Thirty-two days before the Vancouver Whitecaps are set to kick their first ball in Major League Soccer, Commissioner Don Garber came to town to talk up the potential for soccer to take off in one of North America’s most vibrant sporting cities.
They are the leading sponsorship team in all of Major League Soccer, Garber told a Vancouver Board of Trade meeting, which attracts the city’s elite business community. Even with Los Angeles and its stadium and David Beckham, the largest sponsorship base is here in Vancouver.
Bigger than Beckham? It doesn’t get much bigger than that, financially speaking. Garber was talking about an expansion team entering the MLS that had already amassed one of the largest sponsorship deals in pro soccer — anywhere on the globe.
Think telecommunications giant Bell Canada. Think national Bank of Montreal. Think LaBatts beer, a Canadian brand owned by Anheuser-Busch. Think Electronic Arts, a computer gaming company that makes FIFA World Cup video games. And think Kia Canada Inc.
Said the commish to Vancouver’s business elite: Bell is one of the larger non-media, stand-alone sports sponsorships in sports in America and Canada. It’s a sports sponsorship that any pro league would be proud of, whether it’s here or in European football.
Garber’s enthusiasm runs even deeper than these blue-chip sponsors. Vancouver is a city with a long tradition of supporting the Whitecaps — from its flamboyant North American Soccer League beginnings oh-so-many years ago to even the more pedestrian and less-than-flamboyant decades in second division soccer. Equally reassuring — he can hardly quibble with the Whitecaps ownership group.
Who would? The Whitecaps have fielded an All-Star studded team. One that’s clearly an A-team, or A list, assemblage of Vancouver and Canada’s finest, richest and most successful business executives and celebrity athletes.
It begins with media-shy majority owner Greg Kerfoot, formerly ceo of Crystal Decisions Software and one of the visions behind creating a European-based soccer club that includes a youth academy and women’s teams before the MLS Whitecaps have kicked a ball.
Then there is Jeff Mallett, former chief operating officer of Yahoo! and part owner of the San Francisco Giants; Steve Luczo, chairman and CEO of Seagate Technology and part owner of the Boston Celtics; And, of course, Steve Nash — starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns and two-time NBA MVP. His brother Martin Nash is a former Whitecaps player and now an assistant coach.
All are Canadian. All but one hail from Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia. They all embrace their Whitecaps and their soccer in a way that only a Canadian can appreciate sports (after all, curling is a national passion). And they have created an organization that aims to blend the best of the old world and new world into something fresh, something vital and something top level.
The owners even hired a well-credentialed soccer executive from Europe to run the organization — Paul Barber, former executive director of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and former director of marketing and communications for the Football Association (FA) in England.
The Seattle Sounders set the bar high two years ago — selling out the stadium and connecting with a dedicated fan base. Now, Vancouver — just like Portland — is funneling and channeling this momentum, this excitement for professional soccer — into a successful business enterprise that could very likely reach the same scale as the Sounders.
“There is a great feeling of what we have achieved,” Barber told Sportspress Northwest recently. “But ultimately we get judged by what happens on the pitch. The MLS is going to be tough.”
True, it’s still too early to know how it will sort out. And even though the Whitecaps beat the Sounders 3-2 in a preseason match at the Cascadia Summit, Whitecaps officials are talking patience about the prospects for the team in year one. The team has no publicly stated aim to reach the MLS playoffs in the first year, and few soccer observers would challenge that assessment.
Beyond the pitch, though, it continues to be a different story. The Whitecaps have sold 15,500 season tickets and plan to cap it at 16,500, Barber said, who noted that when he joined Tottenham season-ticket sales stood at 18,000. When the Whitecaps move to a renovated BC Place in September, capacity will be set at 22,000. “Anything above 10,000 season tickets is an amazing achievement,” Barber said, adding that there are many English Premier League clubs that would kill for 10,000 season tickets. “Seattle, Portland and Toronto can all be proud of what they have achieved.”
Overall media coverage has been growing and interest remains high, Barber said. What’s more, he said the Whitecaps will be the first MLS team to have all of their games broadcast live on TV, live on radio and live on mobile phone –courtesy, of course, of Bell Mobile. “I dont think there is any team in the Premiership that has that,” Barber said.
The sponsorships, of course, underscore the strength of the Whitecaps brand in the community. And they keep coming. On March 8, the Whitecaps announced a partnership with Kia Canada Inc. to become the club’s official automotive sponsor. Barber said the sponsorships — while lucrative — also go beyond the board room and the stadium. “The value of our sponsorship deals go far beyond the dollars and cents they bring in,” he said. “Its the actual power of the brands were associated with and the reach they have into the community that makes them so valuable.”
