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Volume 22 No. 35
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Godfrey bullish on relationships, Toronto’s future as hot sports market

On a cold December evening in 1963, Paul Godfrey was ebullient. He had just been elected as Toronto city alderman and was ready to meet the media when his mother tugged at him.

“Here I was, so excited at 25, the youngest guy elected in the community and the media were waiting for me. But she insisted on taking a walk up the block on this cold night,” he tells me on a dark, dreary Toronto afternoon.

“She said, ‘I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. In politics, like everything else in life, the way you treat people on your way up the ladder is the way they’ll treat you on your way down the ladder. If you treat them well on the way up, they’ll treat you well on the way down.’ That stuck with me forever, and that’s why I treat the janitor like the vice president. They’ll go to the wall for you.’”

Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of Postmedia Network, oversees Canada’s largest English-language daily newspaper group, with $800 million in revenue.
Photo by: POSTMEDIA NETWORK
And the second piece of advice? “She said, ‘In politics, more than any other career, it’s better to quit two years too early than two years too late.’ I actually found that to be true in every endeavor,” he said with a laugh.

Godfrey’s skill at developing relationships and business timing have served him well over his 75 years, more than 50 of which have been spent in politics, sports and business. One of the most influential and connected power brokers in Canada, Godfrey served eight years as president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, before leading the country’s largest publishing companies. As president and CEO of Postmedia Network, he oversees Canada’s largest English-language daily newspaper group and a media conglomerate with nearly $800 million in revenue and more than 3,000 employees.

He greets me on the 12th floor of the company’s Bloor Street headquarters with a smile and bottled water. It was Godfrey’s charm that struck me when we first met in 2003 — kind, inquisitive of my background and our U.S. sports publishing business. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and during a recent visit to Toronto, he again showed his graciousness, immediately setting up a generous block of time to catch up at his office.

We sit in his conference room, with big windows showing the mix of sleet and rain hitting the city. He talks of the Blue Jays signing catcher Russell Martin, asks my thoughts on the new ownership of the Buffalo Bills, and outlines his dream of bringing the NFL to his hometown — “unfinished business I’ve been looking to get done.”
It’s a deep-dive education on the Toronto sports market.

“Toronto has always had an unbelievably hot sports market,” he said. “The Maple Leafs haven’t won in over 40 years, but you cannot get a seat at the Air Canada Centre. Hockey is dominant. Hockey would get a nudge in this town if the NFL came, though. Basketball, in the last year, has developed a major fan base because of the success the Raptors have had. The Leafs crowd is much more corporate, while the Raptors crowd is much more multicultural and younger. Of course, tickets aren’t as expensive for the Raptors. And even in their short existence, the Blue Jays have won two World Series, which is pretty good. The Blue Jays have created a lot of broken hearts for all they probably should have won and they didn’t. But overall, this is a very sports hungry city. They crave for a winner. They’ve been disappointed for years.”

His time at the Blue Jays was filled with mediocre teams and two general managers, but he believes it’s a good baseball town. “If you start winning, the fans are there. If you start losing, they go crazy and say, ‘I can’t sleep at night! Why don’t you do something?’ It’s unbelievable. I spent time in politics where I increased people’s taxes and I never got the negative reaction that I did when the Blue Jays were on a four- or five-game losing streak.”

He enjoyed running the Blue Jays, but admits he doesn’t miss the job and said the role of president is overstated when it comes to sports organizations.

Godfrey was president and CEO of the Blue Jays for eight years.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“Look, the major decisions were made by the general manager, not necessarily the president. You hire a general manager, but you really can’t lean over his shoulder and say, ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘You’re paying this guy too much.’ J.P. Ricciardi came to me with all his deals. I would question them. I didn’t give him a blank check. But if he ultimately said this was necessary for the team, I basically went along with it. Why? Because you have to let him do his job and judge him on his track record. You can’t judge him on three-quarters of his track record to a quarter of mine. You need to let your general manager manage and hold his feet to the fire.”

Godfrey insists that the pressure resides, both publicly and organizationally, on the GM.

“It’s easier to fire the general manager and coach than to fire the president of the team,” he goes on to say. “Most good presidents will allow the people they hire to make decisions. Those making the decisions — and making wrong decisions — are the ones that are accountable. Because the only way you can evaluate your team is how your general manager puts the team together, and how your coach coaches that team.”

But he insists leaders can spot signals along the way that indicate a personnel change should be made.

“You can tell when one of your people, especially general managers in sports, start to get desperate. They start throwing money at players you wouldn’t normally touch. They get a sense, ‘We haven’t won enough. I could be gone.’ You can almost see their moves coming. They start asking for more money to throw at players that in the first year of their tenure they didn’t want — an aging star. When they are desperate, they want to gamble on that aging superstar having a little left in the tank. It’s their form of throwing a Hail Mary. It’s bad, but you see it all the time.”

Godfrey never won a World Series with the Blue Jays, while another goal that has eluded him during his successful career has been bringing the NFL to Toronto.

He’s convinced the NFL could be “huge” in the city, despite the area’s poor track record at hosting games, which he blames on strategic missteps by city leaders, starting with the move to have the Bills play one regular-season game a year and three preseason games over five years in Toronto starting in 2008.

Godfrey’s watching MLSE’s
future amid owner rivalry


Paul Godfrey said the biggest sports story in Toronto is the Bell/Rogers Communications joint venture on Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and a successor to departing CEO Tim Leiweke.

“I was quite surprised the arrangement was made,” he said. “If Pepsi and Coke were to own the New York Giants, how do you think it would work? It came about by necessity, because one of them didn’t want the other to have the dominant role on the team. Why should we let the other guy grab it and own all the TV rights? Can it survive? The people in both companies are very decent people, but we know that business wars can be almost as dangerous as real wars between countries. It’s no secret that they don’t see eye to eye on very many things. Can it survive over the long run? I don’t know.”

