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MLSE to hire Keith Pelley as president, chief executive

Keith Pelley Keith Pelley - The Canadian Press

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the parent company of the Maple Leafs, Raptors, TFC, and Argonauts, has reached an agreement to hire Keith Pelley as president and chief executive, concluding an executive search that has lasted nearly a year.

The deal may be announced as soon as Thursday, according to three people familiar with Pelley's hiring. Pelley succeeds Michael Friisdahl, who was MLSE’s president and CEO from 2015-2022. MLSE chief financial officer Cynthia Devine has been MLSE’s acting CEO since Friisdahl’s departure.

Pelley, who turns 60 on Thursday, has been the chief executive of golf’s European Tour, which is based in Surrey, England, and is now known as the DP World Tour, since August 2015.

The former president of Rogers Media has deep connections in Canada’s sports business industry and extensive experience in media rights acquisitions, sponsorship negotiations, TV production, brand development, and event management.

MLSE’s owners include Bell Media, Rogers, and Toronto sports executive Larry Tanenbaum. The CEO job with the company is considered one of the most coveted positions in North American sports, overseeing a collection of prized sports and real estate assets that are worth billions of dollars.

The NBA’s Raptors alone are worth $4.11 billion, according to sports business website Sportico, which estimates the Maple Leafs are worth another $2.65 billion.

It’s unclear whether Masai Ujiri and Brendan Shanahan, presidents of the Raptors and Maple Leafs, respectively, will report to Pelley.

During Friisdahl’s tenure as MLSE president from 2015-2022, Ujiri and Shanahan reported directly to MLSE’s board of directors. That effectively made the CEO position one that oversaw legal, sponsorship, and human resources issues for the company, rather than team personnel decisions.

One sports industry executive aware of Pelley’s hiring said he is likely to have a dramatically different management style than Friisdahl and Devine. While his predecessors have largely avoided media interviews, Pelley is likely to prefer a more public profile in which he shares his vision for the company, said the executive, who asked for anonymity because they did not have their company’s permission to discuss Pelley’s hiring.

“Keith is a guy who can work a room and has grand ideas that he isn’t afraid to share,” the executive said. “When he was president of Rogers, he was publicly pushing the idea of a grass field at the Rogers Centre, even though that kind of renovation would have cost his company many millions of dollars and probably would have limited the number of events they could host. It never wound up happening, but it shows Keith isn’t afraid to talk about shooting for the moon.”

Pelley has been both praised and criticized in his position as one of professional golf’s most powerful and influential executives.

In 2017, Pelley introduced GolfSixes, a six-hole team event featuring teams of two from 16 countries. Players were greeted by fireworks at the first tee and wore microphones during play. A year later at the Shot Clock Masters in Austria, Pelley introduced a 40-second shot clock to improve the pace of play.

Pelley advocated for pro players to wear shorts during practice rounds, for music to be played on ranges, for nighttime par-3 tournaments played under floodlights, and numerous social-media promotions.

Pelley contends the changes to the game have modernized the sport and have helped bolster revenuetournament attendance, TV ratings, and player salaries.

Pelley has also been a key figure in negotiations with the Saudi government, which has been condemned for its human rights record even as it has financed LIV Golf, a new pro tour that attracted golfers with guaranteed multimillion-dollar pay days.

In June, Pelley and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced they had brokered a deal between the three golf tours. That deal still faces scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, congressional investigators, and antitrust regulators who could ultimately try to block the deal.

As president of Rogers Media, Pelley helped the company orchestrate the acquisition of a 12-year, $5.2 billion rights deal with the NHL.

He began his career in sports media with TSN, starting as an editorial assistant in 1986 and working his way up to become an event producer for CFL, curling, tennis and baseball. After a three-year stint with FOX, Pelley returned to TSN in 1997 and became president in 2001.

He also worked as president of the Toronto Argonauts from 2003-2007 before joining Rogers.

In 2007, Pelley was hired as president of a TV consortium set up to produce the Canadian broadcast of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Those Olympics drew watershed television ratings. According to BBM Canada, the Canadian men’s hockey team’s gold-medal win over the U.S. attracted an audience of 16.7 million viewers, making it the most watched event to that point in Canadian television history.

Taking the job with MLSE also allows Pelley to be closer to his son, Jason, who is on a golf scholarship at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.