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Business Blog – Tod Leiweke – From The Vancouver Canucks To The NFL !

Vancouver – Dave Doroghy is a BCIT Broadcast Grad (1979) and has been in sports marketing for the past 25 years including working on the recent 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, 2012 London Summer Games and the old NBA Vancouver Grizzlies (and followed them in their move to Memphis).

Throughout my 25 years in sports marketing I have seen a lot of people come and go. Most career trajectories in this niche industry follow predictable rises up the corporate ladder, bouncing between different teams, events, sports marketing agencies, and leagues. The most prestigious jobs tend to be at the league level. But 20 years ago there was this one guy who came up from the USA and stood head and shoulders above all of us. He brought a big bag of American magic dust along with him that he sprinkled all over the Vancouver sports marketing community. His magic dust made big, ambitious, wonderful things happen, and when he left four years later, everything had changed. His leadership raised the bar in the sports business scene in Western Canada and inspires hundreds of us still in the industry today.


When I first met Tod Leiweke in the fall of 1994, I knew he was different. He was bold; he had big ideas; he gave new meaning to the words “enthusiastic” and “positive.” He was American and embodied all the good things about that culture—a culture where pro sports is almost a religion. He was funny as all get-out too and boy was he smart. By the time he arrived in Vancouver, the guy was already so successful at such a young age that it couldn’t help but make you just a bit jealous.

He was two years younger than me, and at 34 he had already been the president of an NBA team. It was like he had a rocket pack strapped onto his back that propelled him upward to more responsibility and bigger job titles with every move he made. Never one to stay in a city for more than a few years, Tod traversed North America, super-charging the revenue streams of different NBA, NHL, NFL, and professional soccer teams. But it was not where he came from that impressed me. It was where I knew he was going. There was just something about him that convinced me this guy was rising to the top.

That’s why I found it so prophetic and gratifying last month when I was leafing through the New York Times ( and learned that Tod Leiweke had been named the chief operating officer of the NFL. In an industry that is fueled by fierce competition both on and off the field, Tod beat out countless others salivating over the thought of having that title on their business cards. Putting down the newspaper I thought, “Here I am living on a beat up old leaky barge on the Fraser River and this guy is in a big Manhattan office running one of the world’s most popular sports leagues.” What happened? I guess I turned right when I should have turned left. All kidding aside, Tod has had a big positive influence on my mindset, skill set, and, above all, attitude.

He spent four years up here in Canada leading the charge on sales and marketing for a new arena being built in Vancouver called General Motors Place (now Rogers Arena), as well as the newly acquired NBA Vancouver Grizzlies and the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. In the mid ‘90s, the Northwest Arena Corporation, which belonged to Arthur Griffiths, owned those three assets. I call it a company, but when I joined Northwest Arena in the spring of 1994, it was actually more of a concept or a dream. The impossible dream was to build Canada’s first privately funded sports arena, fill it with about two million hockey, basketball, and concert fans a year, and not go bankrupt along the way. At the time there were plenty of landmines to sidestep, like NHL labour disputes, a sinking Canadian dollar, and a city that knew nothing about hoops. When it came to basketball rules, most Vancouver fans thought that “travelling” was what you did to get to and from the game. The smartest thing Arthur Griffiths did was to hire Tod and get him to travel up across the border and bring some of his good old-fashioned American “can-do” attitude with him.

Before Tod joined the Northwest Arena Corporation, we were a bunch of talented but disparate people bumping into each other without making much traction. We hadn’t yet sold nearly enough tickets to acquire the Grizzlies franchise, and the building in which we would be housing the team was nothing more than a giant hole in the ground between a viaduct and a bridge in the middle of downtown Vancouver. The NHL was about to go on strike, meaning that our only source of revenue would soon be drying up and we were taking on debt, debt, and more debt.

