Category Archives: Commentary

Sportsnet Magazine: My Initial Thoughts…

 

Recently, Rogers Media in Canada released its newest offering – Sportsnet Magazine. According to Rogers, the aim of this new offering is to take on Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine, but with a decidedly Canadian perspective. I recently got my hands on the inaugural issue of Sportsnet Magazine, and below are some of my initial thoughts.

The Good. Content-wise, this magazine is a homerun. Pretty much from front to back all of the writing is engaging, relevant, and well informed. One of my favorite aspects of all the writing is the trademark Canadian sense of humour that has found its way onto the pages of this magazine. Not only from Bob McCown, from whom such is to be expected, but pretty much from front to back, there is a sense of humour found within the pages that is just not to be found in any other publications of this kind.

Sportsnet Magazine's Premier issue lacked the visual "pop" I was hoping for...

The Bad. I understand that the release of this magazine came as a fresh NHL season was about to start. I also understand that hockey is about as Canadian an institution as the Mounties’ red coats. But I put this magazine down feeling as though I’d just finished a copy of The Hockey News. It would be a real tragedy if this magazine simply reverted to the cliché of the hockey obsessed Canadian to promote itself as “Canadian.” There is so much more to the athletic landscape of Canada than hockey. Earlier in September and the first half of October the Rugby World Cup was being contested in New Zealand, and Canada was represented by a fine squad. Yet there was only a single photo of this event, with no related content. The President’s cup is around the corner, with several Canadian golfers set to be included. Again, nothing. The upcoming NLL season? Nope. Build up to the Pan Am games? Nada. Canadian College sports preview? Nothing. Only future issues will reveal if this magazine can truly give a Canadian perspective on sports, rather than simply falling back on old clichés to fill its pages.

The Ugly. For all that the publishers did right with regards to quality content, they dropped the ball horribly from a graphical point of view. One of the things that sets Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine apart is that they are visually spectacular. From the covers to the photos that each publishes, each brings a unique, stylish, and ultimately engaging graphical element to their magazines that draw the reader in. Sportsnet Magazine simple lacks any kind of “pop” from a visual standpoint. Had I not been looking for it specifically, it would have simply melted into the newsstand like so many other publications.

If they really want to promote sports from a Canadian point of view, they have a great opportunity not just to promote Canadian athletes, but also to foster the next generation of Canadian sport photographers. Admittedly this is a subject of which I am horribly ignorant – for all I know they are already doing this – but my ignorance may be due to their neglect. I would love to see a short piece each month about the work of specific Canadian sports photographers. After all, sports magazines are as much about the photos as they are about the articles. They are the images that young athletes insert themselves into, imagining future glories.

Overall I did enjoy the initial offering of Sportnet Magazine, but obviously feel they have some work to do if they are to be successful in taking on the Sports Illustrated’s of the world.

The Cuban Effect: Why Corporate Ownership of Teams is Bad for Fans, Bad for Sports, and Ultimately Bad for Business.

 

Mark Cuban - Billionaire, Owner - World Champion Dallas Mavericks

With the advent of fall comes one of my favourite times of year – hockey season. Over the past off season, there has been a lot going on in the hockey world, some good, some bad, and some tragic. The summer of 2011 proved to be the most devastating to the hockey world with the number of deaths witnessed in a short number of months. But there were also triumphs: Winnipeg saw its beloved Jets return, and many teams improved their fortunes in the free agent market.

Ultimately, for me though, this offseason has been punctuated by the first stirrings in the media that the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund (majority owner of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which in turns own The Toronto Maple Leafs) is starting to make rumblings that it may be ready to sell its 80% stake in this storied franchise. As a fan of The Leafs, this news (and the sale) can’t come soon enough. And here’s why – sports teams owned by corporations are, on the whole, mediocre.

Within the class of “corporately owned teams,” the Maple Leafs happen to be the franchise with which I’m most familiar, but there are several other major sports franchises in North America that are majority owned and operated by “Sports Groups” rather than individuals. The Phoenix Coyotes (NHL), Edmonton Oilers (NHL), Houston Texans (NFL), Miami Dolphins (NFL), and Toronto Blue Jays (MLB) are but a few examples of the mediocrity produced when sports franchises are ruled by committee, rather than with an individual owner. So why is this such a problem? The vast majority of large corporations are operated in such a way – what makes sports franchises so different?

