SBD/May 21, 2014/Franchises

Toronto FC Sees Spike In Ticket Sales, Ratings After Blockbuster Offseason Signings

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Fans returned to the club in droves after the signings of Bradley (r) and Defoe (l)
Since signing star players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley in January, Toronto FC has seen such considerable upticks in business metrics that it is on track to be MLS’ top grossing club by next season, says MLSE Chief Commercial Officer Dave Hopkinson. The club has yet to make the playoffs eight seasons into its existence and, after a string of lackluster campaigns, had nowhere to go but up. Still, fans returned in droves when MLSE President & CEO Tim Leiweke recruited the players after stints in Europe. Before the signings, only 62% of the team’s season-ticket holders indicated that they intended to renew for ’14 -- a figure Hopkinson called “cataclysmic” and described as the lowest he had seen in his 22-year career as a sports exec. After the signings, however, the club grew the renewal rate to 95%, which was a franchise high and led the league this offseason. The club also sold more than 3,500 new seats, leading MLS in new sales. Season-ticket sales at BMO Field were capped at 17,000 and the waiting list for season tickets is currently at 1,800 -- the first time the club had a waiting list of any kind in four years. With an average of 22,591, the club has increased attendance this season by 18%, the second-best figure in MLS. Hopkinson said every home game this season will be sold out. These figures help comprise a laundry list of positive trends that seemed unlikely before the signings. Hopkinson said MLSE execs at the end of last season were considering whether they were “teetering on the brink of this franchise failing.” While Leiweke in March admitted the club is currently not profitable and will lose money again this year after the $100M outlay on players this offseason, Hopkinson said for now, the signings “just put this enthusiasm back into the club.”

UP ACROSS THE BOARD: TFC has seen TV ratings on TSN jump by eight to ten times as much as last year, and its home opener this season was the most-watched MLS game ever in Canada. Elsewhere, sponsorship sales are up 35% year-over-year, with new partners including Unilever (Dove Men+Care, Vaseline, Axe brands), Canadian Tire (also includes Sport Chek, Marks), MasterCard and Cisco. Hopkinson said the new deals have generated "millions of dollars" in new sales since the last campaign. In many merchandise categories, sales are up by percentages that are well into triple figures. For example, sales of crested TFC jerseys -- as opposed to those without player names -- are up 948% from last season, with Defoe jerseys making up the majority. The club also is selling a lot of jerseys for G Julio Caesar, which is atypical in MLS for a goalkeeper. Merch sales at BMO Field are up 175% and merch sales overall are up 125%. Hopkinson said TFC is on pace for its best season yet in the merch category. TFC also is seeing concession sales jump at BMO Field, where beer sales are up 40%. On the digital front, the club since ’13 has tripled its number of followers on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. TFC also posted a record high in visits to its website last month. Hopkinson: “Everything is taking a material step forward, which had to happen for us to make this investment in the roster that made sense. ... We had to do something pretty dramatic.”

DEEPENING TIES WITH TOTTENHAM: Another positive development for the club this season has been one that came from an unorthodox arrangement. In its deal with Defoe, the club signed off on a number of atypical agreements with EPL club Tottenham that were designed to foster the London-based club’s presence in Canada, and vice versa. Tottenham will play TFC at BMO Field in a July friendly, and a group of TFC sponsors journeyed to London two weeks ago. Hopkinson said many TFC sponsors describe the potential for dual sponsorships with both clubs as an “intriguing possibility," but declined to name which sponsors were currently eyeing a deal with Tottenham. For its part, Tottenham is going to return the favor and bring some of its top sponsors to BMO Field for the friendly. As part of the Defoe deal, TFC also agreed to carry Tottenham merch at the stadium and also displays the copy, “Tottenham Hotspur FC: Proud Partner of Toronto FC” on BMO Field videoboards. Hopkinson said that same message also will be displayed at Raptors and Maple Leafs games. Most of the aspects of the relationship were contractually obligated in the Defoe deal, but as the two sides have grown as partners, more synergies are being developed independent of the agreement. Hopkinson said that he could not think of another example where a partnership between two clubs was so specifically tied to a player transfer.
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