Bridge Builder: Larry Tanenbaum
Three decades and seven pro sports franchises ago, bent upon bringing an NBA franchise to Toronto after whiffing on the NFL and losing a bid to build a ballpark for the Blue Jays, Larry Tanenbaum convinced Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider to join him for breakfast while in town to watch his hockey team play.
As they wrapped up their conversation, Snider shared a reflection that would stay with Tanenbaum forever.
“Larry, I just want you to know that of all my business successes, winning that Stanley Cup was the greatest thrill of my life,” said Snider, a Hall of Fame owner whose Flyers won back-to-back Cups in 1974 and ’75. “Beyond any business success, winning that trophy was unbelievable.”
Tanenbaum’s road to ownership would be a unique one, winding its way through stymied relocation attempts and the heartbreaking rejection of his ownership group after he convinced the NBA to grant Toronto a team. When he finally got in, it was through a side door, as 12.5% owner of the NHL’s Maple Leafs. That led to a stake in the Raptors, and then a seat as chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which he has grown to include those those two franchises, plus MLS club Toronto FC, the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and farm teams in basketball, hockey and soccer, along with Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
Affable but averse to public attention, Tanenbaum, 75, quietly wields an unparalleled breadth of influence, chairing the NBA’s board of governors while also sitting on the most influential committees of the NHL and MLS.
That breakfast with Snider confirmed what Tanenbaum suspected, that his passion for sports could complete him in ways that the bridges, tunnels and roads he built as head of his family’s construction conglomerate could not.
“What [Snider] said about winning that trophy was exactly right,” Tanenbaum said, describing the elation he felt when the Raptors won the NBA championship last June. He then methodically listed the five championships that his teams in MLS, the CFL, G League and AHL have won in the past four years, careful not to slight any of them.
“Still to get the Stanley Cup,” Tanenbaum said. “That’s the thing I’m working for.”
Organized and unflappable
In the winter of 2005, five months into an NHL lockout, Tanenbaum and MLSE President Richard Peddie met with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and President Mark Abbott to tie down the remaining details of a negotiation to put a pro soccer franchise in Toronto.
Tanenbaum was bullish on the league, which at that point had 12 clubs, none of them in Canada. They were progressing as anticipated when Peddie’s phone interrupted them.
“You guys have to excuse me for a minute,” Peddie said when he finished the call. “I just was informed that Commissioner [Gary] Bettman is about to cancel the season, so hang here for a few minutes. I have to go downstairs with Larry and have a press conference.”
Garber’s instinct was that their discussion might have to be tabled.
“Hang in there guys,” Garber remembers Tanenbaum saying. “We’ll be right back.”
Flipping on an office TV, they watched as Bettman announced that there would be no season, and then as Peddie held his press conference with local media. Soon after they finished, Tanenbaum reappeared.
“OK,” he said matter of factly, “where were we?”
The group concluded their discussions, ending with a handshake deal for Toronto FC to enter the league for an expansion fee of $10 million.
“Larry is one of those guys that anybody running a business would want with them during the most difficult times,” said Garber, who has leaned on Tanenbaum heavily since Toronto joined the league in 2007. “He has an unflappable way about him that becomes even more defining during crisis. I think that is because he’s always looking at where things are going versus where they are in the moment. I have found that a very comforting quality, and I know others in the league office find it comforting as well.”
While a handful of other sports consortiums have similar breadth, none of their owners are engaged as deeply across three leagues as Tanenbaum, who chairs the NBA’s board of governors and sits on the NHL’s executive committee and MLS’s advisory and finance committee, expansion committee and governance committee.
“There are influential owners in all sports leagues, and there are multi-team owners throughout professional sports,” Garber said. “But I don’t think there is anyone in pro sports that has the stature and respect Larry has earned across three leagues. That’s unprecedented.”
A building blueprint
Tanenbaum knocked on doors in sports for 20 years before one opened.
