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Volume 22 No. 39
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Toronto FC president sees upticks

As longtime president of Real Salt Lake, Bill Manning viewed Toronto FC from afar, believing the team had endless potential but a few key issues holding it back.

Now, after being appointed as Toronto’s president a year ago, Manning believes the team is delivering on that potential and is staking its claim as one of MLS’s premier franchises.

“With the ownership of [Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment], with the resources, the strong fan base that really started supporter culture, I always thought the sky was the limit here,” Manning said. “But because of on-the-field issues and lots of turnover, interest and attendance started to wane. We’ve really put a focus on the team itself and winning.”

Manning said the club has seen its overall business grow 21 percent year over year. Paid attendance is up nearly 2,000 a game, or about 8 percent total growth. The season-ticket base sits at more than 18,000, and Manning expects that to grow to more than 20,000 next season. The club has seen growth across all revenue lines, including a 22 percent increase in global partnerships, with the expectation the club will rank second among MLS clubs in that category this season.

Part of the uptick has come from the reopening of BMO Field this season, which underwent a $150 million renovation that expanded the capacity by 8,400 seats to a total of more than 30,000, as well as an additional premium club area.

Manning credited the foresight of former MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke for the project and overall investments in the club, and said that further work to unify the efforts between the company and the club has amplified Toronto FC’s business.

“We needed to have better cohesion between the folks at (MLSE headquarters at) 50 Bay Street and the folks at Kia Training Ground, and now we have a really strong interface between the team and sports side,” he said. “Being able to integrate the MLSE machine that heavily into TFC gives us a leg up over any other MLS team.”

To accomplish that, MLSE moved Chris Shewfelt to serve as the club’s senior director of business operations, working directly with Manning to interface and act as liaison for all of the MLSE support services.

“Toronto FC is a huge priority for MLSE, and a huge investment was made to get it right for our team and its fans,” said Dave Hopkinson, MLSE chief commercial officer. “MLSE’s ambition over the past three years was to build a club capable of contending year in and year out for a MLS championship, and the move to bring in [Bill] was an important part of that, as well as the investments made in the renovation of BMO Field and the on-field product.”

Manning said that when he arrived in Toronto he worked hard to learn the structure of MLSE and how the club could best benefit from it, finding that the organization was operated not much differently than when he worked in Salt Lake under the ownership of Dave Checketts, who owned the team until 2013. Manning, 50, had previous stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Rockets.

The team also has seen improvement on the field thanks to those investments, something Manning said was critical to the success he saw in Salt Lake. Toronto made the playoffs last season for the first time in its history and will play its first home playoff match this year.

“It’s like selling pizza — if you have really good pizza, people will come back. If not, they won’t,” he said.

Manning also has worked to improve the experience within the three high-end club areas at the stadium, with a focus on improving customer service. Feedback the team received from those who didn’t renew in those sections indicated it was more because of customer service and not price. With that, Toronto shifted three employees to serve as hosts, or “captains,” of each club, and has put renewals to accounts within each area under their watch.

Toronto’s season-ticket renewal percentage last year was in the mid-70s; Manning said the goal now is to be 90 percent or better across the board. Toronto went out with renewals late last month, and Manning said initial response has been strong.

Toronto has averaged 26,668 fans this season, not including its final game played this weekend. Manning said his goal is to reach 22,000 to 25,000 season-ticket holders in the next three years, which should result in sellouts every game.

“I was recently talking with our head coach Greg Vanney, who just celebrated his two-year anniversary with the team, and we joked that he was the first coach ever in team history to reach that milestone so maybe the bar was a little low,” Manning said. “But I remember when I was considering this job, my dad said jokingly that Toronto could only go up, and I think that we are.”