By Mathew Gourlie
The growth of Major League Soccer to the modern era — the so-called MLS 2.0 — can be traced to one moment.
It’s not the David Beckham signing or the first soccer-specific stadium. It’s not expansion to Toronto or Cascadia.
No, MLS began the road to financial stability and coming of age the day Soccer United Marketing (SUM) was created.
Canadian Premier League president Paul Beirne has said from the outset that the league wanted to learn from MLS and what they did right and what they did wrong.
With that in mind, Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) was unveiled Thursday morning. CSB will represent the commercial interests for the CPL and all corporate partnerships and media rights for the Canadian Soccer Association. The partnership between CSB and the CSA is for a 10-year term to start.
“This is a coming of age for soccer in Canada and this enterprise will build off the momentum of soccer and help transform the sport in our country. Canadian Soccer Business has the potential to grow into one of the most important and unique sporting entities in Canada, one that could stand alone in truly representing a Canadian sport that has the reach of community, country and world,” David Clanachan, CPL commissioner and chairman of the CSB said in a statement. “Having a partnership team that is 100 per cent focused on creating a new soccer economy in this country will empower new and excited partners to help elevate the sport to a whole new level for all Canadians.”
Canadian Soccer Business will market the men’s and women’s national team programs both in terms of corporate sponsorship and in regards to media rights. It will also represent all of the commercial assets of the individual CPL clubs and the league as a whole. It will handle naming rights for any new or renovated CPL stadiums. It will also represent the Canadian Championship which will see CPL clubs joining MLS teams and other Canadian clubs in the chase for the Voyageurs Cup and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
With the scope of CSB extending from the grassroots potentially all of the way to the world stage with the national teams it’s easy to see the appeal for investors.
“We’re creating a Canadian soccer industry,” Beirne said previously.
Scott Mitchell has been named CEO of Canadian Soccer Business. He has been part of the CPL from the outset. Bob Young, who owns the Hamilton CPL team as well as the CFL’s Tiger-Cats, will retain Mitchell as the CEO for Young’s group of Canadian companies.
“It is truly a pivotal time for soccer in Canada and we are excited that Canadian Soccer Business will be at the forefront of this exciting movement,” Mitchell said in a release. “What CSB is all about is representing soccer in Canada not only locally in communities, but nationally and globally as well. The CPL’s upcoming launch, along with the strength of the Canada Soccer brand have created a unique opportunity for us and our partners to provide an integrated platform that reaches from the grassroots to the professional level across the country on a year-round basis. We look forward to a series of exciting announcements and partnerships in the coming weeks.”
Ian Charlton joins CSB as chief sales officer and head of partnerships and Dave Keely has been named the director of corporate partnerships.
Having the corporate interests of the league and the federation tied together has been lucrative — if not without controversy — for MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation.
SUM was created in late 2001 and is owned by MLS investors and represents not only the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS, but also the Mexican Soccer Federation’s games played in the U.S. and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
After its inception one of the first things SUM did was acquire the television rights for the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups. In May of 2016, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL made SUM their exclusive worldwide marketing partner.
At the time of its creation MLS was serious peril. FC Dallas president and co-owner Dan Hunt told a story on ESPN Soccer Today on Dallas radio that the MLS had effectively folded in November of 2001. According to Dan, his late father Lamar Hunt — who owned Columbus and Kansas City at the time — was able get the other owners back on board within 48 hours to move ahead for a seventh season. MLS shrunk to 10 teams as the league contracted, but SUM was soon born and the league found solid footing.
At the time AEG, owned by Philip Anschutz, had acquired the rights for the Mexican national team in the U.S. A move that Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft objected to. Anschutz owned five of MLS’s 10 teams and MLS commissioner Don Garber was able to broker a deal that allowed all parties to share the wealth through SUM.
This past week Mexico drew 148,0045 fans to a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The SUM-promoted Copa American Centenario drew just shy of 1.5 million spectators in 2016.
If you were left pondering how MLS expansion fees recently hit the $150 million mark, there is a good indication.
This sort of vertical marketing integration is one of the unique advantages to building a league from scratch.
The breadth and reach of SUM is unique and impossible to replicate.
That being said, soccer is an attractive product that attracts a younger, more diverse market than a lot of other traditional properties. The idea of a nation-wide
league tied to a marketing arm like CSB has been attractive to investors. The CPL’s founders believe that CSB will be one of the cornerstones that the league’s success is built upon.