LARRY TANENBAUM HAS DONATED $1 MILLION TO COVID-19 RESEARCH. SCOTT STINSON FINDS OUT WHY WHILE DISCUSSING SPORTS AND THE IMPACT OF THE CORONAVIRUS WITH THE RECLUSIVE CHAIRMAN OF MLSE.
MLSE head putting $1M to COVID research
Larry Tanenbaum is the chairman of a sports empire that was in pretty good shape in February. The Toronto Raptors were mounting a robust defence of their NBA title in the first year After Kawhi, the Maple Leafs were likely to make the NHL playoffs and Toronto FC was about to try for its fourth MLS Cup appearance in five seasons. Also there are the Toronto Argonauts. (Whistles idly, looks at ground.)
But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, like everything else, was knocked off its axis by the coronavirus that month. Arenas shuttered, games cancelled, seasons put on pause. As MLSE rumbles back into action and sports leagues on this continent figure out if they can operate amid the risk of COVID-19, Tanenbaum is helping the fight in his own way: with money. Tanenbaum and his wife, Judy, are donating $1 million to fund research into combating the coronavirus, pledging to match any donations up to that amount to the Lunenfeld-tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto’s Sinai Health.
Calling it “the biggest battle that we face today,” Tanenbaum said they realized that there was a pressing need to kickstart COVID-19 research because institutes like the one that bears his name have been shut down for months, just like bars and nail salons. Promising research tends to attract funding, but with labs and projects idled, that pipeline has been cut off. “That’s why we wanted to step forward,” Tanenbaum says in an interview. Researchers at Sinai Health are developing a possible mass-testing procedure that would help track the spread of the virus, while investigators are also studying whether artificial intelligence could detect patients at risk of severe COVID-19 illness, among other projects. “We’re all affected by this so, you know, whatever we can do to hope for a better future,” Tanenbaum says.
As chairman of MLSE — which he owns alongside telecom giants Bell Media and Rogers Communications — Tanenbaum has been part of the discussions that have taken place in leagues where the company owns a franchise as they all plot returns this summer. He says that when they went dark more than three months ago, there was “no crystal ball” to indicate whether any of them would get back to operational in time to salvage competitive 2020 seasons. “There was just planning with the data you had available on the possibility of returning to play,” he says. Tanenbaum says he is confident that health and safety has been top-of-mind as league protocols have been developed.
“I’m very happy with, and I feel very comfortable with, how each one of the leagues has conducted themselves with respect to return-toplay,” he says.
But even as those plans have been carefully developed, the virus has offered its own responses, with confirmed cases surging in several parts of the United States that looked to have avoided the coronavirus spikes seen in other parts of the world, and in a couple of Canadian provinces. In Florida, where the NBA and MLS are planning to conduct the remainder of their seasons at the massive Walt Disney World complex, new cases are being detected at the rate of several thousand a day — there were more than 5,000 reported in the state on Wednesday — after being under 700 a day just three weeks ago. “Of course, it’s concerning,” Tanenbaum says, although he notes correctly that the bulk of new cases are being found in South Florida. But there are frightening trends in Orange County, where Disney is located, too: 561 new cases on Wednesday, where three weeks ago there were fewer than 40 per day.
Tanenbaum says he believes the leagues will be able to operate under a true bubble at Disney, keeping players and staff on a campus on which everyone undergoes frequent testing, and outside access is severely restricted. “I believe we are isolated from what is happening in the other parts of Florida, and even outside of Disney World,” he says.
And while the vast majority of new cases seem to be among young residents at less risk from COVID-19, keeping the mortality rate low and preventing a crunch at hospital, massive spread in the community could eventually lead to those outcomes in Florida, making it awkward for any league trying to offer the distraction of sports there.
For now, leagues targeting resumed action next month have some time to eye the landscape, and to deal with the inevitable positive tests popping up. MLSE had a seismic one of those late last week, when Postmedia’s Steve Simmons reported that Leafs star Auston Matthews had tested positive for COVID-19 at home in Arizona. (The Maple Leafs have not acknowledged the report, citing privacy concerns.)
“Whether it’s Auston Matthews, or your parents, or my children or grandchildren or co-workers, you are all part of the same eco-system here,” Tanenbaum says. “To cut down on the risk factor, you have to do what we are doing. I think our job is to figure out how to cut down on that risk factor.”
Indeed, the spread of the virus may prove easier to control for leagues once they get players and staff under their bubbles and subject to strict protocols — assuming they follow them. For now, Tanenbaum remains hopeful.
“We are all trying to time this,” he says. “It’s an evolution back to play as opposed to a revolution back. It’s an evolution back to play, and then an evolution back to fans in the stands, and as we progress with our scientific endeavours, we’re going to get back.”
“But it is going to take time and it is going to take money.”
Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry receives his 2019 NBA championship ring from Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, last October.