Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hamilton conference call, part I: Tom Wright

Photo: Former CFL commissioner Tom Wright authored the Balsillie group's official relocation application. From daylife.com.

Thanks to Brenna Flynn of Jim Balsillie's media relations team, I was invited to take part in a media conference call this afternoon on the Balsillie group's official application to the NHL(filed yesterday) to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes. It was a highly informative discussion featuring many of the usual suspects who have been covering the story, including Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star, Ken Peters of the Hamilton Spectator and friend of this blog Norm James of A-Channel London. I've got plenty of material to discuss from the call, so I'll spread it out over several posts. First up, a piece on the man who wrote the relocation application, former CFL commissioner Tom Wright.

It was perhaps an unusual situation for Wright to be speaking in favour of moving a franchise. Only three years ago, he was still the CFL commissioner and probably would have been espousing the Gary Bettman position of protecting franchises in their current location at almost all costs. Unlike Bettman, Wright did know when to cut his losses, though, as he folded the Ottawa Renegades in 2006 after four straight seasons of losing money. That situation was likely more due to appalling ownership from the Gliebermans than the kind of market problems faced in Phoenix, though.

In any case, Wright has been a high-powered business executive as well in the past. He was the president of adidas Canada before his stint as the CFL commissioner and also served as the president and CEO of Salomon North America, a famed ski manufacturer. He's currently the Managing Director at LEVEL5 Strategic Brand Advisors and was contracted to draft this application for Balsillie's group (PSE Sports and Entertainment) and the Coyotes; more on that later.

Wright said his diverse experiences qualfied him for the role. "My experience in business and in sports league management is highly relevant to this document," he said. That goes without saying; over the course of the call, Wright demonstrated a detailed understanding of exactly what topics are covered in said document and how they fit into the NHL's bylaws.

More importantly, though, having Wright involved appears to give the bid a sense of legitimacy and respectability that it hasn't always been portrayed as possessing. His experience on the other side of the fence as a league commissioner makes it seem less likely that he would get involved with a maverick move, an impression he reinforced with his opening comments about how he thoroughly studied and followed the subsections of the league bylaws pertaining to this kind of move.

"I am a play-by-the-rules kind of guy," he said. "The application that was submitted yesterday responded very specifically to the questions outlined in those subsections. ... I have the utmost respect for the commmissioner's role in reviewing this application."

Wright's also a well-known and generally well-respected figure in Canada, and don't discount the importance of that to a bid that's been very concerned about its image from the get-go. There's a reason Balsillie's investing so much in his website and his extensive PR team, as well as lining up sponsors such as Labatt Blue and Home Hardware and producing merchandise; a big part of this bid has always been to try and get the Canadian public as a whole to strongly support bringing another team north. Wright's involvement will likely aid that cause as well, certainly more than just hiring a law firm or consulting agency to get the needed information and fill out this form would have.

However, don't assume that Wright's involvement and skillful application suddenly makes Balsillie's bid palatable to Bettman. For one thing, he's a hired consultant now, not a current league commissioner. In fact, when he was asked by a CBC-TV reporter on the call about how he would have responded if a similar relocation proceeding covering the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had come up during his time as commissioner, he adroitly dodged the question, saying "This is about the application that's been submitted."

For another thing, the CFL and NHL are quite different leagues. The CFL has eight teams; the NHL has 30. Their franchises have many things in common, but their revenues and expenses are substantially disparate. Also, there's the NHL's powerful allies: I doubt that Bettman's too worried about a former CFL commissioner's opinion when he has MLB, the NFL and the NBA in his corner on the relocation front.

Still, Wright's involvement is probably a good sign for the Balsillie bid overall. He's a capable businessman and did an impressive job on this application, and there are the aforementioned image benefits of his involvement as well. He also did a strong job of answering most of the media questions today and represented the group well. They picked a good man for the job.

I'll have more on other aspects of the call over the next couple of days.


  1. I always considered Wright to be a very anti-change kinda guy. Strange to see him doing something like this.

  2. Tom Wright's not against change when he's collecting a fair chunk of it!

  3. Solid analysis. Thank you for the post.