Monday, July 28, 2008

White is the colour, MLS the game

Photo: Whitecaps players pose with team officials and local politicians at the press conference Friday to announce the team's official bid for a MLS franchise (Andrew Bucholtz photo).

Friday's announcement that the Vancouver Whitecaps would officially launch a bid for an MLS expansion franchise, with Phoenix Suns' star Steve Nash as a co-owner, went down pretty much as anticipated. A massive amount of media (probably around 30-35 different media reps), along with dignitaries and team staff gathered in a luxurious room at the Pan-Pacific Hotel in downtown Vancouver to hear mostly what we'd already figured out. However, there were plenty of details revealed, many of which came out during an extended media Q and A with Nash (via phone, as he was in New York after attending Thursday night's MLS All-Star Game in Toronto). After the jump, you'll find some of the most interesting comments from the press conference together with my analysis, and then some overall thoughts on what this means for soccer in Canada.

Speaker: Bob Lenarduzzi, Whitecaps president.

- On why this is happening now: "I believe we're in the winds of change."
- On the team's MLS ambitions: "What we'd like to do as a club is prove that we are one of the best sides in North America."
- On the necessary fan support, suggesting that an MLS team would draw well in Vancouver: "It's evident we have a stranglehold on this market. ... We have support here from pretty much a cross-section of the community."
- On corporate support from the business leaders who had initially backed their bid for a new stadium: "We now know that they're still behind us" (included in the press package were numerous recent letters of support for a new stadium and an MLS bid from prominent Vancouver business associations)
- On the competition they'll face to get into MLS: "We know we're up against some pretty significant markets vying for those two spots. ... It's evident that we feel from an organizational perspective we meet all the requirements to be one of the two MLS franchises (accepted into the league for the 2011 season)."
- On the success of the recent Nutrilite Canadian Championship, and the Whitecaps' efforts to create that competition: "We had been championing that for three years now. ... I think as a result of the attention and the interest that was stimulated by that, obviously it was a success."
- On the rivalry between Vancouver and Toronto that developed during the championships: "If we're playing them on a regular basis, there will be even more of a rivalry."

Analysis: Lenarduzzi made a strong case for the Whitecaps' viability as a MLS franchise on several fronts, including the fan support, the support among business and political leaders, the natural rivalries with Toronto and Seattle (as well as Montreal, if they make it in as well) and the eventual waterfront soccer-specific stadium (if it goes ahead as planned). He presented a convincing argument for the bid.

Speaker: Wally Oppal, Member of Legislative Assembly (Vancouver-Fraserview), Provincial Attorney-General and Minister for Multiculturalism [for all you Easterners, a BC MLA is equivalent to an Ontario MPP].

- On the impact of the team here: "This is a great day for our province."
- On an MLS franchise's viability in Vancouver: "I have no doubt that with the history of soccer [here] that this franchise will thrive in our province."
- On the benefits a Vancouver MLS franchise would provide: "I think [an MLS franchise] would be a benefit, not only to this city and this province, but to the league."
- On the importance of professional sports: "We know how valuable professional sports franchises are to a city." [he backed this up with economic data about the impact the NHL lockout had on local restaurants, bars and other businesses].
- On Vancouver's suitability as a sports city: "When the Vancouver Grizzlies left here, they left a void, and now they're in Memphis playing for friends and relatives. Those close to the NBA will tell you that was a mistake."
- On the likelihood of the bid's acceptance: "I think it's a no-brainer for the league to award this franchise."

Analysis: Oppal also made a strong case for Vancouver as an MLS city, and more importantly, a pro sports city. It was refreshing to hear a prominent local politician arguing in favour of professional sports, given the struggles the Whitecaps have had with their waterfront stadium plan and the malaise towards pro sports that has developed among many politicians just down the road in Seattle, which ultimately resulted in the departure of the Sonics. Oppal's point about the Grizzlies was also well-taken: yes, they didn't do as well as they had hoped in Vancouver, which eventually led to Michael Heisley shipping the team off to Memphis, but they weren't really given the time to build a fan base and corporate connections, and they were legitimately horrible for the entire time they were here, which makes drawing crowds and sponsors tougher. Even with all that, as Oppal pointed out, they wound up worse off for leaving. I don't see similar problems arising with the Whitecaps as an MLS expansion franchise, as they have 35 years of history on their side with substantial high points in there (including the 1979 Soccer Bowl championship, the four consecutive Canadian Soccer League titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the 2006 USL First Division championship), an already-strong core fan base and an expanded fan base that's shown it will be there for the high-profile games, plenty of goodwill from the business community and a good deal of political support to boot. If an MLS expansion team comes to Vancouver, I'm predicting at least 20,000 people a game in B.C. Place, which compares very favourably with other MLS cities.

