MLSE head putting $1M to COVID re­search

Calgary Herald - - NP - SCOTT STIN­SON Com­ment

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.

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