Talk of Jays sale back in spot­light

Spec­u­la­tion ram­pant on who might buy team af­ter Rogers exec re­vives idea

Ottawa Citizen - - FINANCIAL POST - EMILY JACK­SON

Spec­u­la­tion is ram­pant over who might want to buy the Toronto Blue Jays af­ter a Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. ex­ec­u­tive sug­gested, for the sec­ond time in re­cent months, that the tele­com gi­ant was weigh­ing putting Canada’s only Ma­jor League Base­ball fran­chise on the block.

Rogers’ man­age­ment first spoke about the po­ten­tial sale of non­core as­sets in­clud­ing the Blue Jays and the ca­ble gi­ant’s stake in Co­geco Inc. at a Septem­ber meet­ing with an­a­lysts. CFO Tony Staffieri floated the idea again Tues­day at a UBS con­fer­ence in New York as a way to get bet­ter value for the as­set.

While Staffieri told an­a­lysts that sports con­tent re­mains key for Rogers — the abil­ity to watch live sports is widely seen as a top rea­son cus­tomers buy tele­vi­sion sub­scrip­tions in­stead of cut­ting the cord to stream con­tent on­line — he noted that Rogers’ 12-year, $5.2-bil­lion deal with the NHL for ex­clu­sive broad­cast rights shows it’s pos­si­ble to “rent” con­tent in­stead of own­ing it.

“To be clear, there isn’t any­thing im­mi­nent that we’re about to an­nounce, but we’re cer­tainly look­ing at the al­ter­na­tives,” Staffieri said.

“Again, I would like to get the con­tent with­out nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing the cap­i­tal tied up on our bal­ance sheet.”

An­a­lysts had re­newed ques­tions about Rogers’ plans for the sports team when CEO Joe Natale started his ten­ure this spring. Natale, who pre­vi­ously ran Telus, is known for his fo­cus on core net­works over con­tent.

Given low in­ter­est rates, it could be a good move to sell the team and use the cash for share buy­backs, re­duc­ing debt lev­els or in­creas­ing div­i­dends, Citi an­a­lyst Adam Ilkowitz noted to clients this fall.

Rogers re­it­er­ated Wed­nes­day that there are no spe­cific plans, pro­cesses or time­lines in place to sell the team, but Staffieri’s com­ments sparked chat­ter among base­ball fans and Toronto’s well­heeled busi­ness com­mu­nity about fu­ture own­er­ship op­tions.

One ob­vi­ous po­ten­tial buyer could be Maple Leaf Sports & En­ter­tain­ment Ltd., in which Rogers owns a mi­nor­ity stake. (Rogers and BCE Inc. each own 37.5 per cent, and Larry Ta­nen­baum’s Kilmer Sports Inc. owns 25 per cent.)

MLSE al­ready owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Rap­tors and the Toronto FC.

Adding the Jays to the ros­ter could im­prove spon­sor­ship and sales op­por­tu­ni­ties, and would al­low Rogers to keep a stake in the as­set with­out the team af­fect­ing its quar­terly re­sults. In Rogers lat­est quar­ter, for ex­am­ple, its me­dia di­vi­sion’s op­er­at­ing profit dropped 18 per cent pri­mar­ily due to higher Blue Jays player pay­roll (in­clud­ing for­eign ex­change im­pact).

Ru­mours of a po­ten­tial Blue Jays’s sale have cropped up over the years as the team strug­gled with poor per­for­mance. But its fi­nances im­proved in the past few years af­ter two con­sec­u­tive sea­sons in the play­offs led to the fourth high­est at­ten­dance in the MLB in 2017.

JIM MONE/AP FILES

An­a­lysts had renewed ques­tions about Rogers’ plans for the Toronto Blue Jays when CEO Joe Natale started his ten­ure this spring. Natale is known for his fo­cus on core net­works over con­tent.

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