Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Victory for Vancouver?

Yesterday may well be remembered as a momentous day in Vancouver soccer history. The news that Miami was dropping out of the MLS expansion race [Duane Rollins, The 24th Minute] was huge, as many had seen their bid as almost a sure thing given the involvement of FC Barcelona. This also reduced the pool of remaining cities to four (Vancouver, Portland, Ottawa and St. Louis), giving Vancouver a 50 per cent chance mathematically. Shortly thereafter, the news got even better: Duane related that a highly-placed MLS source had confirmed Vancouver and Portland as the two teams to be added, while Ives Galarcep anointed Vancouver as the front-runner. That seems to be the consensus around the intertubes at the moment, with Vancouver Province soccer reporter Marc Weber telling me on Twitter that he’d bet his house on Vancouver earning an expansion slot (he also put up a post about it today), Ben Knight declaring the Whitecaps all-but-in today, Ben Van Weelden proclaiming the Whitecaps as the obvious choice and Jason from Match Fit USA giving it to Vancouver and Portland by process of elimination.

I’ve been writing about why I think this bid will work for a while here, as well as at Out of Left Field and most recently on The 24th Minute, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that. The key point at the moment is that Vancouver is the safest option on the table. The city has a long history of passionate support for high-level soccer and an incredible ownership group with tons of financial resources and experience running professional sports franchises. Furthermore, they’ve never made any suggestion of paying less than the desired $40 million franchise fee (while St. Louis has reportedly tried to negotiate it down to $9 million: Weber jokingly said "[Their] master plan is to raise money at Card's games. Every time Pujols homers, he donates another $100"). The Whitecaps have a solid stadium deal already locked up with B.C. Place, and it’s a design that’s worked very well for soccer in Germany’s Allianz Arena. There’s also a very good prospect of a beautiful waterfront soccer-specific stadium down the road, but the key point in Vancouver’s favour is there are no immediate stadium concerns. By contrast, Ottawa hasn’t even decided what they’re going to build yet, the St. Louis group is heavily leveraged and may run into financing issues and Portland still needs some support from local politicians. I don’t see any way that a Vancouver franchise can fail, and that’s got to be something that’s in the mind of the MLS executives making the decision.

Moreover, Vancouver’s bid has a lot of upside. For one, there’s the rivalries. You instantly have some very exciting fixtures between Vancouver and Seattle and Vancouver and Toronto, as well as Vancouver-Portland if the Timbers make it in as well. These are extremely marketable to sponsors (see the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and the five or six different sponsors they found for it on short notice last year; imagine how much bigger that becomes with both Vancouver and Toronto in MLS), and also are attractive to TV stations looking for enticing matchups to sell.

Furthermore, bringing Vancouver in could be huge for negotiating national television deals in Canada. The one failure of Toronto FC so far has been on the national television front; they’ve gotten their games on TV across the country, but they’ve tended to attract incredibly small audiences so far, and that doesn’t provide a lot of leverage in future negotiations. It’s a long and difficult process to sell a national audience on a Toronto team; ask the Raptors about that! With Vancouver and Toronto teams, though, you’ll certainly have fans from all over B.C. interested in MLS, and you may even get fans from other provinces drawn to the league and picking sides in the old Vancouver-Toronto rivalry. That’s a huge advantage over the Ottawa bid, which might draw viewers from that city’s region and perhaps a few from Quebec, but not too many nationally. Remember that one of the most successful TFC matches so far in terms of ratings was the Canada Day clash [myself, Out of Left Field] against the Whitecaps last summer; that suggests to me that there’s a lot of potential for increased national audiences with Vancouver in the league, particularly for their games against Toronto.

If there aren’t any further twists (something that’s tough to rule out in MLS), this is tremendous news for soccer fans in Vancouver. There certainly are plenty of them: the old NASL Whitecaps had a ton of support, and the USL 86ers and Whitecaps have received a lot of fan backing over the last few decades. Moreover, the soccer community is huge in the Lower Mainland; I played on various clubs in the area for about 12 years and know firsthand how much support there is for the sport. Something that will be interesting to watch is how Vancouver’s ticket sales compare to those in Seattle and Toronto; there are big rivalries between soccer supporters in Vancouver and those in both other cities, and both have been hailed as model expansion franchises. Seattle one-upped Toronto in sales before they’ve even played a game (thanks at least in part to a larger stadium); I have a feeling that Vancouver fans may try and take it even further. The stadium designs at the moment imagine a much lower capacity for soccer than football, but I could see that changing if there’s demand for tickets on a level similar to Seattle. This could be the start of something huge.

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