May 10, 2023
Celebrity bidding war for Ottawa Senators could be a boon for the franchise: experts
The Canadian Press,
Game day revenues are resilient against recession: Sports finance analyst
While some hockey fans may be surprised by multiple celebrities facing off for a minority ownership stake in the NHL's Ottawa Senators, experts who study the business of sport say the prospect stands to lift the team's profile to new heights, while serving as a safe way for stars to park their money.
Vancouver-born actor Ryan Reynolds and American rapper Snoop Dogg have both confirmed their interest, while Toronto recording artist The Weeknd has reportedly also thrown his hat into the ring.
For film or music stars interested in owning a professional sports team, the opportunity simply doesn't come around often, said Michael Naraine, associate professor of sport management at Brock University.
"When you think about professional sport, it is a cartel-like system. There are only 32 teams, only 32 seats," he said.
"Teams like the Ottawa Senators, even though they've never won the Stanley Cup and they are not doing so hot momentum-wise on the ice, they're still highly coveted. That's the kind of impetus for why celebrities are now wanting to get into sports ownership."
The board of directors of Senators Sports & Entertainment initiated the process to sell the team last November after the death of owner Eugene Melnyk earlier that year. Melnyk left the franchise to his daughters Anna and Olivia.
May 15 marks the deadline for interested groups to submit final non-binding offers.
Reynolds is attached to a bid worth more than US$1 billion led by real estate developer Remington Group, while Snoop Dogg announced he is part of a bid spearheaded by Los Angeles-based businessman Neko Sparks. The Weeknd has agreed to be a partner in a bid led by Toronto billionaires Jeffrey and Michael Kimel, according to the Ottawa Sun.
Naraine said having one of the celebrities involved in the Senators would give the eastern Ontario franchise new exposure in non-traditional markets.
Reynolds has expressed interest in creating a television series about the team through his production company, Maximum Effort, similar to its hit reality show, “Welcome to Wrexham,” about the Welsh soccer team the actor co-owns.
Snoop Dogg, a longtime hockey fan, has said he would use his stake in the Senators to help grow the sport in the U.S., especially among Black children.
"What it would do is generate buzz and awareness so that you get more fans, you get more sponsors, you get more attention. It creates more fandom, not just in the (National Capital Region), but across Canada, around the world," Naraine said.
"If you're a Sens fan who's been diehard since the '90s, you're loving that potential to see an Ottawa Senators jersey in a Deadpool movie."
Concordia University sports economist Moshe Lander said owning a sports franchise is a safe way for celebrities to invest, often with exponential returns. He noted Melnyk purchased the Senators — who play in what Lander called "a middling NHL market" — for just US$92 million two decades ago.
"It's a cast of otherwise forgettable players. It's the epitome of average. Yet the value of the franchise has gone up 10 times in 20 years," Lander said.
"When you bring celebrity into the story, then celebrity has the ability to monetize that ownership stake beyond just the appreciation of the value of the team."
Compounding that opportunity is the ongoing arena negotiation between the Senators and National Capital Commission that could see the team move into a proposed new facility at LeBreton Flats, just west of downtown Ottawa.
"How do you make money off an ice hockey team if they're not going to win the Stanley Cup every year? What we've learned in the last two decades is that sports franchises are the ultimate anchor to unlock real estate plays," said Naraine.
"There's clearly momentum off the ice for a stadium downtown in Ottawa that will galvanize the communities in the NCR."
Lander said the Reynolds bid "checks off all the boxes" for the NHL, as he brings experience "getting eyes onto a sport that goes beyond just watching the event itself."
"He's done that for that fifth-division, (British) soccer team that nobody outside of that market would have ever heard of. All of a sudden, people are caught up in the real-life 'Ted Lasso,'" said the economist, referring to the television show an American who helps coach a U.K. soccer team looking for a comeback.
"From the NHL's standpoint, they're going to say, 'all right, we bring on an owner who is going to create content for us, who's shown proof of concept in being able to create content in an area where people would otherwise not care, and somehow get them to care."
Depending on the pro sports franchise, others could recognize that potential and follow the Senators' lead of bringing in celebrity talent at the top.
It doesn't appear that more valuable franchises such as the Toronto Maple Leafs would be among those just yet.
In light of the potential for a Senators' sale to set an NHL record, executives from Bell Canada, which co-owns Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, were asked last Thursday during the company's quarterly earnings call about interest in selling off its sports assets.
"We are very comfortable with the assets we have," responded Bell chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc. "We feel they that the value they deliver continues and we have no intention of doing anything with the sports assets in the near term."
But Lander said there are franchises "where a little bit of local flair could do wonders."
"Vegas doesn't need Wayne Newton to have an ownership stake. But there's some markets where they might say, 'how do we generate interest here? Let's get some locals.'"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2023.