MLS executives continue to be impressed by the Whitecaps business plans and their roll out to their first kick on March 19. This level of financial backing underscores the steady growth of the league, said Dan Courtemanche, a spokesman for MLS and Commissioner Garber.
The value of MLS franchises has grown to $40 million, which is what Montreal paid last year, up from $7.5 million in 2005 — the price Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA shelled out. In 2003, the league had two soccer-specific stadiums. Now, 13 clubs out of 18 are playing in soccer-specific stadiums — and Houston and Montreal will have new stadiums ready next year.
“From a business standpoint, they have really invested the resources to make sure they are successful off the field,” Courtemanche said. “Thats an ownership decision. Not all owners have done what Vancouver has done in the first year.”
The key for the Whitecaps has been to retain their hardcore following while reaching out to new fans — who have high sporting standards and are loyal as long as the quality is high, Barber said.
Thus, the club launched a 30-day video countdown that unveils a new video snippet each day that aims to connect the fans, the players, the club, the history and the city together — and it has been well received. “We set out with three objectives: generate buzz, we call it sizzle, and we wanted to involve the citizens and the city,” Barber said. “We wanted real people with the celebrities of the city and combined it with what we are as a club.”
Some of the more popular viral videos: two girls breaking into Empire Stadium at night, where Whitecaps will play first half of season, dreaming about playing soccer in front of a sold-out stadium — and then the lights go on. A famous sushi chef and big Whitecaps fan preparing a special Whitecaps roll for team officials. School kids going crazy when they learn a Whitecaps player is their show-and-tell surprise. Old timers meeting at a venerable soccer bar to discuss the NASL Whitecaps memories.
It appears to be generating the buzz around the city.
“So far, so good,” said John Knox, president of the Vancouver Southsiders, the club’s largest supporter group. “They are really doing a very good job of telling the story of how the Whitecaps have a place in the city and how the arrival of the MLS will be a renewal of that culture.”
And that’s probably the biggest challenge and lesson — how to refresh and grow a popular and venerable brand while still maintaining the support of hardcore fans, who want it real, want it authentic and want it top flight. The Whitecaps have created a name and brand that is known worldwide and have nurtured it through the leaner days when pro soccer was mostly an afterthought. Balancing the old and the new is challenging– and the Whitecaps management seem to have found a way forward that reflects Vancouver and its passion for all sports.
Said Garber in his talk to the business community: Its exciting to be in a town where people get the game, where they understand the sport and are connected to the Whitecaps. We dont have people questioning the viability of the league or the strength of the sport like we do in many other places. There is just a lot of pent up interest and anticipation, and still some open questions as to what it could be, and thats very exciting.
And for that, thank the tradition that was set early when the Whitecaps secured a North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl victory in 1979, defeating Peles New York Cosmos in the semis and the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the finals. They became the citys first professional sports team to win a major North American championship. More than 100,000 people lined Robson Street in downtown Vancouver to celebrate probably the clubs finest moment.
That tradition included 60,342 fans filling the brand new BC Place in June 1983 to witness a 2-1 victory over you guessed it the Seattle Sounders. This tradition included an average attendance of 32,000 during the peak of the NASL glory years. And most importantly, this tradition included a type of team that mixed skilled players with characters and hard-working role players.
We were a lunch-bucket team, said Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Whitecaps, who has been involved with the club since the beginning first as a player and then later as a coach, manager and front-office administrator. We had guys who could muck it up, who were very skillful, and we had guys who could produce a game-changing moment.
One such star player was Alan Ball, who as a young midfielder had helped England capture its only World Cup. Ball still possessed the skills when he joined the Whitecaps, Lenarduzzi said, recalling the moments when Ball would thread sublime passes to his teammates that carved open the opposition.
Another fan favorite was Willi Johnston, a former Scottish National team player, who began his career at the famed Glasgow Rangers. A speedy left winger, Johnston also was known to offer other kinds of entertainment while on the pitch. With the Whitecaps, he once mooned the opposing bench after he had scored a goal.
In a game at Spartan Stadium against San Jose Earthquakes, Johnston was about to take a corner kick when he noticed a fan with a can of Budweiser. He motioned the fan over, took a swig of beer, handed the can back to the fan, then fired a cross to a teammate for a score.
Those were great memories, Lenarduzzi said, indicating that the MLS Whitecaps will be assembled with the same mix of players. We need the workman-like aspect. We need the character players and we need the game-changing player all of which enable the crowd to connect with the players and the team.