A Torontoan from birth, he hoped to marry a passion — born of a childhood watching Maple Leafs and Argonauts games and inflamed while in college at Cornell, where he was a student manager on the 1967 NCAA champion hockey team — with his vocation, at the helm of the spectacularly successful Kilmer Van Nostrand construction company built by his father, Max.
Though his company’s core competencies were in pavement and in building bridges and tunnels and subways, Tanenbaum saw an opportunity to connect that to sports.
“Every sports team needed a home,” Tanenbaum said, thinking back to the spark behind his first chase for a team. “And the idea of building a stadium was attractive.”
With the NFL eyeing expansion in the 1970s, Tanenbaum was in his late 20s when he joined young Toronto alderman Paul Godfrey in a push to bring an NFL expansion franchise to Toronto. He was less interested in owning the team than building the stadium on a 100-acre tract that his father owned, but at $15 million the expansion fee was within the group’s means. He never got the chance to do either, waylaid when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said he would oppose NFL expansion for fear that it would cannibalize the CFL.
Tanenbaum took another shot at sports when he bid to build the retractable roof stadium that would be known as SkyDome for the Toronto Blue Jays. Though he lost to a lowball bid, he takes solace in the fact that his bid was about one-third of the final cost, which grew with the scope of the project, but also because of large overruns.
Having lost out on baseball and football, he turned his attention to the next most likely raison d’etre for an arena, an NBA franchise. The Denver Nuggets were bleeding money in an outdated building, so he began there. Tanenbaum gained enough momentum that he attracted the attention of then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, who summoned him to a meeting to warn him that both he, and the league, would be sued if he didn’t stop.
“Go find another team,” Stern told him.
And so he did.
He pursued the San Antonio Spurs and then the New Jersey Nets before finally convincing Stern — “And it was very hard to convince David,” Tanenbaum said — to bless an expansion team for Toronto if he could marshal the support of the 27 NBA owners. Tanenbaum began calling and traveling, pitching owners at league meetings and in their home cities, extolling the merits of a rapidly growing, increasingly international commercial hub.
It was at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City in 1993 that the NBA’s expansion committee announced that it favored expansion into Canada, with at least one franchise and possibly two beginning play as early as 1995. The league confirmed that one group, headed by Tanenbaum, already had applied for a franchise.
Once again, Stern summoned Tanenbaum to his New York office. Yes, he had convinced owners of the merits of Toronto. But there still was work to be done to convince them that his group was the one to win the team.
Between his own financial resources and the backing of his partners — the Labatt Brewing Company, which already owned the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, each of which would own one-third — Tanenbaum was confident in his group. When Detroit Pistons owner and old friend Bill Davidson warned him that the expansion fee for this go-around would exceed $100 million, tripling what anyone had paid before, it surprised him.
“But I said fine,” Tanenbaum said, “and we went about our work.”
Tanenbaum planned to develop an arena in partnership with the Maple Leafs, then publicly owned and chaired by grocery chain owner Steve Stavro. The competing group, led by partners John Bitove and Allan Slaight, intended to build its own $225 million downtown arena. Tanenbaum was sure he had the stronger group and the better arena site, but Bitove and Slaight were bent on outbidding him.
The expansion fee rocketed to $125 million. Bitove and Slaight got the team.
Tanenbaum was driving with Dale Lastman, a well-connected corporate lawyer who some now refer to as his “consigliere,” when they got the bad news.
“To be honest with you, we were certain that we were going to win the bid,” said Lastman, who was working on behalf of Labatt at the time. “I’ll never forget the day when we lost. He was devastated. Devastated. And I mean devastated. I can’t remember if he was driving or I was driving. But I remember he was very, very upset. We really were shocked, rightly, or wrongly.”
While confessing that he was “incredibly disappointed,” Tanenbaum brushed past a question about whether he contemplated tapping out after going down for a third time.
Current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was Stern’s chief of staff and liaison to the owners’ expansion committee when Tanenbaum was chasing the team. When he made his presentation, he brought gifts for the committee, high-end leather bags bearing a Toronto Thunder logo. For years, Silver carried that bag to the gym near his office each day.
