Soccer Fever Hits Canada

With the popularity of the Toronto FC and the passion for soccer in Canada red hot, efforts are under way to bring Major League Soccer to other cities across the nation. While NBA superstar Steve Nash has joined the Vancouver bid, a dream team of wealthy tycoons has given notice that they want Montreal and Ottawa in as well.

“Soccer is a sport with a global reach and presence. It is a sport steeped in culture and tradition, with a unique ability to connect fans from around the world,” says Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk who launched his “Bring the World to Ottawa” campaign and proclaimed that he too wants an MLS team and is willing to finance a world-class 30,000 seat soccer specific stadium to do it. “We want to bring the world’s game to Ottawa and there is no better way to do that than to become part of Major League Soccer” he explains.

Those sentiments are mirrored by Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo who announced that his family would join forces with Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett, Jr., to move the Impact from the lower United Soccer Leagues to the MLS.

    1. Certainly it seems that from the Canadian perspective the MLS has gone from a gamble to a sure bet and everyone suddenly wants in – but why the sudden explosion of interest in a sport that from a spectator side has never been able to catch on here? Sportsbook lobbyists are also promoting MLS in Canada.

“The interest in the MLS is in large part due to the success of the Toronto FC and what MLSE has done with it,” suggests Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi. Having never proven itself as a true soccer city, Toronto Maple Leafs parent company Major League Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) took a chance and paid a $10 million dollar expansion fee to bring the TFC to Toronto. They subsequently cultivated a European-like soccer atmosphere, set attendance records and virtually blew away all expectations on their way to becoming what Forbes Magazine has labeled as the second most valuable franchise in the league. Driven by both passion for the game and Toronto FC’s proven business model, prospective owners are now lining up to enter what is clearly the premier soccer league in the United States and Canada.

“We have Toronto as a model to build on,” confesses Lenarduzzi “there is no reason why Vancouver or Montreal can’t succeed too.” Perhaps so, but even an attempt will come at a hefty prize. Success in Toronto has in part driven the prize of future expansion teams to $40 million dollars; a sum that will undoubtedly require potential owners to have deep pockets. So do the potential owners stack up?

In Montreal both Joey Saputo and George Gillett, Jr., have lots of money. The Saputo dairy empire is the 15th largest dairy processor in the world and the company is worth over $2 billion. American George Gillett, Jr., on the other hand bought the Montreal Canadiens for $185 million and later completed a $340 million dollar acquisition of the Liverpool soccer club which is part of the wealthiest soccer league on the planet – the English Premier League. He too seems to have a dollar – or a few million – lying around.

The Vancouver proposal includes current owner and software magnet Greg Kerfoot, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and his friend Jeff Mallett who is the former president and CEO of Yahoo and owner of the San Francisco Giants. All three hail from British Columbia, are admittedly soccer fanatics and have millions of dollars.

In Ottawa, Eugene Melnyk has a long history with the Biovail Corporation which is Canada’s largest publicly traded pharmaceutical company and he has made it his personal mission to succeed with the MLS.

Although financially speaking all three bids stand on solid ground, Lenarduzzi points out that this is not enough. “They haven’t expanded just for the sake of expanding,” he explains. “The MLS has elected to go with owners that have stuck with the league through the tough times and finding loyal owners has helped the league become successful,” the Whitecaps president explains, and this is one area in which Montreal and Vancouver bode extremely well.

The Saputo family has been with the Impact since its inception in 1993 and has spent millions on helping to construct a 13,000-seat soccer specific stadium. In Vancouver Greg Kerfoot was the mystery man who secretly supported the efforts of the Canadian Women’s national soccer team by covering the $20,000 annual fee for each player so that they could all train in residence.

“Greg Kerfoot is just an incredible champion for soccer and Vancouver and British Columbia,” proclaimed Steve Nash. “It’s amazing to have somebody in out community that’s willing to put his money where his mouth is and at the same time have such an incredibly unselfish vision of longevity.”

That sort of passion and determination is what brought Nash to the table. “We have a singular vision,” he said. “We believe we’re going to get a franchise in the near future and that’s what’s driving us everyday. I made a commitment financially and in spirit to be a part of this team and to see this become a reality.” If successful, Nash will have a chance to work together with his younger brother Martin who is a player on the team. Something Nash admits jokingly might backfire when Martin tries to “steal from me on his next contract.”

When the MLS expands to 18 teams in 2011 eight teams will be vying for two coveted expansion spots – among them Las Vegas, Portland, St. Louis, New York, Atlanta and the three Canadian cities. There are strengths and weaknesses on all sides. If successful, Vancouver would have a natural west coast rivalry with Seattle and would be a welcome addition by a large western Canadian soccer market. The team is currently in negotiations to construct a soccer specific stadium by the waterfront but local opposition by an NDP councilor could force the team to play in the soon to be refurbished BC Place.

The Impact’s new stadium will need expansion to accommodate the MLS but a string of first-place USL finishes and control of the Voyageurs Cup for the top Canadian team every year since its creation in 2002 means that there is potential for a huge Toronto-Montreal rivalry; something that could potentially generate great TV numbers.

With no major soccer history, Ottawa’s chances are slim, but Eugene Melnyk has had great success with the Senators and the MLS might be swayed by his grandiose plans. Aside from the new stadium the Ottawa bid includes five neighbouring community soccer pitches that will form a giant soccer complex for the community.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi points out that the combination of passion and great business sense makes the Vancouver bid the best one out there. Although he suggests that the ideal situation would be to have both Montreal and Vancouver win the two coveted spots.

“This would be the logical choice,” agrees Montreal Impact Executive Vice President Richard Legendre. Both franchises possess a rich soccer history; have the financial resources; and a strong soccer market. “Currently soccer is the number one participation sport in the province,” says Legendre. “And with the construction of our new stadium, a number of World Cup qualifying matches and the Canadian championship there is a great buzz about soccer.”

Based on its financial success and even more importantly the enthusiasm of the fans, league commissioner Don Garber is holding Toronto as the blueprint for coming expansion teams. If the Canadian candidates can promise to deliver the same sort of genuine soccer atmosphere and excitement it could go a long way in helping them win a spot. “What we’ll need to capture is that same atmosphere that Toronto currently has,” admitted Lenarduzzi. “But I think that’s definitely doable.”

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