The NBA had dictated we needed to sell 12,500 season tickets before they would give the green light to the new franchise. There was a bell in the sales office that was rung every time a new Grizzlies ticket order came in. That summer it all but fell silent as we stalled at 5,000 tickets sold. Renewals on the Canucks season tickets for their last season at the old Pacific Coliseum had also slowed down. When it came to my area of sponsorship sales, we had landed one or two new companies that summer, but nowhere near enough to keep the consortium of banks that had lent us money off of our backs. And the constant July rain made the steel girders that reinforced the new arena’s structure perilously slippery, which delayed construction and pushed back the building’s completion. If the arena wasn’t finished on time, the new basketball team and the old the hockey team would have no place to play for the ‘95–‘96 season, and the players, fans, and staff would all be homeless—in more ways than one. Pro sports organizations are exciting places to work, but without a significant turnaround, our future was looking quite bleak.

When Tod took the helm as the executive vice-president in September of ‘94, he knew exactly what we had to do to keep those creditors at bay. He had the business acumen, skills, and experience to navigate graciously through our troubled business waters, and to quickly steer the ticket sales meter over to the right. The guy was unreal—Tod spells his name with one “G,” as in “God.” Come to think of it, I believe shortly after he joined us, it stopped raining.

Tod quickly assimilated into the Vancouver business community and in just a few months got to know every prominent person in the city, plus everyone else—he became best friends with top lawyers, real-estate developers, restaurateurs, politicians, car dealers, professors, doctors, and retailers. He got to know more people in three months than most of us will meet in a lifetime. A somewhat tall, regular-looking guy, nothing about his appearance particularly stood out, and maybe it was his not standing out that put people more at ease. He wasn’t brash or flashy. He was good at public speaking, but it’s not is if he was a particularly gifted orator. He worked hard, but no harder than most of us. If I had to choose one memorable attribute that he had, it would be that he made people feel good about themselves.

One of Tod’s mantras was “community.” He strove to develop ways that the teams could weave themselves into the fabric of British Columbians’ lives in worthwhile ways, and he believed that sports could drive positive change in young people’s lives. He sought out opportunities to give back; thus, under his leadership the Canucks and Grizzlies did more outreach programs and charity work than ever before. Developing fan support at the grassroots level was another one of his battle cries. It sounds corny, but he really did put the fans first.

His most famous mantra was “Bums in Seats,” as he so eloquently put it. Did I mention that time was tight? His message to everyone at the Northwest Arena Corporation was simple. The entire focus of the organization, no matter what department, switched to ticket sales. By November the ticket needle had moved up by 2,500 orders to reach 7,500 pre-sold season tickets. Bells rang out, but it was not enough. That’s when Tod literally turned the measurement needle upside down and instead of tracking what we had sold, we tracked what we had left to sell to meet NBA Commissioner David Stern’s 12,500 threshold by Christmas. Tod hatched the slogan: “The Drive for Five” and infused more resolve and passion into an already full-blown promotional campaign backed by a disciplined group of foot soldiers following his orders. Selling 5,000 more tickets became our reason for being alive—failure was not an option.

All 150 members of the office staff gallantly pitched in. The accountants rose at 5 a.m. to meet on the Burrard Street Bridge where they formed part of a Burma-Shave sign line, holding cardboard signs advertising the “Drive for Five.” After work, the engineers made group ticket presentations to their sons’ Boy Scout packs. Canucks souvenir shop salespeople met with all the service clubs in town to get them excited about the new NBA team. Twelve young people dying to get into the sports business made cold calls in an old-fashioned telephone boiler room 12 hours a day. Of the dozen enthusiastic greenhorns that sat there all day smiling and dialing, only the top two producers would go on to get full-time jobs with the new basketball team. See? I told you this was a competitive industry.

Despite the long hours and Glengarry Glen Ross-style nose-to-the-grindstone sales urgency, Tod somehow made it fun. Once during a lunch with Wayne Holmes, the owner of Milestones restaurant chain, Tod liked the waiter’s personality and great attitude so much that he hired Graham Wall on the spot and added him to the mix in the boiler room. He also pitched Holmes on buying 500 Grizzlies season tickets. Back in the office, just for the heck of it, he asked us for bets on whether he would close the deal. Up until that day, the largest ticket order for which the sales bell had ever rung was a couple dozen season tickets. A guy in the Canucks communications department named Steve Frost jokingly took him up on the bet and it was decided that whoever lost would have to do 25 pushups on the boardroom table during an upcoming Thursday morning management meeting. A week later, Steve was on the table—in front of all the executives and a dozen vice-presidents and company directors—bending and straightening his arms 25 times, keeping his back straight while supporting his body with his hands and toes.