“As incredibly disappointed as he was that he wasn’t awarded the franchise at that time, typical Larry, he just went back to work,” said Silver. “He didn’t express anger at anyone at the league. He just kept the fire burning and waited until the opportunity presented itself, as it did, for him together with some other partners to buy the franchise. That’s part of Larry’s makeup. His spirit is indomitable. He’s always looking forward, and looking for an opportunity to move forward.”
Lastman saw the anger, and pain.
“But Larry is resilient,” Lastman said. “We never gave up. He always watched.”
Developing a plan
If he could not build Toronto a football or baseball stadium or a basketball arena, perhaps Tanenbaum could play a role in constructing a new home for the Maple Leafs, who were playing in a famed but outdated hockey barn.
When Stavro took the Leafs private, Tanenbaum got the chance to buy in, paying $21 million for a 12.5% stake in the team and its arena in June 1996. Stavro held 27.5% of the company and remained as its chairman. TD Bank held 10% and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, which funded much of Stavro’s takeover, owned the rest.
Not long after he joined the group, Tanenbaum went to work in his area of expertise, urging Stavro to convince Bitove and Slaight to share the new arena. He knew bad blood between Bitove and Stavro would make that unlikely. But he hoped business sensibilities would prevail.
They did not.
What followed was an implosion that at that point was inevitable. Tired of the weight of a $125 million expansion fee and $220 million arena project, Slaight found his way out, executing a “shotgun clause” in the partnership that forced Bitove to either buy him out or sell to him.
Unable to come up with the money, Bitove bowed out. Slaight re-engaged Tanenbaum, who negotiated a $500 million (Canadian) purchase of the Raptors and the half-built Air Canada Centre, creating a reconfigured partnership that would be known as Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The Leafs got their new shared home, an arena that also would emerge as the city’s dominant concert venue. Stavro continued to serve as governor of the Maple Leafs. Tanenbaum assumed that long-sought role as an NBA owner.
“Having just come off the loss of the Raptors, did I have that in mind?” Tanenbum asked rhetorically. “Well, I was hopeful.”
More partnership drama awaited. Not long after MLSE launched, it became clear Stavro and Tanenbaum saw ownership, and partnership, differently. As Stavro’s grocery chain crumbled and he faced increasing financial pressure, their relationship fractured. One morning in 2000, Tanenbaum phoned Lastman, suggesting they meet at his downtown law office.
“I need a favor,” Lastman remembers Tanenbaum saying when he got there. “I’m not comfortable being on the board with Steve. I have one spot. I’d like you to take it from me. And take care of my interests. And I’ll step off the board.”
“What do you want me to do there?” Lastman asked him.
“I want you to get to a place,” Tanenbaum said, “where I’m comfortable coming back.”
This was not a calculated end-around to power. Tanenbaum said he would have happily worked in partnership if the organization were functioning efficiently. But he didn’t think it was. Over time, neither did the other investors. Stavro finally agreed to exit in 2003, with the teachers’ fund increasing its stake to 58%, Bell Globe Media joining with 15%, TD Bank taking 14% and Tanenbaum increasing slightly to 13%.
Tanenbaum returned to the board as its chairman, with an ownership group agreement that kept him in that seat for at least five years, even though he held the smallest stake. He has never lost that seat, even as the underpinnings of the company shifted seismically.
When the teachers’ fund hired Morgan Stanley to take its two-thirds stake to market early in 2011, Canada’s leading telecoms were the most likely buyers. With a right of first refusal on those shares, Tanenbaum had a say in where they would land. Though the assumption was that two major RSN owners — Rogers Communications and Bell Canada — would compete fiercely for MLSE, which could provide unrivaled programming heft, Tanenbaum said the two of them approached him with the idea of coming in as partners.
