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Is Tom Anselmi’s promotion bad news for the fans of MLSE-owned teams?

Andrew Bucholtz
Eh Game

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New MLSE president Tom Anselmi's record overseeing TFC is less than stellar.

Tuesday's announcement that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had hired Tom Anselmi as their new president and chief operating officer drew wide derision from across the Twitterverse, and for good reason. Anselmi's a long-time MLSE executive who's been with the company since 1996, most recently as executive vice-president and chief operating officer, so he's hardly free from the taint of the company's teams' recent mediocrity. Perhaps most concerningly for fans, the franchise he's been most closely associated with, Toronto FC, has been arguably the worst of all of MLSE's struggling teams; while the Leafs and Raptors are going through long playoff droughts, they've at least had some stability recently, while TFC has lurched from coach to coach and has never made the playoffs since their 2007 inception. Their last-place status in the current Major League Soccer standings means that's highly unlikely to change this year, either. Will Anselmi's promotion spread TFC's issues to MLSE's other teams and continue their struggles, or will he be able to turn this outfit around?

Anselmi's record as the point man for MLSE on Toronto FC is frankly disastrous, and that's problematic. TFC has been an utter on-pitch disaster for most of their history, with the lone redeeming point their regular success in the Canadian Championship and the CONCACAF Champions League. Even with that success in other competitions, their record is appalling: across all competitions, the team had 57 wins, 74 losses and 57 draws from 2007-2011 with a -40 goal differential, and those numbers only get worse if you only consider MLS, where they had 40 wins, 67 losses and 47 draws over that span with a -73 goal differential. Their 2012 MLS campaign, which has included a 5-16-6 overall record, a franchise-record winless streak, a MLS-record losing streak and the controversial firing of head coach Aron Winter, doesn't exactly inspire confidence that things are getting better, either. TFC's history is one of lurching from bad decision to bad decision, acquiring talented players and then getting rid of them for cents on the dollar and constantly changing managers and philosophies in midstream. Granted, that's not all about Anselmi, but having the team he's most closely been associated with continuously in trouble doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his ability to run the entire MLSE empire. Some of TFC's decisions certainly are on him, too, particularly the revolving door of management and the bizarre decision to hire a coach (Winter) and a director of soccer (current head coach Paul Mariner) with incompatible philosophies.

Of course, though, MLSE is about more than just the sports teams, and Anselmi's off-the-pitch work has been more impressive. The company's teams, including TFC, continue to print money by and large despite their lack of results (an exception here is the AHL's Marlies, which actually made it to the Calder Cup finals this year), and their other ventures (including the Real Sports Bar and Grill) have proven very successful. Moreover, as Richard Whittall writes, Anselmi's promotion may not have much of an impact on MLSE's teams whatsoever:

Fans of Toronto FC, the outfit Anselmi oversaw in his former role as MLSE executive VP, will wonder how five years of misery and substandard play in a very friendly and profitable market for soccer could be rewarded with a plum executive position.

The answer is that Anselmi didn't really "oversee" anything. In fact, there seems to have been little oversight at all, except in ceding hiring of key sporting positions to an outside group, generally mismanaging key appointments in the TFC front office, and maximizing club revenues for MLSE. Most decisions on the sporting side of things were pro forma: hire a coaching staff, then stand back until poor results affect the bottom line. They weren't of material importance, and won't be so long as fans keep attending matches, even if Toronto FC is no longer the sellout venue of 2007-2010.

While this argument doesn't cover everything (for example, it's pretty clear that better on-pitch results would help MLSE's overall product at least somewhat, so the company does care about them to an extent), Whittall makes some good points. At heart, MLSE is a profit-driven entity, and while winning might increase those profits, the corporation has plenty of interests beyond just how their teams do on the field. Whitall follows that by saying "As large and powerful as MLSE is, expecting them to competently run four different teams, let alone win anything with them, is an impossibly tall order," and there's some truth to that as well; entities that own multiple franchises do sometimes neglect some of them in favour of others. However, by and large, the chief issue with MLSE's teams hasn't been that they're interfering owners; in hockey and basketball in particular, they've hired big names in the sport (Brian Burke, Bryan Colangelo) and given them time and space to work, but that hasn't led to any success either. If anything, MLSE's primary flaw is that they seem to keep hiring the wrong people. If things don't turn around under Anselmi, his promotion may be another case in point there.

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