He does see one person who could be an effective bridge-builder between the groups, the man who put the deal together, Goodmans Chair Dale Lastman, son of the former mayor of Toronto and a member of the MLSE board of directors. “He’s the best negotiator around. They need someone like him to be the CEO to keep everybody at the table. You need someone who has nothing to gain personally, and who is able to maneuver the groups. Since he’s the one that brought them both to the table, I think he’s the only guy who could do it.”

He thinks it would be difficult to have another U.S. executive run MLSE and succeed Leiweke. “You really have to know the culture of Canada and you have to know the makeup of the personalities of the CEOs of both companies. It’s very difficult to parachute somebody in. To drop them on center ice, and say, ‘OK, keep them apart. OK, now, get them to agree.’ At first, they’re going to view as, ‘Are you too close to the other guy?’ Not, ‘Are you doing a good job for me?’ Human nature is you’re always worried about the other guy getting a leg up. But you need somebody who’s got the people skills, diplomacy and ability to communicate to both at all times.”

“In truth, the NFL was very upset that the Buffalo series even took place, because the NFL was in discussions with us to have a series of games, like they are playing in London. They wanted one here, maybe one in Vancouver, and the next year back here. They would rotate various teams.”

But he says the ill-fated Bills series has set back the city’s hopes.

“The Bills series was a disaster,” he said shaking his head. “A prominent member of the NFL told me that the NFL is not used to such a marketing disaster. Rogers Communications overpaid for those games.”

He cited the company’s decision to charge as much as $500 a game. “As much as we wanted to see the NFL, people didn’t want to get gouged. They could drive to Buffalo and pay $100 instead of paying $500. So what happened? Fans didn’t buy them. So the organizers ended up giving away most of the tickets for free. That pissed people off. They misread the market. I congratulate the Bills. The Bills found the biggest sucker in town and said, ‘Why not do this?’”

But when I tell Godfrey my sources at the league and in Toronto show little confidence in the city being a successful NFL market, citing the lack of a true football facility and a downtown core that makes tailgating and transportation a challenge, he pounds his fist on the desk.

“The NFL in Toronto would be a huge success. Huge,” his voice rising. “It would give hockey a nudge; it wouldn’t surpass hockey. It would be bigger than baseball, breaks my heart, and basketball. But the Bills series really hurt the image of Toronto.”

Looking back, Godfrey believes the NFL misfired in choosing Jacksonville in its expansion of 1995. “They should have taken Toronto. They took Jacksonville. If you went by the NFL’s rules — market to play in, performance in other major league sports, ability to travel there, geographically located, and the type of television market it is — Toronto is right in the top tier. If you started the NFL all over, and picked the top 30 teams, Toronto would be no worse than eighth to 10, in that range. It would be better than 20 other teams. I really think that it’s only a matter of time; there are circumstances with teams in various markets. I’m not knocking any cities like Oakland or Cleveland or Cincinnati or Minnesota or San Diego. But all these cities are smaller. Remember, Toronto is the fourth-largest city in North America and such a dynamic sports city. There’s a major thirst for the NFL here. The NFL has got to put a team in L.A. So why wouldn’t L.A. and Toronto be a natural? It’s win-win on both fronts.”

While sports is Godfrey’s passion, media is his business, and while he believes in the future of news and information, he acknowledges a changing and shrinking media landscape.

“You can’t give away your content for free,” he said. “You can’t. Anyone from a large media company who thinks you can continue to do that will be out of business shortly. Your content is your most valuable commodity. People will pay for it; they will have to pay for it. If you want brands that are considered important to a community, those brands have to charge for their content. There will be consolidation in the marketplace. I think we will ultimately have one large newspaper chain in Canada. There may be a sprinkling of others. But one large chain that will be owned by a vanity owner. Someone who doesn’t want a sports team, or seven Bentleys or seven homes or seven Monets.

“It’s going to be someone who wants to have a big say in government. Who wants to be able to say, ‘I want the politicians to know my reporters are watching.’”

It’s late in the day, yet Godfrey continues to display great energy, brimming with pride in talking about his three sons, talking of his full schedule that evening and early morning walk along Bay Street with his dog. It’s a good life, and he finishes our get-together with another story about his mother and treating people.

“I was about 4 years old, and my mother sat me on her knee and said, ‘Son, you have a choice in life between smart and lucky. Pick lucky every time.’ I’ve been very, very fortunate. I was never a good student. Never. I struggled every year in school just to get through to the next grade. I graduated as a chemical engineer but never practiced engineering. For me, perseverance paid off, and I work hard.

Godfrey says he inherited his mother’s people skills, which he describes as “unbelievably positive.”
“The one thing I truly inherited from my mother is people skills. She only had a primary school education, but her people skills were just unbelievably positive. The way she treated people, how people followed her, did what she wanted. She never asked anybody to do something that she wouldn’t do herself. I have tried to live up to that. I say to my employees, ‘Your family is the most important thing in your life. If your kid has a baseball game and you’re expected to be there tonight, and I’ve asked you to come to a meeting, tell me, so we can change the meeting.’ By doing things like that, people will go to the wall for you.”

To him, life has been about relationships. “I tell young people all the time, ‘I don’t care how smart you are. Your ability to get along with people is the most important thing in any business.’ I’ve seen people that are absolutely brilliant, but they manage down so badly that nobody wants to work with them. But if you get along with people, the possibilities are endless.”

Godfrey should know. He’s living proof.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.