The Toronto Raptors have one of the most unusual ownership situations in the NBA. A situation which is generally a good thing.
NBA ownership is oftentimes forgotten about. Fans remember players, coaches, they even know the team’s top decision-makers (In Masai We Trust). Yet, we often forget about the team’s TOP decision-maker — The Owner/Governor.
“Ownership is the biggest competitive advantage in sports.” They are the head decision-maker, typically the longest tenured-individual, and the only person who takes part in every aspect of the team. If you have a bad GM, a bad coach, or bad players, you’ll likely have better luck soon. If you have bad ownership, it will impact your team for decades.
Think of some of the most dysfunctional, loathsome organizations in the league over the past few years: The New York Knicks, the Phoenix Suns, the pre-Ballmer Los Angeles Clippers.
At a glance, teams should be among the league’s top contenders. The Knicks are the primary team for the league’s biggest market. The Suns are a medium-sized market with beautiful weather, particularly in the winter. We’ve now witnessed what the Clippers can be under good ownership.
Instead, they were/are franchises held back by the owners. The Knicks print money at the gate, are in the “basketball mecca,” and have a starving franchise that will deify any player who gives even one exciting run (remember Linsanity).
Yet, the team hasn’t signed a big-name free agent since acquiring Amar’e Stoudemire’s crippling knees. Top Players are unwilling to go to the Knicks because they know — when you have a buffoon at the top-level of your organization, it’s really hard to win.
The Toronto Raptors will never have to deal with that outcome. Their owner, for better or worse, is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, an organization ran by Rogers Communication and BCE, Inc. While most NBA teams have individuals running their organization, the Raptors have a much more corporate structure. Larry Tanenbaum is the chairman of MLSE, but he’s not an owner like the typical NBA franchise.
Why it benefits the Raptors
Owners are like kickers in the NFL, having a really good one is nice, but it’s more important that you just don’t have a terrible one. The difference between the best owner in the NBA and the 15th best isn’t that large. However, the difference between the 15th owner and James Dolan/Robert Sarver is canyon sized.
Typically, the best owner in the NBA is the one who is heard from the least. There are exceptions, like Steve Ballmer and Joe Lacob, who are relatively public figures, but the list of best NBA owners is primarily filled with quiet personalities who allow their top basketball-minds to make the basketball decisions.
For the Raptors, Masai Ujiri is given that freedom. He doesn’t have to worry about impressing with big names, he doesn’t need to worry about managing some multi-billion dollar ego, he only needs to worry about putting the Toronto Raptors in the best situation possible.
The downside of the Raptors ownership
Having a corporate company control the franchise is primarily a good thing. The one downside is the company’s lack of ability/desire, to value winning over profits.
MLSE is technically a privately owned company. However, it’s primarily owned, by Rogers Communication and BCE, Inc. two publicly-traded companies. As publicly traded companies, they have a responsibility to their stockholders to make the best decisions in the financial interest of the company, not what’s in the best interest in the Toronto Raptors.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Raptors can’t spend money. Last season, they finished with the third-highest luxury tax bill in the NBA. It just means their spending must be justified (say the financial benefits of winning an NBA title).
Throughout the NBA, there are owners who will eat a significant bill and even take a loss in order to help give their team the slimmest of margins. Dan Gilbert, for all his flaws (THERE ARE PLENTY), spent $122 million last season for a team that was horrific. He took on salary rather than shedding it, in order to pick up a few additional second-rounders.
Gilbert is far from the only one. Mark Cuban, Steve Ballmer, and the late Paul Allen have all valued winning ahead of profits. The Toronto Raptors ownership will not and cannot do that.
Still, when it comes to ownership, the Raptors are better than most. At the end of the day, you want your owner to cut checks and get out-of-the-way. The Raptors fanbase will justify considerable spending. They also have an ownership group that will stay uninvolved. That’s good enough.