Fighting back

With the family business in ruins, the Asper brothers are duking it out in new arenas, with different results
Fighting back
Leonard's new station shows combat sports; David set his sights on football | The Fight Network/CP; Boris Minkevich/Winnipeg Free Press

The sports puns have been relentless since the comeback efforts of brothers Leonard and David Asper took different turns after the collapse of the family media empire, Canwest Global Communications. For Leonard, who took over the specialty channel the Fight Network in December, they’ve had a triumphant tone: he’s “back in the game” and there is “still some fight left” in him. For David, who that same month ceased to be part of the construction of a new Winnipeg football stadium with a ballooning budget (sticking taxpayers with the bill), the sports puns have been cheerless. He’s been characterized as taking “a standing eight-count.”

Successful or not, the Asper brothers’ latest moves to recoup their careers are certainly compelling. Last year, the heavily leveraged Canwest, founded by their late father Izzy Asper, was forced into bankruptcy protection and, after 36 years in business, was sold for parts to archrival Shaw Communications and the newly formed Postmedia Network. Reluctantly, Leonard resigned as CEO and David (and sister Gail) stepped down from the board of directors. News headlines were variations on a sorry theme: “The empire strikes out.” “The last days of the Asper empire.” One question remained: what next for the Asper brothers?

David had already set his sights on football and in April 2009 an agreement was announced between his real estate company, Creswin Properties, and the federal and provincial governments to build a new $115-million stadium for his hometown CFL team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (which he would then own under the deal).

It would be mostly financed privately. The plan had been for Creswin to tear down the 56-year-old Canad Inns Stadium and build an upscale retail plaza called the Elms to help fund the new sports venue. But by last March, when future tenants proved scarce and construction stalled, the province was forced to put up $90 million in bridge financing.
By November, the situation was even worse. An updated budget revealed that the true cost of the stadium would be tens of millions of dollars more than originally stated. Within a couple of weeks, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz announced that the guaranteed maximum cost of the new stadium would be $190 million, to be financed by municipal and provincial governments and the Winnipeg Football Club. David Asper was out of the picture, though Creswin would be repaid $4 million for its contributions to the project so far.

This news, not surprisingly, ignited a public outcry. Maclean’s requests to speak with David were turned down, and details about whether he was dismissed by the other stadium stakeholders or quit are in short supply. Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gary Lawless says that “almost certainly he was pushed out,” given the large “disconnect” over the original and updated budgets. That might not have been David’s fault, but “rightly or wrongly, it fell on David’s shoulders,” he says.

At the same time as David’s star was falling, Leonard’s appeared to be rising. Besides nabbing the title of CEO of the Fight Network, he bought a big chunk of the channel operator—a 30 per cent stake with the option of increasing it to 51 per cent, according to anonymous sources quoted in the media—for an undisclosed amount. Leonard declined to discuss his new role with Maclean’s, but according to a company announcement he’ll be tasked with “re-energizing” the business plan, and securing investment capital.

Since launching in Canada in 2005, the network, which has almost half a million subscribers and showcases “combat sports content” (ultimate fighting and its ilk), has yet to turn a profit, according to CRTC documents. In fact, Marketing magazine revealed that in 2008, the most recent year for which information is available, the company bled $4.9 million on revenues of $2.1 million. General manager Anthony Cicione has said of Leonard that, “with his support, his contacts and his experience, the plan now is to grow the network.”

With Canwest in ruins, Leonard may seem a few years too late in coming up with a media hit. But there may be some serendipity in that his father started off the Canwest empire with one small channel in Manitoba. And there is optimism in his home province that he’ll succeed. As for David, going forward Lawless believes that he too will find a new role to play, ideally on the board of directors for the Blue Bombers, and says David should be credited with having a vision to rally fans and build community.

That looming question—what next for the Asper brothers—seems as intriguing as ever.