To many, it was unthinkable. But Tanenbaum was thrilled with the opportunity to make it work. They created guidelines by which the two RSNs could divvy up Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC games. Tanenbaum not only got powerhouse funding from what in his mind were the ideal partners, he extended his ownership stake to 25%.
“They had a focus on the content,” Tanenbaum said. “The reason I loved having them was it was important for them to have winning teams because that only made the content more desirable to their subscribers. So I loved their focus on winning.”
The most important takeaway from all these twists and turns, with stakeholders coming and going as Tanenbaum methodically increased his stake, is the comfort he has professed with partnerships, and his effectiveness in both crafting and then managing them.
“I’ve always believed in partnerships in my business life and having good partners,” Tanenbaum said. “It doesn’t really matter if you own 10% or 90% of something. You work just as hard at the task at hand. So it didn’t matter what percentage I owned. I wanted to put my stamp on [MLSE], and I thought I had something to offer.”
Initially, that something was an expertise in large construction projects; bridges and subways and tunnels. Over time, it became much more.
“His resiliency is unbelievable,” Lastman said. “He knows that if this door closes another will open up. And so he somehow went from having a very modest interest in a heavily controlled Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team to the position he is in today, with a sports empire. And with a dominant role as a very significant shareholder and the chairman of the board and its biggest fan. And that’s because when he believes in something, he is passionate about it and he builds it.”
Strong foundation for others to lean on
A bit less than an hour after the Milwaukee Bucks set off a chain reaction that temporarily shut down pro sports last month, Tanenbaum’s cellphone chimed.
“It’s Adam Silver,” he said. “I have to take this.”
Silver filled him in on what had transpired. The Bucks had refused to take the floor for the first game of the day. The rest of the teams — including the Raptors — would follow suit. That much was clear. Duration and ramifications were not.
“Call me as late as you want if there’s something to discuss,” Tanenbaum said.
What unfolded was a tenuous 48 hours in which owners and players negotiated parameters under which games would resume, with both committing to more tangible ways to advance racial justice. As chairman of the BOG, Tanenbaum was deeply engaged, just as he had been through the previous five months.
“He’s always such a calm presence and even-keeled,” Silver said, comparing his reaction in August to the one that he had when Silver phoned to discuss shutting down the season in March. “He’s a very deliberate person. His general reaction is always: Let’s learn more information. I’ve never known him to overreact to a situation.”
Silver has found that to be particularly helpful, first as he made the difficult call to recommend the league shut down in response to the pandemic and then again as the NBA navigated its path back. Tanenbaum has only one vote, same as each of his ownership counterparts. But he wields vast influence, mostly because Silver and the other owners have come to realize that his priority is to find consensus, even when it’s not completely aligned with his self-interest.
At times, he has told Silver privately that he disagreed with his position on an issue, then gone on to support it wholeheartedly.
“In working to build consensus, he works to ensure that this is a collaborative process, recognizing that doesn’t mean we won’t have disagreements among team governors,” Silver said. “But he takes the time to either talk to team owners individually or to make sure they’re heard as we work through issues. It’s his tone and spirit of collaboration that have made him such an effective chairman of the board.”
Tanenbaum points to the stack of committees working on return to play in each league as examples of that collaboration. Each quickly came to the conclusion that the only way to resume safely was within the confines of a bubble. All had to negotiate protocols and pay with their players. But the structures of their resumed seasons varied widely.
Tanenbaum was engaged regularly on conversations on all those issues across all three leagues. When the NHL opted for two bubbles, it chose his Scotiabank Arena as one of them.
“Return to play was a critical task that began the moment the leagues shut down,” Tanenbaum said. “So I was basically on the phone with owners in all three leagues and with all three commissioners, Zoom and conference calls, from early morning until late night. But it wasn’t just me. It was every owner.”
Commissioners in all three leagues marveled at Tanenbaum’s bandwidth.
“It just amazes me how tireless he is,” Garber said. “I know how much time he spends with us. And knowing he spends probably more time with the NBA and the NHL, the man is living 72-hour days.”