The mid-’90s was a wonderful era when the leaders of the two teams and the arena were all larger than life. Pat Quinn, general manager and president of the Canucks, was an original player on the 1970 squad and a true legend in Vancouver hockey history. Stu Jackson had been handpicked by the NBA to head up the Grizzlies as president and had the gravitas, stature, and personality to pull it off. John McCaw from Seattle was our absentee part-owner. He sold his company, McCaw Cellular, to ATT for billions in 1995. In the seven years I worked for the teams and the arena, I only met McCaw twice. He struck me as a cross between Thurston Howell, III and Howard Hughes. His Hughes-esque habits made him a bit of a recluse and he rarely came to the arena. Instead, McCaw sent his super bright hi-tech sidekick, John Chapple, who was the former chairman of Nextel, to Vancouver to run his sports business affairs. Then there was Arthur Griffiths, a local Vancouverite whose family had owned the Canucks since their inception, and who had a great reputation in the city, respected by everyone. Last, throw in the smartest lawyer I have ever met, a guy named Mike Korenburg from Toronto, and add Leiweke to the mix and you end up with a pretty dynamic team of overachievers.

All of these men had large plush offices with thick expensive carpets on the 4th floor of the arena. The offices, which we dubbed “Carpet City,” overlooked the inner seating bowl and ice. It was a bit of an old school upstairs/downstairs management structure, and other than Leiweke who liked to wander around through the main and second floor offices where the rest of us worked, we rarely saw the elite upper echelon.

In late 1995, many of those offices changed inhabitants and everything got shifted around when Mr. Money Bags, John McCaw, gained majority control of the company and later went on to buy out Arthur Griffiths completely, after which the company’s name was changed to Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment.

Three Things

One of Tod’s quirkier management habits was that he almost always bunched his directives or comments into three separate thoughts, or “three things.” I’d bump into him in the hall on the main floor and he’d say, “Oh Dorg, glad I ran into you. Listen, three things: I just spoke to Victor and we can count the Coke deal into this year’s revenue, so make that adjustment to your budget; I want Ross to go to the NBA marketing meetings in Miami this year instead of you; oh, and I want you to meet someone tomorrow at ten that I am thinking of hiring for the new broadcast sales position.” Or he’d call me up to his office with me having no idea what he wanted, and he would sit me down and introduce his thoughts with “Dorg, three things . . .”  Sure enough, he would fire off three important matters he wanted looked after, or sometimes two matters, and then he’d offer a compliment or constructive criticism as the third thing. But he would never engage you for one or two things. It was always three.

Only once in four years did he stumble. One day when he got to the second item, he drew a blank on number three. Right there in his office in Carpet City. As I was sitting down, he said, “Dorg, I called you up here for three things.” What a surprise, I thought. Then he said something like, “First, I want you spending more time on cold calling some new accounts in Toronto; second, great job on the Kellogg’s cereal box endorsement with Big Country Reeves on the side panel; and third . . .” He stalled. I could hear the hum of the Zamboni-like machine grooming the ice below. Sitting there awkwardly in his big comfy chair with my feet firmly planted in the plush thick carpet, I finally broke the silence. “Tod, how come whenever you want to talk with me, you always have three things?” He laughed and admitted that often he only had two, but usually found that while he was talking a third thing would come to mind. In this particular instance it didn’t.

I am sure that this efficient way of dealing with subordinates must be explained and encouraged in some popular management book, such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Ziglar on Selling. After all, if a busy manager is going to take precious time to meet with an underling, why not maximize effectiveness by tripling the agenda? To this day, it’s a small technique I have used with people who work for me, and whenever I do, I think of Tod.

