SBJ/April 9 - 15, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Toronto quickly buys into MLS team

When Major League Soccer awarded Toronto an expansion franchise in 2006, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s chief operating officer, Tom Anselmi, tapped Paul Beirne to run the new team’s business.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber congratulates Maurice
Edu after Toronto FC chose Edu as its top draft pick at
the MLS SuperDraft held in January in Indianapolis.

Anselmi knew the franchise’s success would depend on ticket sales and felt Beirne’s experience overseeing sales for the Toronto Raptors would give him an upper hand with the new MLS team, Toronto FC.

But even Anselmi was surprised by what followed. In five months, Beirne’s sales team sold out the stadium’s 14,000 season tickets and 30 club suites. Their success gave the sponsorship team leverage as it sought corporate partners and put the franchise on firm financial footing long before the start of the team’s first season.

“The question was, ‘Are people ready to embrace a local team?’” Anselmi said. “The answer appears to be a resounding, ‘Yes.’”

Beirne says the city of Toronto was primed for professional soccer. The city has an active youth soccer community and is so culturally diverse that only Miami ranks ahead of it in terms of foreign-born population, according to an international report by the United Nations Development Programme. Finally, Toronto FC will christen a new 20,000-seat stadium this season.

Beirne began to tap into the community before the 2006 World Cup kicked off last summer by creating a club membership program. By joining, people were guaranteed they would have the first opportunity to buy tickets for the Under-20 World Cup, which will be held in Canada this summer.

“By doing that, we shook the low-hanging fruit off the tree,” Beirne said. “We got the die-hard soccer fans to show themselves early.”

More than 1,500 people initially became members, becoming the foundation for the first 2,600 season tickets sold, Beirne said. The club grew following a series of six pub crawls in the fall that featured coach Mo Johnston and the team’s first and only player at the time, Jim Brennan.

A club membership was offered to build a solid
foundation for season-ticket sales.

Collectively, they formed the foundation for early ticket sales, allowing the team to sell out the stadium’s supporters area, which included seven sections, by December when season-ticket sales reached 5,800.

Then David Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in mid-January, and “all hell broke loose,” Beirne said. The team sold 2,600 more season tickets in three days and built enough momentum to reach the 14,000 season-ticket mark by March 15.

“No other city had the reaction we had,” Beirne said. “The consensus was that people bought because they’d been thinking of buying and feared that there wouldn’t be any good seats after Beckham signed.”

The numbers are all the more impressive considering the average paid attendance for MLS in 2005 was a mere 10,746 per match, according to a report by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The ticket sales boosted the sponsorship sales team’s efforts to sign up corporate partners.

The team had secured a naming-rights partner early by leaning on a pre-existing relationship with BMO Financial Group, which worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The financial services company and bank agreed to a reported $23.7 million, 10-year deal.

But as people purchased tickets, Toronto FC was able to add the Toronto Sun and Carlsberg as partners with multiyear, seven-figure deals. Then came: Cannon; Pizza, Pizza, an Ontario chain; Rogers, a telecommunications company; canoe.ca, a news Web site; Purolator, a shipping company; and Unico, a food company.

The team became the third in MLS to sign a jersey partner when BMO Financial agreed to a deal that sources put in the $1 million to $1.5 million range annually, over four to five years.

In less than six months, sponsorships doubled in value as ticket sales rose, said David Hopkinson, MLSE’s vice president of corporate sales.

“We joke about a pre-Beckham and post-Beckham price,” Hopkinson said. “The longer you waited to do a deal with us the more expensive it got.”

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