Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tech, Money & Sports: R.I.P., Ted Rogers

Most people have heard that one of Canada’s most well-known businessmen, Rogers Communications Inc.’s Ted Rogers, passed away last night due to congestive heart failure at his home in Toronto. He was 75 years old.

Rogers and his company have had a huge, indelible influence on sports in Canada. Everything from the buying of Rogers Sportsnet, the channel that raised dart tournaments to a new art form, to the September 2000 purchase of your very own Toronto Blue Jays to the heavily discounted buyout of the formerly known SkyDome, thus becoming Rogers Centre, Ted Rogers had a key role in.

While it’s never kind or fair to knock someone who can’t defend themselves or has recently shrugged off this mortal coil, it’s debatable at best that Rogers and his company have been entirely positive for sports in Canada.

For all those who owe their livelihood –- everyone from the poor telemarketers trying to sell Blue Jays tickets in this economy to hard-luck Harry Leroy Halladay to any number of media personalities -- there’s no doubt that today is a very dark day. Rogers had a kind of grandfatherly presence (at least, for media and public appearances –- Ted had earned a reputation in some quarters as hot-tempered, but that’s neither here nor there) for the Rogers’ corporate family. Losing him is a significant blow to the public image of a company that has serious, long-term, systemic problems in the public relations’ department.

These problems at Rogers were never more apparent than in the sports arena.

Ted Rogers, to his credit, invested tremendous amounts of money into enterprises that, in an economic climate like ours, are never easy nor profitable. The Toronto Blue Jays are just one example.

While Rogers deserves much lauding for saving the Jays from years of uninterested, distant ownership when his company bought them from Interbrew SA, there’s no doubt that, after nearly eight years of ownership, the Jays haven’t exactly made good on the investment. The team remains stuck in a middle-of-the-pack position, mired in a division where the economics of baseball are heavily stacked against them. Rogers, understandably, saw the team as a potential vertical for promotion of Rogers’ key assets, such as high-speed Internet or Rogers Wireless. The buy of Sportsnet as the team’s prime carrier of TV broadcasts was supposed to be a millennial, pro-convergence move that would signal in a brand new era of responsible, engaged ownership of the Jays.

Given that he once referred himself as the "village idiot" when it came to baseball, it’s understandable that frustration among senior members of the Rogers empire has only grown since 2000. After all, how much money do the Jays really need to compete? The jury’s still out on that question, but the results have been clear: the team’s not winning and the economic downturn is only going to make things harder for Rogers (and its shareholders) to justify its ownership platform.

And, of course, there’s the lingering issue of the Buffalo Bills making their presence felt in Canada – a business move that hasn’t yielded the results most Roger people thought it would. With sky-high ticket prices and a potential public relations debacle on its hands, Rogers’ efforts to bring the NFL into Canada has been a mixed bag at best so far. Only time will tell if the whole enterprise of the Bills in Toronto will actually work, especially in an economic climate like the one we’re in now.

In many ways, Ted Rogers (and by extension, his company) were and are a two-sided entity when it comes to their relationship with sports culture in Canada. On one hand, it's always great news to see a Made-in-Canada company like Rogers invest millions into sports franchises, broadcast platforms and their ilk. None of it would have happened had they not managed to beat Bell at its own game in the 1980s on the nascent cell-phone market, not only outpromoting them but outengineering them (as detailed in Caroline Van Hasselt's book, High Wire Act: Ted Rogers And The Empire That Debt Built).

Hundreds of people owe their jobs, careers and future prospects to Ted Rogers and his risk-taking approach to investing. As a businessman, philanthropist and proud Canadian, he deserves much thanks.

Of course, there’s always the other side of the coin on Ted Rogers: A man who embodied what a wise man once referred to as “uninterested ownership.” As a businessman, it’s important to consider that investing is usually hinging on a return on that said investment –- otherwise, it’s basically burning money away. While it’s easy and often enough correct to lay blame for the Jays’ perpetual underachieving on Jays management (J.P., Paul “I’m a Postie now!” Godfrey and Goober Gibbons, come on down!), one wonders how big the gap between investing in the Jays payroll and player development to compete with Big Spending Yankees and Red Sox and the results on-field actually was with Ted Rogers.

R.I.P., Mr. Rogers.

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