The other habit Tod had that I never adopted was when he wanted to drop a big idea on you—something audacious or outside of your comfort level—he’d get your attention by looking you in the eye, pausing, and then stating: “I have a stream of consciousness I want you to follow.” He’d pause dramatically again, and then explain how he was going to double your revenue projections for next year, or how he wanted to bring a PGA golf tour to Vancouver to raise money for charity, or how we were going to buy a roller hockey team to fill the arena in the summer. Whenever Tod mentioned “stream of consciousness,” you knew a ton of work was coming your way. But he made it fun, ensured you were invested, and somehow motivated you to succeed.

So, in the Leiweke manner, I have three points to explain that made Tod different and tipped me off to the fact that he wouldn’t be staying in Vancouver for long. Please follow my stream of consciousness . . .

  1. Hiring, Firing, and Expense Reports

The announcement that Leiweke was coming on board came out in the spring of ‘94, but he didn’t arrive until the fall, so all major decisions were put on hold during that gap. Stagnation creates tension. The entire staff knew that the “new guy” would assess our talent pool, cut and cull where necessary, and then add new talent where required.

Indeed he did. He fired a bunch of people, hired a bunch of other people, changed several policies, introduced new ideas, slashed some budgets, increased other budgets, and next thing we knew we were well on our way to the promised land. He orchestrated it all in a bold, yet not boastful fashion. He did it quickly and with surgical precision.

One of his first moves was to let go a very senior, long-term sales and marketing executive with the Canucks. These situations are never easy. You have to remember that the Canucks had been in operation for 20 years before Tod arrived and bonds ran deep in that organization. Somehow Tod stick-handled the dismissal with a minimum amount of disruption and dissention. I later went out for a drink with the guy he had fired, and he turned out to be one of Tod’s biggest fans and supporters. Go figure.

On the hiring side, Tod had a colleague that he brought along with him wherever he went. With every new team, when Tod was brought in to expedite significant change, he wanted someone he could trust by his side—John Rizzardini was his guy. John was another American who had worked alongside Tod at the NBA Golden State Warriors and other teams. He must have delivered, because Tod brought him to Vancouver to be the new vice-president of ticket sales. Later, after the two of them summited the ticket sales mountain up here in Canada and went back down to the USA, John rejoined Tod at the Seattle Seahawks where Tod would also become president. They worked together for 12 years, and I am sure when Tod wanted to speak to “Rizz,” as he was nicknamed, it wasn’t in increments of three, but was in increments of 30 things he needed, and quickly.

Ticket sales were the lifeblood of both teams, but my job as the director of sponsorship sales was important too. It entailed many trips to Toronto where most of the Canadian companies that sponsored the Canucks and Grizzlies had their head offices. Major marketing decisions were made in Toronto, such as what portion of a company’s advertising budget would be allocated for the Canucks and Grizzlies sponsorship programs. I would go every couple of months for presentations and reviews and always stayed at the same hotel—the Holiday Inn on King Street. Orca Bay’s business travel expense policy was pretty standard: we paid for meals, travel, and various sundry expenses when we were on the road and then got reimbursed. I was frugal by nature and after each trip carefully submitted receipts for all of my expenses in a timely manner. Little did I know this practice would single me out.

One day a few months after Tod’s arrival, I am sitting in my office when the phone rings. To appreciate this part of the story, you have to remember that Tod is my boss’s boss’s boss. If you had an organizational chart of the structure of Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment at the time, and if you were to write every employee’s name on a jumbo roll of toilet paper and drop the roll off the roof of General Motors Place, Tod’s name would be near the top of the luxurious 3-ply and my name would be towards the bottom, still rolling down Pacific Boulevard deep inside near the cardboard tube. From his office up in Carpet City, Tod says to me on the phone, “Hey Dorg, I am looking through different people’s expense reports and have the one that you submitted for your last trip to Toronto.” This really catches me off guard because a senior exec in the company such as Tod would never get marred in the minutia of my little expense form.

“Really Tod?” I reply. “You are reviewing my expenses from my last Toronto trip?” My heart sinks into my gut. As I wait for his response, I think, is he about to question the amount of money I spent on a hamburger, or the cab charge to the airport? And if it’s out of line, will he fire me on the spot.