Silver was struck, as he often has been, by Tanenbaum’s recollection of minute details of developing protocols and his level of preparation before discussing any topic.
“It’s almost as if I would never otherwise know that he has a full-time day job running a huge global construction firm, and then he also has teams in multiple other leagues, because he never says, ‘I don’t have time,’” Silver said. “He never says, ‘I’m busy with something else.’ I mean, I honestly don’t know when he sleeps.”
Along with joining the NHL’s biweekly board of governors meetings via Zoom, Tanenbaum frequently checked in with the NHL’s Bettman. When both were in Florida — Tanenbaum at his Palm Beach estate, Bettman in his beachside penthouse near Boca Raton — they met face-to-face, socially distanced.
“He was in constant communication with me,” Bettman said. “And he was great at providing information because he is so knowledgeable and he’s a great sounding board. He was completely absorbed in our [return to play plan], and I expect in the NBA’s and MLS’s as well.”
In any league, a handful of particularly engaged owners work closely with the commissioner on the issues of the day, shepherding the broader whole toward an objective. Few owners have filled that role in more than one prominent league. Only Tanenbaum has played it in three.
“The idea that you can operate in a vacuum as one team is foolhardy,” Tanenbaum said. “You can’t do that. You’ve got to work for the health of the league. The NHL, the NBA, Major League Soccer — I’m very involved with all of them. And my one focus is to make the collection of teams as strong as they can be, because the whole is definitely stronger than each individual that makes up the whole.
“You don’t have a strong team without having a strong league behind you,” he said.
Everyone is family
A few years ago, while in Toronto to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame with his son-in-law and puck-crazy grandson on a winter Saturday, Bettman accepted an invitation for all three of them to join Tanenbaum for dinner before the Maple Leafs game that night.
When they arrived, they found a small army of Tanenbaums, in multigenerational force.
“He had some kids there and some grandkids there and he made my son-in-law and grandson feel like they were part of the family,” Bettman said. “It wasn’t a formal, stiff dinner. It was very casual and warm and engaging. It was Larry.”
As a friend and trusted counsel, Lastman has been at Tanenbaum’s side through most all of his sports journey, as well as other business endeavors and landmark occasions. Like others, he points to that dedication to family, and ability to make others feel as if they were an extension of it, as defining characteristics.
With three children and 10 grandchildren, Tanenbaum and Judy Tanenbaum, his wife of 53 years, often turn games into family outings. Generally averse to suites, he and Judy are not only fixtures at Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and Argonauts games, they make their way to see the three minor league teams whenever possible.
“They have raised an incredibly close, tight-knit family,” Lastman said. “And there is no daylight between that and everything else Larry does in his life.”
That is eminently evident to all who deal with him, and especially appreciated by those closest to him. His dedication to his own family begets interest in others’ families. A signature of a call with Tanenbaum is that he rarely plows straight into business.
“Every conversation always starts with a discussion on a personal level,” Bettman said. “How you doing? How is the family doing? How are the kids? He knows all my kids’ names. He knows all my grandchildren’s names.”
Silver and Garber described similar experiences.
“He always finds time to ask about my family and remember important dates in my life,” Silver said. “And he’s also seemingly always present for his family as well. I’m not sure how he does it, as I struggle to get through the day with my own life. He’s become not just my boss as the chairman of the board of governors, but he’s very much a role model in my life.”
Tanenbaum’s consideration extends well beyond his inner circle. He chats up staff at the arena and bell hops on the road, remembering their names and the details they share.
When Raptors President Masai Ujiri joined the organization as director of global scouting, he occasionally found himself at Tanenbaum’s home with then-President and GM Bryan Colangelo.
“He treated me the same exact way then as he does now,” Ujiri said. “I have more personal contact now, but otherwise he treated me exactly the same. Which is remarkable. I was only a scout, five guys down the totem pole. He treats you like a human being. For somebody in that position, he does that to everybody. There are very few people I’ve met who are like that.”
