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TFC has been a model of profit
April 3, 2009, 7:25 AM
Filed under: BMO Field, Toronto FC

Among the crystal figurines and other soccer-related objects d’art in the founders lounge at BMO Field, a seat cushion designed as a beer cap holds pride of place.

“We don’t want to forget that day,” Paul Beirne, Toronto FC’s senior director of business operations, said with a laugh.

It’s a reminder of their first home win on May 12, 2007, crowned by Danny Dichio’s historic goal, when 20,000 delirious fans began flinging their souvenir stool pads frisbee-style, cluttering the pitch.

“It could’ve been an unfortunate incident,” said Beirne, who had fears the game against Chicago would be halted or that Major League Soccer would be on the horn any second.

“But they were nice and foamy and it was such a spontaneous burst of emotion. That became a benchmark for us in terms of what we wanted to be, going forward.

‘WE’VE BEEN LUCKY’

“I don’t think you could ever write the plan that we’ve executed. We’ve been lucky, we’ve made good decisions and when we made mistakes, they were good mistakes; when we screwed up, it still turned around in our favour. That day just added to our story.”

TFC has indeed led a charmed life heading into the home opener of its third season tomorrow (4 p.m.) against the Seattle Sounders. Positioned among the top three in MLS attendance and general revenues, and second in jersey sales only to the Los Angeles Galaxy and absentee star David Beckham, TFC is the fledgling league’s most dynamic franchise.

Some teams have trouble drawing 14,000 to a game where TFC has that many on its season-ticket waiting list, parked behind 16,000 subscribers in a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium — proving again that if it can’t produce winning teams, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. can certainly print money.

But the true measure of TFC’s success has been criss-crossing the great divide of the GTA’s splintered soccer community and coming up with something all factions could support.

“That was certainly a big point of discussion when we started our research,” Beirne said of TFC’s first steps. “It’s where we came up with our ‘All For One’ tag line. We told everyone who would listen that this is not about replacing your love for Arsenal or Liverpool or Madrid or Milan, it’s about the best available soccer in your town. You can enjoy it, your Liverpool friend can enjoy it and he can sit next to your Everton friend and enjoy it, too.”

That was roughly the same approach of the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League during the 1980s and teams such as the Metros-Croatia and Lynx went down that road before and after the Blizzard. None, however, could pull it off.

“The Blizzard’s biggest games were usually the international friendlies,” Tele- latino Network soccer commentator Alf DeBlasis said. “But there was nothing else to whet the fans’ appetite in between. After the Blizzard, soccer teams would come and go and I think the media became jaded about the chances of a pro team.”

Yet when MLSEL did a post-mortem of the defunct teams, the common thread was that ground-level fan support had not been the big obstacle. The Blizzard had been so attractive at one point that it outgrew 19,000-seat Varsity Stadium and moved to the Ex. But the fake turf and the baseball/football surroundings were a turnoff, especially to an old-world soccer audience.

“It did give us a lot of hope that if done right, we could harness that energy this time,” Beirne said. And time was on TFC’s side when it went hunting for a franchise in 2005.

“Canada is 20 or 25 years more mature now, so the cosmopolitan nature of the city has only become stronger for football,” Beirne said. “Greece had just won (Euro 2004) and Italy was about to win the World Cup. That’s when it became apparent that soccer was still alive and well in Toronto. Each successive club victory in Europe or South America — or any club victory, for that matter — caused some sort of celebration in town. In the World Cup, if the Portuguese were out, they jumped on the back of Brazil and that kind of switching of allegiances happened as the tournament went along.

“The main thing we saw was that they were being vocal about soccer. I think Toronto has grown into the sport, and the people who ended up buying our tickets were the children of those who paid to watch the NASL. We also could offer a nice new stadium in a traditional part of the west end and benefited from hosting the world under-20 tournament, too.”

EXPECTED BATTLE

TFC initially expected something of a battle to sell tickets, figuring much of the target demographic would be the sprawling minor soccer community. But that was before the Red Patch Boys, U-Sector, Tribal Rhythm Nation and Northend Elite emptied that disposable income from their 18-45 age bracket right into TFC’s coffers. In no time, the 2007 expansion season and just about everything since has been sold out.

Fan clubs that had supported the Lynx or other small clubs reformed, new ones sprang up, team songs were composed and instantly turned BMO into a loud and proud house of pain for opponents. Compared with the reserved crowds for the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, TFC fans reminded the city how much fun a game could be.

“I’d look around the stadium,” said Scarborough-born Dwayne De Rosario of his trips here with the Houston Dynamo, “and say to myself ‘Is this Toronto?’ I almost got into the crowd too much when I played.”

“The atmosphere was the biggest surprise for us,” Beirne said. “We just crossed our fingers and hoped that we could work with the support groups without trying to manufacture something. We were really sensitive about not pushing it, but cultivating it.”

Beirne, who had been with Mirvish Productions, also worked for MLSEL keeping thousands of Leafs and Raptors subscribers happy.

“We gave red scarves to our TFC season seat-holders and attached their first ticket to the scarf. That became our trademark and assured we had a sea of red for every game. And I think every single one of the sweaters we’ve sold shows up at our games, too.”

DeBlasis thinks TFC is now “everyone’s second-favourite soccer team” after their own national or club loyalties.

“I can’t speak for all the ethnic media, but from the view of the Italians there’s a sense of professionalism now that wasn’t there in past teams,” DeBlasis said. “They did it right, they laid down the management structure, hired credible people such as (manager) Mo Johnston, marketed under a single team name with the city prominent in it and made ticketing affordable.

“The feeling is they have to show some results now, but this year, they’ve hung their hat on bringing home a local golden boy in De Rosario, who could work out to be here 10 more years.”

TFC has tried to whittle down the long wait list for subscribers by offering some mini-packages of games. But if it wants to clear a few thousand off the books and is serious about getting more group sales to minor soccer teams, then BMO will have to be enlarged. That’s a thorny issue, with most fans and players liking the cozy confines as is. MLSEL thinks it can put 8,000 seats in, mostly in the south end, without upsetting too many people.

“I don’t know if inevitable is the word for expansion, but it seems a likely next step,” Beirne said. “There is far more demand than supply. Unlike the ACC, where you can’t take the roof off, there’s an easy growth plan here.”

MLSEL originally paid a $10 million expansion fee in 2005, compared with $30 million for the Sounders and a reported $40 million that the Montreal Impact was going to be charged before backing out.

“We got the early-bird special,” MLSEL executive vice-president Tom Anselmi said jokingly.

Now all they have to do is make it work on the pitch.

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