support of Ujiri, whose name has been linked to several high-profile spots around the NBA since arriving in Toronto.
“I know Masai. “Masai is like my son,” Tanenbaum said in 2015. He spoke in the Oracle Arena locker room as the Raptors celebrated their championship in 2019. Minutes ago, ESPN reported that the Washington Wizards are preparing an offer for Ujiri to take over basketball duties. “There’s no way he’s leaving Toronto.”
Since then, Ujiri signed a new contract to stay with the Raptors, believing it would give him more power, autonomy and certainly money. Tanenbaum was supportive, but it was reported at the time that Rodgers fought efforts to retain Ujiri.
This shouldn’t be a referendum on Ujiri’s recent stint with the struggling Raptors. Any high level sports executive needs a lot of power and a lot of money. They still have to be responsible for ownership, but one hopes that personal animation will not interfere with those evaluations.
In a recent survey of Raptors fans by The Athletic, the majority of respondents said they were less concerned about Tannenbaum selling some of his stake in MLSE. However, it could be a telling story for the Raptors, especially in the MLSE’s basketball pursuits. In pro sports, if ownership is unknown, then that comes down to every part of the organization. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of things in an ambitious ownership group.
(Top photo of Scotiabank Arena in Toronto before a WNBA exhibition game: Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)