TORONTO – It was October 2005 and another pro sports league was announcing expansion to Canada’s largest city.
Fans and media in Toronto had heard it before. After all, they had witnessed expansion teams in various sports struggle and ultimately fail.
Various incarnations of pro soccer had come and gone since the demise of the North American Soccer League’s Toronto Blizzard in 1984, making many wonder if soccer would ever work again in Toronto.
First was the Toronto Rockets of the Canadian Soccer League then the A-League’s Toronto Lynx. Even the indoor National Professional Soccer League, with the Shooting Stars and later the ThunderHawks, thought a more North American-esque version of the sport would appeal to soccer fans in the country’s most soccer-savvy market.
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So, it wasn’t a surprise many didn’t give Major League Soccer a chance to succeed despite its decade-long tenure of existence, franchise growth and upward trajectory.
But five years later, MLS has not only thrived, but also raised soccer in Canada, on multiple fronts, to a higher level.
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It has changed how Canadian sports fans experience soccer, the level of professionalism in organizations and the way future soccer talent is developed.
The ultimate beneficiary is the soccer culture in Canada, which has been lacking for some time.
Soccer culture, especially in the country’s largest markets – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – was often characterized by support for other countries and clubs that weren’t Canadian. It was common to see fans wearing jerseys of England, Brazil, Manchester United and Juventus jerseys on the street.
MLS gave Toronto a team to call its own, uniting the various ethnic groups in the world’s most multicultural city behind one team. Further, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment – the investor/operator of Toronto’s fledgling club – made the shrewd decision to avoid stroking any particular ethnic group by naming the franchise the generic “Toronto FC” and reinforcing it with the “All for One” branding message.
“One of the great things about FC was … you can start from Day 1 in that whoever you were and wherever you’ve been and whatever soccer history you had, this was a start-up,” said Stephen Brunt, sports columnist with The Globe and Mail. “It was the chance to kind of start your own history and that fresh start was a good thing. It’s a fresh new start and we kind of needed that to put everyone on an equal footing and I think that’s been a great thing.”
David Beckham’s decision to sign with the Los Angeles Galaxy added instant credibility to MLS and marquee value to Toronto FC and soccer.
With their own team in North America’s top league, TFC fans became the driving force behind the franchise’s success and the talk of MLS.
Their passion, intensity of in-stadium support and level of organization redefined the soccer experience, while introducing Toronto sports fans to a unique sports entertainment product.
“The size of the crowd that Toronto has generated has been important, but it’s not only that,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, president of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, who will join MLS next season. "It’s the level of fan participation that I think has heightened the profile even more."
Soccer was already popular, but the supporters groups made a TFC game cool and BMO Field the place to see and be seen. It made casual sports fans across Canada take more notice of soccer. The media also noticed.
Until the advent of MLS, mainstream sports media would have scant coverage of soccer, save for events of worldwide interest such as the FIFA World Cup and UEFA’s European Championship.
Support for TFC incited greater coverage of MLS and by default, soccer, on all media platforms – TV, radio, Internet and print.
Now, each of the city’s newspapers has a beat writer for the club with almost daily stories casting a constant spotlight onto TFC and the sport.
TFC started their inaugural season with a select number of games on radio and little TV coverage. Today, all of the club’s games are broadcast on radio, while three TV networks air the club’s games in various competitions across Canada.
MLSE’s 2009 purchase of the operating license for GOLTV Canada was a significant development as the channel added more Canadian soccer content to a network that previously offered primarily European and South American coverage.
Greater mainstream media coverage has given soccer more legitimacy and improved its perception. Equally as important, the proliferation of media – digital and social – has diffused coverage of soccer more, in both quantity and frequency.
“The success of Toronto has provided much more media coverage and so it should,” said Lenarduzzi. “I think what the success of Toronto has done and hopefully what Vancouver and Montréal will do across the country is it will make it a sport at the professional level that legitimately deserves its fair share of coverage.”
That has appealed to corporations, which have raised their financial investment in soccer through partnerships with TFC and the Canadian Soccer Association.
TFC helped make possible the creation of Nutrilite Canadian Championship and a place for Canada in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Nutrilite’s title sponsorship of Canada’s qualification tournament for the CONCACAF Champions League generated revenue for Canadian soccer that might not have otherwise been available without a MLS franchise in the country.
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The cultivation and successful management of these sponsorships and revenues by MLSE and the CSA has contributed to increasing the level of professionalism in soccer, while raising the bar for the other pro franchises across the country.
“The part that MLS has done is professionalize the sport” said Peter Montopoli, general secretary of the Canadian Soccer Association. "They’ve brought the business side into the sport and the investment into the sport which was what we needed, so investment into facilities, investment in terms of dollars generated from a sponsorship point of view, investment into the community.
“All that was I guess lacking because it was more on a recreational level basically, but now we have it at the highest levels and we’ve got more and more money in-flowing into the sport, which bodes well for everybody.”
A professional club that’s a viable commercial entity will create growth across many disciplines. Player development is one of those areas, but the benefits will take time to materialize.
From one perspective, TFC and MLS provide an opportunity for far-flung Canadian internationals to play at home. Getting them to come back to North America to play in MLS, however, is still a work in progress.
But what MLS has provided is an aspiration for young players, which MLSE executive vice president and chief operating officer Tom Anselmi feels is a key to player development.
“MLS is the best pro league in North America,,” said Anselmi, "so having that league in Canada really has created this aspirational touchstone for all of those kids in the development system and that’s what drives development at the end of the day – aspiration."
TFC launched their academy in 2008 and in two years have produced two first-team players in defender Doneil Henry and midfielder Nicholas Lindsay.
The TFC academy isn’t unique as it joins the long-established player development programs of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Montreal Impact and the CSA. Still, they all provide another mechanism to develop players for Canada’s pro teams and potentially the Canadian national team.
Joey Saputo, president of the Impact, who will enter MLS in 2012, goes further saying player development will forge greater media coverage that will further grow the sport.
“Once we start developing our young players then you’re going to have a sense of belonging," Saputo said. "We have a term in French called sense d’appartenance, the belonging to the club, and I think your fans are going to adapt to your club and they’re going to follow your club when they start realizing that there are young players you were able to develop.
“I think the development of our players is going to help the growth of our team and it’s going to help put the sport in kind of a mainstream fashion and I think at that particular point in time, that’s when the media will start to follow you.”
The growth of Major League Soccer in Canada had its roots before the decision was made to land a club outside the US.
The Canadian Soccer Association bid for and won the right to stage the successful FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2007. That was the impetus for the various levels of government to partner in the development of the 20,000-seat National Soccer Stadium (BMO Field), Canada’s first soccer-specific facility.
The momentum then brought MLSE to the forefront to purchase an expansion franchise. So, with a stadium and a soccer fan base hungry for its own team, MLS has capitalized on the perfect storm.
The success TFC have had since then spawned greater interest in Canadian expansion leading MLS to grant expansion franchises to Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012).
“MLS came along and Toronto FC came along and at that perfect moment, that’s why the stadium filled up instantly,” said Brunt. "It wasn’t about who was on the roster necessarily, it was about people wanting to be a part of the world game."
How will MLS expansion into Canada further advance soccer in Canada?
The effect three teams in Canada will have on soccer in the country remains to be seen, but based on the sport’s progress over the last five years, the prospects are tantalizing.