Monday, March 23, 2009

Francophone Buyer For Montreal Canadiens Highly Unlikely

This morning's La Presse reports that Canadiens owner George Gillett has finally put the team up for sale, after months of rumours that he vehemently denied. The reason for the sale remains unclear, but is likely related to the financial woes that the owner is suffering, in large part, due to his highly leveraged purchase of the Liverpool Football Club in England. The soap-opera like battle with his co-owner Tom Hicks and the difficulty in re-financing the 750 million dollar debt, has left Gillett reeling, as fans of the storied franchise are mounting a spirited opposition against his ownership of the team.

Gillett has a pile of other financial problems that have forced him to take out a US$75 million dollar personal loan. It isn't a rosy picture. Read about it here.

Gillett, still may come smelling of roses, Liverpool FC is the ultimate status symbol and there are still many mega-billionaires around who are interested. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to hold true in the case of the Habs.

As for the Canadiens, it may be a case of selling at the top. The team and the arena is estimated by Forbes magazine, to be worth close to C$450 million and since that he paid only C$270 million, it's a tidy profit, considering that the Caisse de Depot and the seller, Molson's Brewery, financed most of the deal.

Who will buy the Canadiens? It's an interesting question.

When Gillett bought the team, there wasn't another serious buyer in sight. Sports teams are usually of interest to bored billionaires, while the corporate world looks upon the investment as somewhat risky. Canada and Quebec are woefully short of billionaires, especially in the current economic situation.

If Quebeckers are waiting for a francophone white knight to rescue the team, they probably shouldn't hold their breath. Quebec boasts just three or four francophones with the wherewithal to pay for the team and to date none have shown interest.

Both the Gazette and LaPresse have speculated on Guy Laliberte (owner of the Cirque de Soleil) and Paul Demarais (Power Corporation,) but both passed on the last go around, when the deal was infinitely better.

The list gets sillier with the names of Celine Dion and Stephen Bronfman being put forward. The Diva is rich, but not she's no Oprah. Stephen, has been polished up by the family as the last remaining Bronfman representative in Montreal, but he's no financial titan and at any rate, the Bronfman family fortune has been decimated by poor investments and the disastrous merger with Vivendi SA and other ill-conceived ventures in the entertainment business.

When Charles Bronfman bought the Expos at the behest Jerry Snyder and the then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau in 1968, he did so as a favour to the city and as a last resort, nobody else was ready to pony up the 10 million franchise fee. Charles has lived in New York for years and it's foolish to believe he has any interest in the Canadiens.
When he unloaded the Expos in 1991 , there wasn't a buyer to be found, who would respect Bronfman's caveat that the team remain in Montreal.
The team's management cobbled together an ownership group of fourteen individuals and bought the team at a bargain a basement price, with Bronfman suffering a financial haircut due to his insistence that the team stay in the city.

It seems that things haven't changed much.

If the Canadiens were a difficult sale in 2001, who's going to buy it now at fair market value today?

It really leaves only one viable name- Blackberry billionaire, Jim Basillie.

His dream of bringing an NHL team to southwestern Ontario, was scotched by the NHL on several occasions and the Canadiens probably represent the next best thing.

His unquestioned love of the game and his deep pockets make him the only likely candidate.

The Canadiens could do worse.

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