Former Tottenham executive Paul Barber says there's plenty of room for soccer to grow in a hockey-mad city such as Vancouver
By Bruce Constantineau
Paul Barber already senses there's room in Vancouver sports fans' hearts for top-flight North American soccer.
The former Tottenham Hotspur executive director and new Vancouver Whitecaps chief executive has arrived with a mission to ensure the Major League Soccer-bound 'Caps move up a notch in the city's sports team hierarchy -sharing the spotlight with the Vancouver Canucks and B.C. Lions.
"I certainly know and appreciate how big hockey is here - you can't miss it," the 42-year-old north London native said Wednesday after he was introduced to the Vancouver media. "But I also think there's big room here for soccer and there's a lot of room in a lot of the Canucks fans' hearts for soccer as well."
Barber -who stunned the soccer world last year by agreeing to leave the English Premiership squad for the Whitecaps job -has an incredible workload during the next year to get his new team ready for MLS.
Corporate sponsorship deals have to be negotiated, a new training facility has to be built, new players have to be signed and a new look and brand for the team has to be developed.
And oh yes, his wife and three young children will relocate from England and join him in Vancouver this summer.
It would have been easier to stay in the U.K., but Barber said the Whitecaps ownership group offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow the game in a burgeoning market.
"You only get one or two opportunities in your life to do something very, very special and I feel and my family feels that this is special," Barber said. "It's a special football club with a great history headed by a group of people we got on with from the moment we met them.
"When we came to the city, there was an immediate feeling that this is one great place to live and to work."
Whitecaps part-owners Jeff Mallett and Steve Nash met Barber about four years ago when they tried to buy an ownership stake in Tottenham and while that transaction didn't work out, they struck up a friendship with Barber that led to his move to Vancouver.
Barber was Spurs' executive director for five years and had a three-year stint as marketing director for the Football Association before that. In between those two jobs, he headed European operations for advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather.
The lifelong Spurs fan was born just a mile from White Hart Lane, the team's home ground, and some might think Barber will only stay in Vancouver for a couple of years to pad his resume before returning to the U.K. for bigger and better things. But he insists he has no time constraints on his Whitecaps career.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to be here for as long as [Whitecaps owners] want me to run the club -I have no time limit," Barber said. "I'm not saying I'm going to be here for one year or two years or five years or whatever. I'll be here for as long as it takes to do the best possible job."
He said MLS has a growing profile in the soccer world and players and executives now routinely shift between MLS and European soccer. Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan has enjoyed a successful stint with Premiership club Everton recently while former MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis is currently chief executive of London Premiership club Arsenal.
"I know of several soccer executives in the U.K. that are very, very keen to try their hand in North America and be a part of the growth of the sport here," Barber said.
He will stay on Tottenham's board as a non-executive director and help the English club on issues like the development of a new $600-million stadium but it will be mainly a telephone and e-mail relationship, with his focus in Vancouver and the Whitecaps.
In late 2008, Barber helped Tottenham negotiate a non-financial relationship with MLS club San Jose Earthquakes that involves the exchange of players, coaches and information for the benefit of both teams.
He said his connections with Tottenham might lead to a similar deal with the Whitecaps but it's not a priority right now. Barber noted Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi and youth development director Dan Lenarduzzi have both visited Tottenham to examine club operations and said a Tottenham coach might visit Vancouver this summer to coach Whitecaps youth players.
He said he's not concerned now about the Whitecaps' long-standing desire to own a soccer-specific stadium because the more pressing issue is to ensure a smooth MLS transition next year into a temporary stadium on the site of old Empire Stadium and then into a refurbished BC Place later in its inaugural MLS season.
But Barber said he is committed to finding a location for a new Whitecaps training centre as soon as possible. Plans for a proposed $31-million training facility in Delta collapsed earlier this year and the club is considering other Metro Vancouver options.
Bob Lenarduzzi said he and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis will report to Barber and that's a situation he's comfortable with.
"Paul's skill set is just so different from what any of us have," he said. "The opportunities we have with MLS are so much greater now and to have Paul on board just helps us get there quicker."
The team will unveil its new-look Adidas MLS playing kit in the late spring and the Whitecaps name will remain, although the colours and logo will be revamped. The club is currently looking for a corporate sponsor whose name will adorn the front of the jersey, a potential deal worth millions of dollars.
Microsoft pays the Seattle Sounders $4 million a year to have the Xbox logo on the team jersey and BMO Financial Group pays Toronto FC an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million a year for the same privilege.
Lenarduzzi said BMO -a major Whitecaps sponsor -wants to bid on the team's MLS jersey sponsorship.
"I think they have really liked the success they've had with Toronto FC and to have that exposure in both the east and west would be good for their brand," he said.
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