TFC’s struggles should look awfully familiar to Toronto sports fans

So Toronto FC fired their interim manager Chris Cummins today, on the heels of a 5-0 meltdown in a must-win match against woeful New York. That’s a reasonable move, and one that I suspect most TFC fans welcome. But whichever English or Scottish league washout that Mo recruits (and you can bet your bottom dollar that it’ll be a Brit), will face the same problem that Cummins and his predecessor John Carver faced. That problem?

Mo Johnston.

I could try and put this politely for Toronto fans but instead let me explain it simply. Everyone in MLS thinks Johnston is an idiot when it comes to personnel. His record of erm, “success,” with NY and so far in Toronto is fairly obvious.

But here’s the biggest problem, and the problem that should haunt TFC fans far more than their insipid complaints about Major League Soccer’s rules and structure. I don’t think your owners give one iota of a crap whether your team wins or not, as long as 25,000 red-clad lunatics keep filling the seats. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, and TFC, is currently under the majority ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. You read that right; a pension fund for Ontario’s public school teachers owns three of Toronto’s professional sports franchises.

Here’s the big problem with that. The trustees of the pension plan have no reason to care whatsoever that TFC isn’t winning. As long as the seats are filled, the beer gets sold, and the media rights fees increase, it simply isn’t in the plan’s basic interest whatsoever to risk even a minute extra bit of its shareholders’ holdings in pursuit of silverware. That’s why Mo can probably consider his seat one of the safest in Major League Soccer. As long as the team makes money and he tells MLSE management what they want to hear, TFC’s legions of fans will likely be stuck with mediocre soccer in front of them for long while. Unlike with individual owners, the pension fund doesn’t have to win in order for it to be a success for itself or its shareholders. A pension fund won’t be mad that Toronto missed the playoffs. A pension fund won’t dream of lifting silverware in the way that an individual owner does.

If that sounds nauseatingly familiar to Toronto fans, it’s because it’s the exact same problem that has befallen the city’s beloved Maple Leafs for decades. As long as fans continue to fill the seats night-after-night, there simply is no reason for the pension fund to take the risk, as minimal as it might be, to put a championship-winning team out there. I just got done reading Leafs Abomination, by Toronto sportswriters Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. The chapters on MLSE and the pension fund should be required reading for every Toronto FC fan. It doesn’t make one terribly optimistic about TFC’s future on-field performance.

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9 thoughts on “TFC’s struggles should look awfully familiar to Toronto sports fans

  1. But it wouldn’t cost Toronto more to suck less, would it? They’d just need to stop overpaying no talent assclowns.

  2. This is the most misunderstood element of Toronto sports – That the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan somehow prefers Toronto teams NOT win. In fact, from a financial point of view their performance is insignificant to them.

    What most fail to understand is that the Ontario Teacher’s Pension plan has $88 BILLION dollars in assets. If you value the plan’s share in all of MLSE’s sports properties (on the very high end) at $500 million, that’s 0.6% of the fund’s value.

    Suggesting that the fund managers are up all night figuring how to maximize profit on their sports properties is akin to a McD’s manager spending his weekends trying to maximize profit on sugar packets.

    Finally, forgetting all of the above for a second, why do many subscribe to the flawed economic theory that successful sports teams are less profitable and worth less than unsuccessful ones. It truly baffles me. ??

  3. If that’s true, then the Oakland Raiders would be worth more than the Green Bay Packers, or even the New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys.

  4. You’ve got it a little backwards. Sports teams/clubs/franchises are governed by standard laws of supply and demand. Teams have a general ‘equilibrium’ value based on supply and demand. Since teams that do poorly often are not profitable are the ones that are the ‘supply’ of available sports teams to purchase, the value is driven up by the demand for these franchises.

    Obviously that isn’t always the case, but that’s the basic theory on how poor franchises can get purchased above what the team is ‘worth’ on the books. It happens even to high value clubs, like say Liverpool for example.

  5. I don’t quite think that argument holds–just because it’s 0.6% doesn’t mean the managers are happy to piss it away. Someone will still get fired if it isn’t performing, so the question remains, what does ‘performing’ mean? It’s as likely as not that performing only means profit.

    The problem is that analogy is meant to be ridiculous, but managers do this kind of thing.

    The better counterargument is that MLS is designed to be a league where the cost of going .500 is broadly similar to the cost of winning the championship.

    It might cost a little less than $10M when you skimp on scouting and coaching staff, or a little more than $10M once you’ve put a little extra into the youth program and gotten a DP, but the number of shirts TFC is going to sell if they win the championship should dwarf that difference.

    That’s sort of related to the point you’re making below:

    Only it’s specific to TFC, where the potential for profit vastly outweighs the spending gaps between teams. It might not apply for the KC Wizards. . . or the Toronto Maple Leafs.

  6. I’m reminded of an old joke about a couple having sex. The guy does his thing and immediately hops up to go watch TV.

    His girlfriend says “Hey, you got off, now how about me?”

    The guys replies: “I have no objection”

    That’s sort of the MLS&E approach to TFC:

    If they want to field a good team, they have no objection.

  7. This article contains some unfortunate generalizations, and misses the mark on a number of details:

    First: the OTPP hasn’t owned MLSE for “decades.” The plan took over majority ownership in 2003, six years ago. Before 2003, the team was owned by Steve Stavros from 1991 on and Harold Ballard before that. Ballard is who to blame for decades of mediocrity.

    Second: before the NHL required a salary cap in 2005, the Toronto Maple Leafs spent more money on salaries and free agents than any other NHL club in the 2000s. Money doesn’t always equal championships – just look at the Yankees, 2009 aside.

    Third: after several disappointing seasons, the Toronto Raptors went out and hired Bryan Colangelo, arguably the best “makeover” GM in the NBA. Colangelo has had free reign to run the team however he wanted, including picking up Jermaine O’Neal’s massive contract.

    Fourth: the Leafs have now hired Bryan Burke, further evidence of MLSE’s new belief that winning organizations start at the top. Burke, like Colangelo, could be considered the best GM in hockey for turning a team around. Just because the Leafs have woefully underperformed this year does not mean that Burke will fail in Toronto.

    Johnston has delivered in a number of key areas in Toronto. He has traded for Dwayne De Rosario, signed DP Julian de Guzman, brought grass to BMO field and is a wizard in the MLS draft. The level of quality on the field has improved by leaps and bounds each year since Toronto FC took to the field. Some commentators will point to Seattle’s immediate dominance as an expansion side, but are forgetting that Toronto faces unique difficulties due to MLS’s rules for domestic players. If Toronto FC fail to deliver again next season, expect Johnston to receive his packing papers and go the way of John Ferguson Jr. and Rob Babcock before him. If the club reaches a championship, expect to see Johnston running the ship for a few more seasons yet. Either way, conduct some proper research before posting what amounts to little more than a forum rant.

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