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Volume 23 No. 25
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Forum: The essence of Larry Tanenbaum

The story of Larry Tanenbaum isn’t well known to the sports industry. If you search for how this Toronto native ended up becoming one of the most accomplished and respected people in sports business, you won’t find much. That fits the 75-year-old Tanenbaum just fine, as he prefers to operate in the boardroom and not in the media. In reflecting on our choice for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, who is captured very well by senior writer Bill King (see story), a few things stood out.

First, Tanenbaum is the ultimate league-first owner, which is rare. “You’ve got to work for the health of the league,” he acknowledges, adding, “My one focus is to make the collection of the teams as strong as they can be.” That’s not the approach of all owners and so you can understand why three commissioners speak about him in the most appreciative tone I’ve heard about an owner. The people I spoke with kept coming back to his style, substance and temperament. He listens, has humility, understands that he doesn’t have all the answers and encourages multiple points of view. He’s not bombastic — but there’s no questioning his authority. You want Tanenbaum in your decision-making circle because he looks out for the greater good.

Two, he does the work. There’s a consistent theme of Tanenbaum’s prodigious work ethic, as he manages three teams and works with those respective leagues, all while overseeing his core businesses and his philanthropic and community efforts. Gary Bettman says they are in constant communication, Don Garber calls him tireless, while  Adam Silver says Tanenbaum is fully prepared on all topics and “always is giving me his full attention.” All three commissioners marvel at Tanenbaum’s capacity and bandwidth. That’s exactly the leader you need to understand details and work through complicated issues while building consensus.  

Third, he has an interest in and empathy for people. Those who know Tanenbaum will express time and again that he’s one of the most decent, kind and classy individuals you’ll ever come across. I’ve only met him twice: In February 2016, at the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, I introduced myself to thank him for hosting the weekend affair. With an easy smile and a gleam in his eye, he had more questions for me than I did for him and he showed a genuine sincerity that is rare among people of authority. In the summer of 2017, I was in Israel with the nonprofit group PeacePlayers International, and as we were checking into our hotel in Jerusalem, Tanenbaum was part of an NBA delegation checking out after a Basketball Without Borders event. Amid the chaos of a hotel lobby, I approached Tanenbaum to say hi, and he remembered every detail of our initial meeting and demonstrated his natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. He genuinely seems to care about people. Observers in Toronto watch Tanenbaum walk the concourses of Scotiabank Arena at the end of every second period of Leafs games, shaking hands and posing for photos. There’s a connection with the fans on a personal level, and that is reflected in Garber telling us that Tanenbaum “cares more about people than he does the business transaction.” It’s easy to see why people will follow his lead. 

A percentage of the revenue from advertising tributes to Larry Tanenbaum will be donated to his charity of choice, “Right To Play,” which empowers children to rise above adversity using the power of sport. Tanenbaum sits on the Canadian board of advisers for the international nonprofit.

Fourth is Tanenbaum’s focus on family.  Everyone I spoke with kept coming back to his 53-year partnership with his wife, Judy, and the ways they complement each other. She’s by his side at so many games and relishes the sports experience as much as him. But they are rooted in the right priorities, as they often forgo games on Friday evenings to spend that night on family dinners with their three children and 10 grandchildren. In addition, they have consistently, yet quietly and often invisibly, lifted the lives of many through their charitable efforts.

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It took a lot of work to convince the press-shy Tanenbaum to accept our award, which he will receive at our virtual Sports Business Awards on Wednesday, Sept. 30.  What stood out to me was the heartfelt appreciation one top league executive — who is seemingly never happy with our coverage or reporting — expressed to me on more than one occasion after our announcement: “I’m so glad you’re honoring Larry!” and “It’s so great you’re honoring Larry!” I was taken aback, because this person is not prone to such positive emotion. I didn’t fully understand what he meant.

Now I do. And our readers and generations of future sports leaders will get to read and understand the accomplishments of a builder of business who sees what’s ahead and has the resiliency and determination to get there.

There don’t seem to be problems in the world of Larry Tanenbaum — only solutions that will leave a legacy on far more than just sports. 

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