Speaker: Sam Sullivan, Mayor of Vancouver

Quote: "With [current owner] Greg Kerfoot, Steve Nash and Bob Lenarduzzi leading this charge, we're going to get this done."

Analysis: Sullivan only spoke briefly, but continued in the vein of tremendous optimism that was present at the conference. He pointed out that the city is contributing $150,000 to the B.C. Place renovations and still wants to eventually build the waterfront stadium. In fact, this official bid for MLS might be just what's needed to kickstart the political process on that front: it's tough to get into a league without a stadium, but the new B.C. Place will be great for a few years, and the promise of a top-flight team may motivate the city council more than just the abstract notion of one at some point.

Speaker: Steve Nash, two-time NBA MVP and new co-owner of the Whitecaps' prospective MLS franchise

- On the purpose of the conference: "I'm excited today to announce my support for the Whitecaps as an MLS franchise and my stake as an owner."
- On his ties to the team while growing up on Vancouver Island: "I've been a huge Whitecaps fan since I was a kid."
- On the chances of landing a franchise: "We believe we're going to have a franchise in the near future."
- On his percentage of the club: "While I will be far from a majority owner, I will have a significant stake in the club."
- On the quality of MLS: "What's exciting about the MLS is that it's continuing to grow, continuing to get better, continuing to develop."
- On the benefits of a MLS team to the city: "Great things come from having a pro sports franchise."
- On a potential waterfront stadium with a view of the mountains: "I think it would be one of the greatest soccer stadiums in the world."
- On playing at B.C. Place: "B.C. Place is great, it could be home forever... but how much more incredible to have a waterfront stadium."
- When asked if he might use his friendships [ESPN] with Thierry Henry and other soccer stars to lure them to a Whitecaps MLS franchise: "Now I start to see why I've been brought into this!" [laughter from media]. "It's not out of the question."
- On the flag/anthem incident at the all-star game and if it will hurt MLS officials' perception of Canada: "I think the MLS understands some fans act a little stupid, but still 25,000 fans singing their heart out, I'd like to see that in any other stadium."
- On the women's professional soccer league he's an investor in [The Associated Press via The Globe and Mail] and if the women's Whitecaps might wind up there: "It's a neat fit. For the league, Vancouver would be an ideal fit."
- On his goals for the franchise: "I just want to see [the stadium] full every night and see great soccer on the field."
- On when he started talking with Kerfoot about becoming a co-owner:
"It's been going on for over a year now."
- On how he and [new Whitecaps co-owner, part owner of the San Francisco Giants, and co-investor in the Women's Professional Soccer League] Jeff Mallett teamed up on this bid: "We both thought, hey, Vancouver is our community, and we've been supporters since the NASL days."
- On Kerfoot's reaction when he heard they were interested:
"Greg really responded and has been great to have aboard. Greg Kerfoot is just one incredible champion for soccer in B.C."
- On if he'd still be involved if the team didn't make it to MLS:
He said he hadn't thought about that, but then added "My ownership goes in once the bid is accepted."
- On what it would be like to own a team his brother Martin plays for: "He's probably going to steal from me in his next contract negotiations."

What I found most interesting about Nash's comments was how confident he seemed of getting an MLS franchise. In fact, he seemed somewhat surprised when he was asked if he'd still get involved if they didn't attain MLS status, and mostly dismissed the possibility. On the surface, that perhaps seems overconfident, as there are at least seven other cities [Ottawa Sun] vying for one of the two spots MLS has announced to be available in 2011. Fox Soccer Channel analyst Bobby McMahon has an excellent breakdown of the candidates on his website, and he thinks it will probably be difficult for both Montreal and Vancouver to get in due to the shortage of Canadian players available at the right price.

Edit: Duane clarified this in the comments. MLS tried to change the rules this year to allow everyone to use both American and Canadian players as "non-imports," but that fell through. TFC gets around the Canadian content rules via some complicated roster shenanigans by "Trader Mo" Johnson. If we got more Canadian teams, the movement to treat both Canadians and Americans as non-imports would gain momentum, though. It would mean we wouldn't see too many Canadians on each team at first, but I don't think this would eventually be a problem for Vancouver with their comprehensive residency and development squads that should eventually produce a strong crop of Canadian talent.

My thinking is that it makes more sense to add two more Canadian teams than one, and both cities are noted soccer hotbeds. Still, there are several strong contenders among the American cities mentioned, particularly St. Louis and Portland. In my mind, it would make sense to add four teams in 2011 instead of two: the two Canadian sides and St. Louis and Portland. Portland has the history of USL rivalry with Vancouver and Seattle, while St. Louis has always been a strong soccer hub and would balance the expansion geographically. All are markets with a high likelihood of initial success, and it doesn't make too much sense in my view to leave any of those cities out in the cold for at least three more years: some of the passion and excitement for MLS might die down by then. I'd rather see MLS commissioner Don Garber strike while the iron is still glowing.