The biggest problem is that too often, there is no “ultimate authority” that must be answered to when things don’t go as planned. “But all these teams have executive boards” you say, “Surely SOMEONE must be in charge?” Well, yes and no. It’s true that every sports team owned by a group of investors has an executive board, and yes, they all have a Chairman. But the problem is that this chairman is in turn answerable to his investors, and in most cases is expected to turn a profit (winning a championship is often a secondary consideration). There is no real personal stake beyond doing his job well and being lauded (and compensated) for it.

Individual majority owners are a different story though. Presumably they have made their money and had their accomplishments lauded already. Where else would they get the money to buy a sports team? Often times, the purchase of a sports franchise transcends the business opportunity it may be. As much as owners may be interested in the bottom line, they are also interested in WINNING. For the most part, the thing that has propelled these people to the positions they are in is a classic Type A, super-competitive personality. Sure they want to make money, but more than that, they want to win because A) it reaffirms their self-image as a person of influence) and B) because the thought of losing is detestable to them on the most basic psychological level.

Among some of the most successful franchises within North American sports, there’s a clear connection between private ownership, and each team’s success. Consider the following list: Larry Kraft (New England Patriots), Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), George Steinbrenner (late of the NY Yankees), Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Jerry Buss (LA Lakers), Mike Ilitch (Detroit Red Wings), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks). Seven owners, numerous championships, and even more championship appearances.

While it’s true that most of the individuals named don’t own 100% of their respective teams, they do own controlling interests, and for all intents and purposes, are the de facto owners. The buck stops with them. And woe to the player, coach, or executive who fails to deliver on the goal of winning. It’s one thing when fans get upset. Athletes, team administrators, and managers must all accept that the ire of fans is a necessary evil. A hazard of the workplace that must be endured, and for the most part, ignored, if they are to do their jobs effectively. However, it’s quite another when an owner gets upset. Fans may pay the bills, but owners write the cheques. For EVERYONE. They have the authority to make hires and fires on a whim, if they so choose. But what if the owner is a nameless, faceless, unemotional entity controlled by committee, reporting to investors? Success is no longer measured in wins and losses – it’s now measured in dollars and cents. And that’s no way to run a championship sports team.

Even worse is the fact that the leadership structure of the organization no longer has an ultimate authority. In the case of corporations, this isn’t such a big deal, as the ultimate goal is to produce a return for investors. Every person must do his/her job, and the machine will keep running, provided the board steers a steady course. But with sports teams, the dynamic is much different. Yes, front office personnel must work diligently. But it is the athletes who bear the majority of the responsibility for whether a franchise is successful or not.

Within the athletic framework, a clear leadership hierarchy is paramount to ensure the group as a whole functions properly and is kept in check if/when things start to go sideways. Athletes answer to coaches. Coaches answer to GMs. GMs answer to Presidents, and Presidents answer to…..a group of people who want to protect an investment? With that kind of structure the emphasis from the top down starts to focus less on winning, and more on the bottom line. Sure, professional athletes and coaches are as competitive and driven to win more than the average Joe, but without a certain level of extrinsic motivation in the form of a supreme authority figure, there is far more potential to get complacent. Not only that, but the drive and ability of the franchise to acquire and retain high quality athletes at any cost starts to diminish in favour of getting the most value for the payroll, even if it means a slightly lower quality roster. GMs do the best they can, but ultimately they are given a budget and must work within those constraints.

In most of the sporting world, this isn’t a problem, since a team’s record and a team’s profits are usually linked to one another. But over the last few years there have been those franchises that have found ways to be profitable despite a losing record.

Now, some of you may be saying  what about BAD owners? Don’t they offset the balance of your argument? While it’s true, a bad owner can do immeasurably harm to a team (Donald Sterling – LA Clipers, Frank McCourt – LA Dodgers, and more locally, Harold Ballard – formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980’s), the potential upside is far greater than what we’re seeing more and more in sports, as corporations seek to cash in on the lucrative business of sports.

And let’s not forget one of the other benefits to having a private owner for a sports teams – often they become entertainment in and of themselves.