Then he says, “Dorg, the company is under huge financial challenges, and I really like the way you go easy on costs when you are out of town. I see you stayed at the Holiday Inn. Good low-end choice. Your meal charges are all on the light side and you didn’t charge any alcohol. I just wanted to say keep up the good work.”

I wipe the sweat from my brow, thank him for the call, hang up the phone, and ponder the bizarreness of what has just happened.

Tod had bigger things to worry about than if I had a side of fries with my burger. But, I realized, he needed to set the tone and establish early on amongst the people at my level that he cared and was watching over all details of revenues and expenses. He knew that I was the biggest yacker in the department, and he knew that as soon as I got off the phone, I would march down the hall and tell all the others about his call. Furthermore, he knew it was far more effective to praise someone for their actions than to reprimand them. It was classic Leiweke. And he was right, I broadcast his message loud and clear. That one call to me helped him discreetly spread the word to dozens of my colleagues to be careful what they submitted as an expense, because the big guy upstairs was looking. The next morning two of the guys I worked with asked me for the phone number of the Holiday Inn on King. Tod’s two-minute call to me had far more effect than a carefully worded staff memo.

  1. Mr. Memory

A good memory is an important hallmark of most successful people. One of the best compliments you can give a new acquaintance is simply remembering his or her name. Regularly reinforcing that recollection or connection when greeting staff is a real self esteem booster, particularly if you happen to come from Carpet City and are dealing with the hourly wage earners. Tod sprinkled bits of his magic dust on everyone. There were about 150 of us that wore suits and ties and worked in the front office. But on game days, 600–700 part-time workers reported to General Motors Place as ushers, food servers, cleaners, ticket-takers, and general laborers. Add another 100 broadcasters and journalists to the mix on game day, and the task of knowing everyone’s name becomes pretty daunting. Leiweke had an uncanny capacity to store the names of countless people in his brain’s hard drive.

A few times I happened to walk with him through the busy arena concourse just before the doors opened for a game. It felt like we were walking through his house and he was greeting his family and friends. He knew everyone who worked there on a first name basis, from the janitors on up to the TV color commentator. And he treated them all the same. He’d greet them with a warm hello, followed by small talk and a personal anecdote to strengthen his connection. He might bring up three things he wanted to address with someone, or just casually smile and inquire how a member of their family was doing. To the untrained eye, it just looked like a guy in a suit walking around socializing. But it wasn’t; it was what I call “Management by Walking Around.” All the while, he was making small suggestions, motivating people, and making observations that he would bring up in future management meetings. And just like he descended from Carpet City during the day upon the ticket sales, accounting, and sponsorship staff, he did the same on game nights with everyone else. He didn’t need a survey from the human resources department to track staff moral—he conducted his own ongoing poll on a regular basis.

  1. Humor and a Quirky T  

In addition to a good memory, the best leaders I have known in the business world also have a tremendous sense of humor. Humor not only makes the workplace more fun, it is a great tool for  alleviating tension. And nowhere is tension more intense than before and during a huge sponsorship sales pitch when you really need the money. As a side note to set up this next narrative, the financing to build the arena was based on a consortium of banks loaning us the money. Revenue from long-term sponsorship deals was put up as a form of collateral. Not concluding enough of these deals could have put us in default, delaying the construction of the arena. So with this dynamic in place, the tension couldn’t have been more intense than when we went in to pitch Air Canada on a five-year sponsorship deal for the arena and both teams.

My boss, Leila Bell-Irving, reported to Tod and had for weeks carefully orchestrated the whole pitch. The important Air Canada Mucky-Mucks flew out from Montreal to sit in a big boardroom while Tod and Leila pitched them for millions and millions of dollars desperately needed by Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment. The pitch was rehearsed six ways to Sunday; it had to be nothing less than perfect. Beautiful artist renderings of the new building were set out, an expensive video had been prepared, and a famous player from the Canucks dropped by to greet the aviation executives. All of the senior executives were there and had assigned speaking roles from Leila.

