SBJ/July 11-17, 2011/Franchises

Montreal soccer owner set for move to MLS

Saputo
It is impossible to talk about professional soccer in Quebec without mentioning Canadian businessman Joey Saputo. In 1992, Saputo founded the Montreal Impact, which will make its debut as Major League Soccer’s 19th team in 2012. He is also the majority owner of his family’s multibillion-dollar dairy and foods company, Saputo Inc. The company owns the naming rights to the Impact’s Saputo Stadium and paid $7.5 million toward the $17 million stadium’s construction, which was finished in 2008. Saputo has spent the last year readying his club for the step into the big leagues. On June 14, Saputo announced that Canadian bank BMO had come on board as a jersey sponsor for five years. Staff writer Fred Dreier spoke with Saputo about the jersey deal and the team’s business potential in Montreal.

You recently signed the Bank of Montreal as your jersey sponsor. BMO already has a prominent role with the Vancouver Whitecaps and is the jersey sponsor (and stadium sponsor) for Toronto FC. Are you worried that the partnership will create confusion in the market?

Saputo: That was one of the questions [BMO] had when they were looking at us. But [BMO] positions themselves as the official soccer bank in Canada, so it would be very difficult for them to not have a presence with Montreal. Obviously the stadium [sponsorship] was not available in our case but the jersey was, so they decided to go with that. More importantly, their role with the Impact is to help develop the game in Quebec. What I like about the activation process is that it puts the Impact brand out there along with BMO. I honestly don’t think there will be confusion. And I think BMO is now the largest sponsor and promoter of MLS.

Major League Soccer clubs tend to build their fan bases off either families with youth soccer players or young adult soccer fans in the 18-34 age group. Which group would you say makes up the majority of the Impact’s fan base?
Saputo:
The success of the Impact has been primarily because of youth and families. It’s the Caravan crowd who comes to the game in their minivans. Mom and dad and the kids are all involved in soccer. We also understand the success of MLS franchises like Toronto and Philly or Seattle who attract the 18-35 crowd. It’s important not just from helping them understand the game but also you’re selling more beer and food and creating more of that fan experience. We don’t want to alienate the fans who have supported us since day one, but at the same time we want to get more of the 18-35 crowd.

How do you hope to attract the young adult crowd while not alienating the families?
Saputo:
We have a partner to create a family zone at the stadium where families will be far from the die-hard fans who love to party. We realize that if you’re going to be successful you have to go after the 18-35, so we need to set up the stadium to be hospitable for them, and we also need to set up the stadium to be hospitable for the corporate world. We have been building luxury suites and corporate suites. But to actually bring in the corporations we have a challenging task at hand.

Now that you have taken the step up to MLS, how will you position the Impact in the Montreal sports market?
Saputo:
In Montreal, we are lucky that there aren’t a whole lot of other teams beside the [CFL] Alouettes and the [NHL] Canadiens, and we are lucky to have a big history in this city already. The most important thing for us is to put a team on the field that Montrealers can relate to, in the sense that they are hard working and competitive. I’m not going to promise that we win a championship in our first year. Another thing is that Montrealers love big events, like Formula One or tennis or the jazz festivals, so we are going to do our part to make the games feel like big events.

Talk about the alignment between the Saputo and Impact brands. How will you promote Saputo products with the team?
Saputo:
When we launched the Impact, Saputo was the owner. Then Saputo became a publicly traded company, and it became more of a sponsor than an owner. Now it is a partnership, and I am the majority owner and my brother is a partner. One of the things we try to do is not to confuse the two brands. Saputo is a multibillion-dollar corporation. The Impact is a soccer club, and it stands on its own. If Saputo wants visibility, it will be involved as a partner with the club. We have not defined as of yet what level that will be. [Saputo] was very gracious to allow BMO to buy in as the jersey sponsor, but it will continue to be present with the team. One of the things we see for Saputo is to get move involved with MLS to promote the products and brand through Toronto and Vancouver eventually.
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