In any case, MLS has issued statements supporting the idea of Canadian expansion [Doug McIntyre, ESPN Soccernet], but those statements have always been strictly regulated in scope (not very wide) and strength (not very powerful). On the other hand, Garber has seemed very excited both about Canadian expansion and about getting Nash on board, so perhaps there's real backroom support buttressing Nash's confidence.

Another part of Nash's comments that probably won't get too much attention but absolutely deserves to was his response to a question about bringing the women's Whitecaps squad into the new women's professional league he's funding (which Neate has written about here). Nash has said he thought they would be a "perfect fit", and I heartily agree. The women's squad has actually been even more impressive than the men's in recent times: they won W-League Championships in 2004 and 2006, and feature most of the members of the Canadian national team. They've also done a huge amount to advance soccer in Canada, with the national team residency program, the prospects and development squads (where new Queen's recruit Brienna Shaw hails from), and the regular high profile they bring to women's soccer. This season, they advanced to the Western Conference final despite having to use a record 39 different players (as many regulars were called away to play for either the senior national women's team or the younger national squads), but lost a heartbreaker to Seattle [Alan Douglas,].They often get less coverage then the men and have to deal with huge numbers of players called to national team duty, but they never complain. Thus, it was pretty important that women's head coach Bob Birada and several of his players were present at the conference as well, as this was their moment too. Most of the stories will focus solely on Vancouver's MLS bid, but the men's team may not be the only one getting a new league.

Overall analysis: It was a very interesting conference, and it certainly looks like Vancouver's got a good shot at an MLS squad. They had massive support from political and business leaders as well, many of whom attended in person and others who sent letters or video clips of support (B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell being one of the latter crowd), which will also be crucial to success. Average fans are important, but in order to get franchises, build stadiums and make a profit running a pro sports franchise in this day and age, it's essential to have strong backing in the political and financial communities. The Whitecaps appear to have that in spades, which speaks well for the chances of their franchise bid. That's something that Canadian soccer fans should be excited about. Everyone saw how great the Nutrilite Canadian Championships were this year: now imagine if we got to see regular battles between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and if Canada became a huge player in MLS. Three MLS squads would also greatly improve player development in Canada, which might lead to further success on the international stage. We'll have to see what happens, but things are looking pretty good for the chances of Canadian expansion in my mind.

- Ben Knight has some great analysis over at the Globe's soccer blog [On Soccer].
- The Whitecaps may not be the only ones trying to land a Vancouver MLS franchise: there's speculation that Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is interested in launching a competing bid [Jim Jamieson, The Province].
- Matthew Sekeres of the Globe and Mail has an interesting story on the Nash conference and the Aquilini connection, and includes the information that Nash and Kerfoot would supposedly run an MLS franchise as a not-for-profit organization to benefit amateur soccer in British Columbia. That would certainly be a different spin on a pro franchise, and might make Vancouver's bid even more attractive.
- Bob Mackin of 24 Hours Vancouver has a great profile of co-owner Jeff Mallett, who no one else seems to have focused on too much.


sager said...

Great stuff ...

We need a "Steve Nash Could Rule The World" tag.

He has a $63 million contract, but what he really wants is to head up a non-profit organization. How Generation X of him!

Duane Rollins said...

Andrew -

Americans are still considered international layers for TFC. Although it's complicated by the ability to trade for international sports, the rules all TFC to carry six international spots + two American spots on its 18-man senior roster.

Through various trades TFC currently has the ability to carry 16 non-Canadians (which is a whole other subject that I may get around to tackling one day).

Although it has not been verified officially, I have it on good authority (warning - I'm about to reference an unnamed source, but I went to J-school so it should be OK) that MLS tried to have the domestic rule changed to allow Canadians and Americans to be counted as domestics league wide (so a Canadian player could play anywhere in MLS and an American player could come north without taking an international slot). However the USSF shot it down.

So, it's complicated.

As for Vancouver to MLS...if the stadium gets built it's a slam dunk. If not, it's going to Montreal and Vancouver will be forced to play Portland until they can convince MLS to relocate a team north (Think Wizards).

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Ah, thanks for the clarification, Duane. I tried googling the MLS import rules, but couldn't get anything I could make sense of. I also heard about MLS trying to make it so Americans and Canadians would count as domestics league-wide (think it was in one of the Toronto papers), so it certainly wasn't just a rumour: I thought it had taken effect, though, which is where I was coming from. Guess I was fooled by all Trader Mo's wheeling and dealing, as TFC certainly doesn't have that much Canadian content in the first team at the moment...