VANCOUVER, BC – When Vancouver Whitecaps FC introduced Marc Dos Santos as head coach in November 2018, co-owner Jeff Mallett made it abundantly clear that it was time to go from “good to great” as the club approached its second decade in Major League Soccer.
“Good is not good enough,” Mallett said at the time. “It’s time to be great.”
Hiring Dos Santos was the first step.
Bringing on Axel Schuster, and his 20 years of experience at the top levels of German football, to lead the sporting side of the business was another vital piece – so too was the acquisition of marquee Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini on a club-record transfer fee.
The goal, from ownership’s point of view, is to grow all aspects of the club and make Whitecaps FC one of the preeminent organizations in MLS. The latest step towards that objective was Tuesday’s hiring of longtime AS Roma and New York Knicks sports executive Mark Pannes as the club’s new chief executive officer.
“It’s just a moment in time – about a decade into our MLS life – that is a really good time to reflect on the club and our long-term planning,” Mallett said. “We haven’t got the results we’ve wanted on or off the pitch the last couple years. We’re committed to making sure we’re on a much better path for success. It’s a point in time that the ownership group, Greg Kerfoot, myself, Steve Luczo, and Steve Nash all said, ‘Should we double down?’ We decided to triple down. The first place you always start is people and leadership.”
Enter Pannes, who arrives in Vancouver with three decades of experience in sports leadership. Pannes will be tasked with leading the business arm of the club, while Schuster is responsible for all technical aspects from youth to first team. Both will report directly to ownership.
“There’s a tremendous level of pride in the organization that emanates from ownership,” Pannes said. “And there’s a real desire to become an elite performance organization on the pitch and off it. That was really attractive. The objective is to accelerate growth for the business and to really make sure the club is competitive in everything we do. Axel will be making sure we’re hyper competitive on the pitch. My role is to make sure we’re hyper competitive off it.”
That’s something Pannes has been able to do in a variety of roles across the globe.
He got his start at the Knicks, starting as a marketing assistant and eventually becoming the chief marketing officer and the club’s youngest vice president over a 10-year period. The club sold every ticket in his last nine seasons, launched the first team-directed HD game broadcasts, and the WNBA’s New York Liberty, a three-time league finalist during his tenure (1990-2000).
Pannes also spent six years with Serie A club AS Roma, where he held numerous positions including chief executive officer, president of the club’s IP licensing business, as well as chief executive officer and project lead for Stadio della Roma (2011-2016).
Above all, Pannes says working with Roma’s passionate fan base was one of the highlights from his time with the famed Italian side.
“People are super passionate about their clubs,” Pannes said. “That’s one of the things that makes sports unique among all industries. It’s how you embrace that, bring them into the mix, and make them feel that they’re a part of what you do and real significant contributors to how the team performs. Ultimately, if you have a great home pitch environment, that’s a competitive advantage. We want to cultivate that and embrace that.”
Certainly, that’s going to be a priority for Pannes as he begins his new role with Whitecaps FC. He knows he has a lot to learn, but he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get right to work.
“Each time I’ve gone somewhere, the overriding plan is to learn and listen,” he said. “And that said, you get on the ground and just start right away. Can we work on this? Can we work on that? Let’s just start pushing the envelope. I’ve already started today, and I didn’t think I was going to. The short answer is that you really have to have a granular understanding of how the business operates, the culture of the club, and the culture of the marketplace, in order to have a big impact. The longer answer is yes, that’s all true. But First Kick is in 53 days, so giddy up.”