Vancouver hopes MLS success in Seattle translates into an expansion team here
Two years from now, Vancouver Whitecaps officials hope desperately to be in the same position as Seattle Sounders FC -- gearing up for their inaugural season in Major League Soccer.
While the 'Caps battle six other bids for two expansion franchises to begin play in 2011, the Sounders leave the United Soccer Leagues behind and begin MLS play at Qwest Field in just five months.
The market response to the new Seattle team so far has been outstanding -- with more than 17,000 season tickets sold, 63 corporate suites snapped up and a lucrative $20-million, five-year sponsorship deal signed with Microsoft/Xbox.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said Seattle's early MLS business success bodes well for Vancouver.
"It's very encouraging because they're a living, breathing franchise and we're confident we can do the same thing here," he said.
Sounders senior vice-president of business operations Gary Wright said the team goal is to make Seattle "the soccer capital of the United States."
"Our market is similar to Vancouver in that this is a great soccer region, with a longtime love of the sport since the old Sounders in the [North American Soccer League]," he said in an interview. "People here know the game, understand the game and embrace the game. I don't know that you can get that in every market in the United States."
The transition from USL to MLS means operating a budget that dwarfs a typical USL team budget of $1 million to $1.5 million.
MLS team player salaries alone can reach $2.3 million US a season and a league "designated player rule" allows teams to go far above the salary cap for certain high-profile players like Los Angeles Galaxy superstar David Beckham. The former England captain reportedly makes a base salary of $5.5 million US a year, along with endorsements and profit sharing that could push the value of his five-year contract to $250 million.
Wright said the Sounders have put "a lot of thought" into using the designated player rule and the team will likely announce a high-profile signing in the near future.
One strong rumour making the rounds in Seattle has the team going after former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg, who recently had his contract terminated with West Ham United of the English Premier league. The 31-year-old midfielder was captain of the Swedish team at this year's Euro 2008 championship.
Wright said the Sounders will do whatever it takes to create a first-class product.
"The budget has to be substantially bigger now because in our marketplace, the USL was seen as a minor league," he said. "Major League Soccer is major league so we have to take a big step up and do everything first class."
The team ownership group clearly has deep pockets. Movie producer Joe Roth is the majority owner, while minority owners include Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, comedian Drew Carey and Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer.
Carey has pushed for two unique ideas that will differentiate Seattle from other MLS clubs -- a fan-based Seattle FC Association that will allow fans to vote on important team decisions and a 60-to-80-piece marching band that will play throughout Sounders games.
"You talk about budgets -- hiring a band is not a cheap thing," Wright said.
He noted the fan association -- based on the FC Barcelona model -- can even vote to get rid of a general manager as long as he has had the job for at least four years.
The Sounders will play in the 26,000-seat lower bowl of Qwest Field and the team has set a target of selling 22,000 season tickets for the 2009 season. Prices range from $16 a game for an 18-game season ticket package to $26,000 to lease a corporate suite for the season.
Wright said average attendance at home games next year should easily surpass 20,000, which would make it one of the league's most successful franchises from day one. Los Angeles Galaxy leads league attendance this year with average attendance of 25,900, followed by Toronto FC, at 20,100.
Wright said the Sounders' alliance with the Seattle Seahawks -- with Allen holding ownership stakes in both teams -- gives the team a major advantage because it can use the expertise of Seahawks staff and offer corporate clients combined Seahawks/Sounders sponsorship packages.
The team's biggest sponsorship deal so far is its five-year, $20-million contract with Microsoft that will see the "Xbox 360 Live" brand displayed prominently on the front of the Sounders bright green and blue jersey.
The MLS allowed jersey sponsorship deals starting in the 2007 season and the league shares in the revenues. The five-year, league/team split for the $20-million Microsoft deal with the Sounders is believed to be $2.5 million for the league and $17.5 million for the team.
"The league does pretty well with it but it's important we have a healthy league," Wright said. "It wouldn't do us any good to have a great franchise here and then all of a sudden be standing alone."
Ten of the 15 MLS teams to play next year will have corporate logos displayed on their jerseys.
MLS senior vice-president of marketing Dan Courtemanche said splashing logos on jerseys is standard practice throughout the soccer world so the move made MLS more authentic among hard-core soccer fans.
It also helps boost revenues as the league moves towards overall profitability. One report estimated MLS teams collectively lost more than $350 million between 1996 and 2004 and, while the league won't comment on that number, Courtemanche said league financial fortunes have clearly turned around.
The Galaxy reportedly made a profit after playing their first season in the Home Depot Center in 2003 while FC Dallas did the same thing after moving into Pizza Hut Park in 2005.
"Clearly our clubs that own and operate their own venues have an exponentially greater chance to be profitable than the ones who are tenants in large stadiums," Courtemanche said.
He said television broadcasting deals used to generate little or nothing to the league's bottom line because MLS had to pay for production costs. But new contracts reportedly pay the league more than $20 million a year -- still peanuts in the TV sports broadcasting world but a step in the right direction.
ESPN, for example, pays the NFL $1.1 billion US a year for the rights to broadcast Monday Night Football.
The value of an MLS franchise has quadrupled in the past three years and many feel the instant success of Toronto FC has generated tremendous interest among several high-powered potential new team franchise owners.
Toronto paid $10 million for a franchise in 2005 while Seattle and Philadelphia each paid $30 million last year. Seven prospective ownership groups have submitted bids for two new franchises and the successful bidders will pay $40 million each.
The Whitecaps group includes current team owner Greg Kerfoot, along with NBA superstar Steve Nash, former Yahoo! Inc. president Jeff Mallett and former Seagate Technology chief executive officer Steve Luczo.
Equally impressive ownership groups in the other six bids include the Saputo and Gillett families (Montreal), FC Barcelona and Marcelo Claure (Miami), Jeff Cooper (St. Louis), the Paulson family (Portland), Eugene Melnyk (Ottawa) and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank (Atlanta).
While MLS feels teams that own and operate their own soccer-specific stadiums have the greatest shot at financial success, the Whitecaps have signed a five-year lease to begin playing at a renovated BC Place Stadium in 2011.
That means the team can't play in its own proposed Vancouver waterfront stadium until 2016.
"Given the length of time it has taken to get any movement forward on the waterfront stadium, we may need that timeline," Lenarduzzi said, only half-jokingly.
He said the Whitecaps hope to play at BC Place as an MLS team but the team may play there as a USL team if it doesn't get an MLS franchise.
"If we're not MLS, we'll just have to assess where we're at and determine how much we want to ramp things up," Lenarduzzi said. "Right now, we have a real solid core of USL owners that are committed to moving this league forward and we're a part of that process."
Wright, meanwhile, is crossing his fingers for a longshot scenario that would see Vancouver and Portland winning the new MLS franchises -- creating a three-city Pacific Northwest rivalry.
"I think it would be absolutely fantastic and it would certainly help us travel-wise," he said. "We love being where we are but frankly we are a long ways away from any other team and that takes a toll on your players."
© The Vancouver Sun 2008