Coming out of his contract as president of Real Salt Lake in 2015, Bill Manning contacted former Real owner Dave Checketts to ask for an introduction to Tanenbaum. Their first meeting was in Toronto over lunch. They hit it off and Tanenbaum asked if he’d come back in a few days to meet the CEOs of Bell and Rogers. After that meeting, they offered him the job as president of Toronto FC. But Tanenbaum said he didn’t want an answer. He wanted Manning to come back one more time, this time with his family.
When they arrived at their hotel suite a few days later, the Mannings found an assortment of Leafs and Raptors gear, including jerseys for each of their two sons. Not only were they the right sizes, they were their favorite numbers.
“It’s just a little touch where Larry says, ‘let’s make sure we’re welcoming,’” Manning said. “Those things always start from the top. He cares. He cares greatly about the people who work for him. I could see it. I could just sense it in meeting him, and I’ve been so happy with my decision to come here to to work for Larry.
“I’ve become a better executive working for him, but I think I’ve become a better person, too, just being around him. He’s that kind of man.”
When Tanenbaum hired Hall of Fame winger Brendan Shanahan to turn around the flagging Leafs, one of Shanahan’s first tasks was to hire a new coach. He aimed high, pursuing Mike Babcock, a Stanley Cup and two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning coach who was exiting after 10 years with the Detroit Red Wings.
Babcock had offers from at least three other clubs, all believed to be for similar terms. When he visited Toronto, Shanahan met him at the airport and drove him to Tanenbaum’s house. Babcock was struck by the family photos he saw at every turn. Judy Tanenbaum welcomed him warmly. It reminded him of his experience with Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, whose devotion to his family and his teams was unquestioned.
Tanenbaum made Babcock the highest paid coach in NHL history. But he wasn’t the only owner willing to do that. It was the “personal investment” that Babcock saw that tipped the scales to Toronto, Shanahan said.
“Larry genuinely cares,” Shanahan said. “I know whether I’m around or not, if my kids bumped into Larry in the hallway he knows their name and where they go to school and he wants to know about them. He wants to know what they had for dinner.”
These stories come pouring from people, solicited or not, often offered as the first thing that comes to mind when they’re asked about Tanenbaum. It’s not the staggering combined value of his franchises and arena. Not the recent successes on the floor, pitch or ice, which often came after years of underachievement. Not the influence across leagues, at unprecedented breadth.
It’s that he knows a child’s name, or asks about an ill parent.
“You can’t have a relationship with Larry and not have that relationship become personally close, because he cares more about people than he does about the business transaction or professional relationship,” Garber said. “I don’t believe that closeness is because it’s good for his business. I believe it’s his defining quality. He just has a glint in his eye, a smile on his face and just a really warm, sweet side to him. That doesn’t mean he’s not a tough business person who can get down and serious when the time calls for it. But at the end of the day, I care for Larry Tanenbaum the man and care about that relationship more than I care about Larry Tanenbaum the member of my board and owner of TFC.”
This is the thing about this incredible, and at times unlikely, path that Larry Tanenbaum took from rejected suitor to admired champion, which, by the way, included a span of fans donning paper bags.
He always burned to win.
He felt a responsibility to deliver returns to his shareholders. And the part of him that was raised and educated to build things — to pave and construct, and to put companies together in ways that made one plus one equal three — that part of him took pleasure in knowing that the teachers’ pension fund and the banks that backed him realized stout dividends and appreciation. But the other part, the one that went away to Cornell and tingled on the bench as he watched his friends win a national championship, that part knew success in sports was defined beyond the columns of a balance sheet.
Those two parts came together that morning across the table from Ed Snider, when a man who mortgaged his house to launch an expansion hockey team told him that winning a championship dwarfed all the other business achievements of his life.
Tanenbaum knew then what he was building toward. Last June, he held it with both hands, high above his head.
“Winning that trophy,” Tanenbaum said, “was unbelievable.”