Westhead: Plenty of speculation over who could lead MLSE

Rick Westhead, TSN Senior Correspondent
8/21/2014 2:52:16 PM
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Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment may not need to go so far afield to find their next leader.

With news that president and CEO Tim Leiweke will leave the company next summer, sources close to the MLSE board say it's already possible to compile a list of potential successors.

Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive Chris Overholt is at the head of the list.

Sources tell TSN that Overholt has "absolutely turned the COC around" since he was hired in 2010, first as marketing director, and then as CEO.

Overholt is a Toronto native and a former MLSE employee. He was the company's vice president of sales and service from 1998 to 2003. He knows the company's culture, and also has experience working with the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers.

"Chris absolutely would have to be considered a frontrunner," said one source close to MLSE.

Former MLSE president and CEO Richard Peddie told TSN that when he was hired, "I figured 20 per cent of the job would be managing the board."

Peddie said it wasn't easy. He said he clashed for about a year with MLSE board chair Larry Tanenbaum. "We had issues for about 12 months, it wasn't easy," Peddie said, declining to elaborate. "I think now with Bell and Rogers both owning the company the job has only become more challenging. You need someone who really knows his way around a company. I had been a president with five different companies before I was hired by MLSE and it still wasn't easy."

Former Madison Square Garden CEO Scott O'Neil, who helped run the New York Rangers and Knicks, would be another candidate.

And O'Neil was a candidate for the MLSE CEO position when Leiweke was hired.

"Scott had a great interview and got along with (MLSE board chair) Larry Tanenbaum very well," a source told TSN. "He was surprised when he didn't get the job."

O'Neil, a former senior VP of marketing with the NBA, is the chief executive of the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center in Newark and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both the 76ers and Devils are owned by Josh Harris, a hedge fund millionaire. 

The MLSE job would seem to be a more attractive role. "Scott is a great candidate," Peddie said. "He survived dysfunction with MSG, helped new owners in Philadelphia, and is now in New Jersey with an owner who spends way too much money."

Peddie said it's unlikely that former MLSE executive Tom Anselmi would be considered for the job.

"What's that can't go home again," Peddie said.

MLSE will also probably consider a few internal candidates to replace Leiweke.

At that top of that list would be Dave Hopkinson, the company's chief commercial officer, who has been responsible for helping MLSE boost revenue.

It's also possible that outgoing Canadian Football League Commissioner Mark Cohon, who also worked with the NBA, might be interested in the job. He similarly told sources years ago that he would love the chance to guide Canada's most powerful sports company.

Leafs President Brendan Shanahan may also garner an interview for the job. Shanahan is well-regarded in hockey circles for his management skills, but lacks the experience many believe he would need to run a company worth more than $2 billion.

It's unclear whether MLSE considered a female candidate when hiring Leiweke and it's similarly uncertain whether the company would pursue a woman today.

Several women should merit consideration including Canadian Stacey Allaster, the chairman and chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association who has expanded the WTA's pool of prize money and landed sponsorships with Xerox, Sony and other companies, and Heidi Ueberroth, who oversaw the NBA's global expansion as president of NBA International.

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