Neighbours throwing out welcome mat - The Province

Excitement building for MLS rivalry with Whitecaps

BY MARC WEBER

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber thrilled Vancouver's soccer community on Wednesday.

He also sparked cheers in Seattle and Toronto.

"I know it's very exciting for you guys, and it's exciting for us, too," Sounders FC senior vice-president Gary Wright said of MLS awarding Vancouver a franchise for 2011.

"We believe this part of the country really understands and embraces the sport and our hope is some day it will become Portland, Seattle and Vancouver."

That day could already be here. MLS has a press conference in Portland today.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment executive vice-president Tom Anselmi received the news that Vancouver is in with equal enthusiasm.

"We're thrilled," he said. "Obviously there's a natural rivalry between Toronto and Vancouver and to have a rival in the league is going to be great. It's great for the game in Canada to have more than one team."

Toronto and Seattle are not just Vancouver's most obvious rivals, they're also the best examples of how to start up a franchise.

Toronto, which joined MLS in 2006, sells out every game, has 16,000 season ticket-holders and 14,000 more on a wait list. Its fans are notoriously passionate, bringing a festival atmosphere to BMO Field.

Seattle, meanwhile, made its MLS debut Thursday in front of a sold-out crowd of 32,400 at Qwest Field. The Sounders have almost reached their cap of 22,000 season-ticket holders.

Whitecaps' brass have already met extensively with both franchises to glean from their success stories.

"How Toronto captured the multicultural groups is something we're very interested in," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "We'll meet with the Italian community, with the

Hispanic community -- nobody needs to abandon their teams, we just want them to feel they can have that experience here on a weekly basis and that's what Toronto have done very well.

"Seattle went about it in a very pragmatic way. What resonated with us is we needed to differentiate ourselves from where we've been and take it to another level."

Like Vancouver will experience, Seattle still had two years remaining in the United Soccer Leagues before their promotion. They branded the future MLS team "Sounders FC" and ran separate websites and marketing campaigns.

That explains why the Whitecaps simply went with "Vancouver 2011" at the press conference Wednesday.

Both Toronto and Seattle went big on viral marketing -- using existing social networks to increase awareness -- and Sounders FC's recent guerrilla tactics included tying up hundreds of team scarves around the city and hanging giant ones in busy locations.

TFC officials describe their success in the stands as an almost organic process engineered by supporters groups.

Whether Vancouverites can summon the same kind of fervour is certainly up for debate.

But the Whitecaps have been working more closely with the Southsiders fan club, even running a pub night for them with coach Teitur Thordarson, where nothing was off-limits.

mweber@theprovince.com

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