Wed, Jan 15, 2014 - Page 19 News List

Toronto risking ‘financial suicide’ with big signings

Reuters, TORONTO, Canada

Toronto FC’s decision to sign England striker Jermain Defoe and US midfielder Michael Bradley is akin to committing financial suicide, Tim Leiweke, the man who masterminded the deals, said on Monday.

Yet if Leiweke, president of Toronto owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), and all those involved in the reported US$100 million deal were really preparing for economic hara-kiri, they were doing so with a smile.

There were no frowns anywhere as MLSE, whose sporting portfolio includes the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA’s Raptors, introduced Defoe and Bradley in a splashy unveiling at an upscale sports bar in the Canadian city.

Defoe, coming from Tottenham Hotspur, where he was the English Premier League club’s fifth-highest scorer with 142 goals, and Bradley, a hard-nosed midfielder lured from Serie A giants AS Roma, joined Brazilian striker Gilberto to cap an unprecedented off-season shopping spree in Major League Soccer.

“To do one DP [designated player] is a smart move, to do two DP’s is not the smartest thing ever done and to do three is financial suicide,” Leiweke told a news conference on Monday. “We don’t have enough seats to make economic sense out of this and we have raised our ticket prices, but we needed to repair the integrity of the relationship with our fans and to the owners’ credit, they understand the first year is a lost leader and we’re not going to dwell on that.”

While Leiweke, who also brokered the deals that brought David Beckham and Robbie Keane to the Los Angeles Galaxy, conceded that the signings made no financial sense, he said it was an opportunity too good to pass up as MLSE tries to breathe new life into a club who have failed miserably on the pitch.

When Toronto FC entered the league seven years ago to great fanfare, they were held up as the prototype MLS franchise and the template of how to get a club off the ground. However, in seven years, they have yet to reach the playoffs and won just six games last season.

With the franchise in disarray and the fan base shrinking, MLSE’s hand was forced into making a big move to get back on track.

A red double decker bus with “It’s a bloody big deal” painted across its side was parked outside the news conference and there have certainly been few more significant signings for MLS.

Beckham, Keane and French international Thierry Henry all came to the league late in their careers, but MLSE displayed unusual aggression by landing two high-profile players in their prime.

Defoe’s deal is believed to be for four years at US$8 million a season, while Bradley signed on for six years and US$36 million.

Both contracts are believed to contain marketing incentives. Leiweke confirmed that MLSE paid MLS record transfer fees of close to US$10 million for each player.

These are bold moves in a league that operates under a tight US$3 million salary cap, but allows each team up to three players that do not count against the cap.

The English press slammed Defoe’s decision as a dead-end move from an iconic club in the world’s most popular league, to the worst team in a mediocre league.

Yet, the huge financial gamble will ultimately be judged on wins, losses and trophies.

“A lot of people don’t see the vision we do and now what we have to do is prove them wrong,” Leiweke said.

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