During the pitch, a fancy, expensive lunch was brought in at noon. After the working session lunch, Tod looked down at the floor and saw that for comfort’s sake, Leila had secretly slipped off her shoes. Without skipping a beat, Tod slyly took a couple of pieces of leftover lettuce and slipped them into Leila’s high heels. When Leila put her shoes on to get up to speak, you can imagine her surprise. The consummate pro, she kept her cool. Some good old-fashioned laughs were had, tension was relieved, and a month later the deal was closed.

Site gags, funny stories, and dumb jokes were all part of Tod’s management style. I sometimes referred to Orca Bay as Montego Bay, because it was such a fun place to be. He set the tone for us to work hard, play hard, and above all, not to take ourselves too seriously. But we could only joke around like that if we made progress on the sales targets. And finally, we were.

I don’t know much about Tod’s background, but what I do know is quirky and involves the letter “T.” Tod came from St. Louis and his dad was in the radio business. Tod has three brothers, two of whom are also in sports business. He and his brothers owned a professional soccer team when they were all quite young. They had a reputation as innovative promotional gurus flying by the seat of their pants and dreaming up many of today’s wild and crazy ticket sales gimmicks. Tim Leiweke is the president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, and the Air Canada Centre. Before joining the NFL, Tod was most recently a partial owner of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning. What an interesting dynamic last year when Leafs and Lightening faced off as division rivals. His other brother Tracy has spent much of his career as a creative sports producer. All I know about his fourth brother is that his name is Terry. Do you spot the trend with all the T’s? But wait it get’s better. Tod has been married forever to a women named Tara. They have two kids named Tyler and Tori. It is not surprising then that after Tod left us here in Vancouver, he went to go work for the PGA’s First Tee.

In Closing

The wonderful ride came to an end in 1999. I don’t think our Seattle brain trust ever really appreciated Leiweke’s talents enough and after they overlooked Tod to appoint a new president to head up Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment, Tod left to become president of the First Tee, an organization that promotes life skills and leadership through the game of golf.

After I left the Grizzlies in 2001, I visited Tod twice back in his United States homeland. Both times I was struck by how transferable and effective his skill set is. The cities and sports were different, but his approach remained the same. I visited him first in Minnesota where he was charged with building another new arena and again launching a team. I remember walking into the new arena in Minneapolis-St. Paul and being struck by a display of 200 different framed high school hockey jerseys that wrapped around the entire main concourse, each jersey from a different high school in the state. That display had Tod written all over it. Years later, I attended a Seahawks game in Seattle and marveled over the success of the 12th MAN strategy.  At both the arena and stadium where I visited, I joined Tod in his ritual pre-game walk around the concourses where he met and greeted his hourly staff on a first name basis.

In an odd way, one of Tod’s legacies was the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Although he wasn’t even here for any of the years leading up to the event, many of the people he influenced along the way went on to take senior positions at the Olympic Games. I headed up sponsorship sales at VANOC and we implemented a plethora of the strategies I learned from Tod to hit our lofty revenue targets. I reported into Dave Cobb, deputy CEO at Vancouver 2010. Dave was originally an accountant with the Canucks when Tod arrived in ‘94, and Dave once told me, “Tod really encouraged me to move beyond accounting into the marketing side of the business.”

There were dozens of others that came to the Olympics from Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment, and all of us had some of Tod’s magic dust lingering on our shoulders as we carried out our day-to-day tasks to prepare for the 2010 Games.

One of our co-workers, Debbie Butt, said it best when she emailed me the following: I feel very fortunate to have worked with Tod. He was a leader and a motivator with boundless energy and a positive spirit. He went after the big things and got them done in a big way and shone the light on his team. I look forward to seeing what he does in the NFL.

There are undoubtedly huge challenges waiting for Tod at the NFL. The halcyon days he spent in Vancouver will feel like he was organizing a sports day at his kids’ elementary school compared to what he’s about to face. Issues surrounding the billion-dollar concussion lawsuit, deflate-gate, and the league’s expansion into Los Angeles are just a few of the agenda items that Tod will have to tackle in New York. No doubt Commissioner Roger Goodell will preside over many sessions where these and other items are debated. I just wonder when the tension in the room gets really thick, if Tod will bend down and slip a piece of lettuce in Mr. Goodell’s shoe.

Good luck, Tod.

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