What would Harold Ballard make of Kawhi Leonard? And vice-versa?
Leonard, most folks who follow sports would know, was the hero, MVP and now mythic figure who led the Toronto Raptors to the team’s first National Basketball Association championship over the Golden State Warriors last week.
Ballard, though, would be lesser known to younger people, but for those of a certain age few characters loomed larger on the national sports stage back in the day than “Pal Hal,” as an eye-opening book about the Canadian sports business mogul dubbed him.
The business world is rife with loathsome owners of professional sports franchises. These days, though, social media more or less polices what detestable wealthy owners can get away with. However, back in Ballard’s heyday, roughly from 1960 to his death in 1990, the man most responsible for building one of the world’s most lucrative sports enterprises found a way to offend and shock just about all those who had to deal with him — from business associates, to media types, to star players on his teams.
Ballard was in a special class of racist, sexist, miserly, boastful, crass, bullying and arrogant businessmen this mild-mannered country has ever known. He even served a year in prison on a tax fraud conviction. Yet as memory of his bombastic legacy fades, his pioneering vision of the integration of sports and entertainment lives on and leads directly to the triumph of the Raptors.
Ballard turned his almost accidental stint as manager of Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens arena — the iconic and nostalgic equivalent of Madison Square Gardens — into the belligerent boss of a sports entertainment empire known originally as Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd, but now as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).
There are innumerable anecdotes to illustrate Ballard’s controversial style. We’ll pick two. In 1965, Ballard sold tickets to two Beatles concerts at Maple Leaf Gardens even though they were only booked for one. Fearing a riot, the Beatles manager gave in.
He famously earned the life-long enmity of two revered former captains of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler, using dirty tricks to force a trade to another team. Ballard’s management style is always cited as the malaise that infected the team even until recent years, although the Leafs did win their last Stanley Cup — in 1967 —under his command.
Despite all that, Ballard built a sports and entertainment powerhouse that included the money-machine Leafs, minor league farm teams, as well as teams in the Canadian Football League. Maple Leaf Gardens was also highly lucrative as a concert and convention venue.
Ballard even had an early opportunity to possibly acquire an NBA franchise. In an anecdote unearthed by Eric Brady of the Buffalo News, when the floundering Buffalo Braves team offered to play some home games at Maple Leaf Gardens, Ballard rejected the notion saying “the Gardens was not interested in replacing any of its other attractions ‘for a ham-and-egg sport’ ” — whatever that meant.
Not to give too much credit to such a dubious character, but it was Ballard who paved the way for MLSE to have the financial clout to merge with the founders of the Raptors franchise in 1998 and bring the NBA team into the new building that would also be the home of the Leafs.
MLSE is now the prototype of integrated sports, media and entertainment conglomerates. Besides the Leafs and Raptors, the company also owns the Toronto FC soccer franchise, the Toronto Argonauts CFL team, several minor league clubs, as well as three sports and entertainment venues besides Scotiabank Centre.
In 2012, MLSE became the property of two of Canada’s largest media companies, BCE and Rogers Communications — the latter owns the Blue Jays of Major League Baseball. BCE and Rogers both have major cable networks and nominally competing sports channels.
In what are obviously now out-dated rankings, Forbes valued the Raptors at $1.67 billion, the Leafs at $1.45 billion. With every basket sunk or goal scored, there’s that happy ka-ching sound as MLSE racks up more earnings.
Suffice it to say, when it comes time for very deep-pocketed MLSE to try to resign Kawhi Leonard, someone with better people skills than Harold Ballard will be in charge.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. Email him at: email@example.com.