For years now, Toronto FC of Major League Soccer has been a laughingstock, plagued by enormous roster turnover and a management carousel. Fans had given up hope. But things are starting to change. We are daring to hope again, and here’s the story of why.
In the world of sports, fans are sustained by either hope or championships.
In the world of sports, fans are sustained by either hope or championships. At no time in the club’s seven-year existence have the fans of Toronto FC enjoyed a league or playoff championship¹ (or even a playoff appearance for that matter), and for several years now we have even lacked hope.
Championships, we understand, are tough to deliver – a lot of things have to go your way to win a professional sports title – but hope…Was that too much to ask for?
Season after season we watched the players compete on the field, but the team struggled. Coaches came and went, bringing and taking with them different playing philosophies. The roster showed astonishing turn-over year after year. For the first few seasons, among the fan-base there was an understanding patience and hope for next year. This gradually transitioned to frustration, and hope for next year. Finally, apathy set in for all but the most diehard fans, and hope for next year was replaced by an expectation of mediocrity.
But lately…things have begun to change.
Despite the most recent poor season, fans came to like new head coach Ryan Nelson, with his fiery temperament endearing him to the faithful.
Then, on June 30th 2013, Tim Leiweke became President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, and Toronto FC. Leiweke brought a winning track record, having overseen multiple championships in Los Angeles, and with his hiring at MLSE the mood began to shift.
Next, Tim Bezbatchenko was named the new General Manager. With a background at the league offices overseeing all player contracts, his knowledge and skill should serve the team well while it tries to rebuild and create a contender under the tough MLS salary cap.
Cautious optimism began to return, but it was more than offset by the scars of the recent past. We had hoped before, and we had been burned.
Toronto FC’s new leaders knew that the club needed to make a big splash, as much to compete to the field as to give the fans what they needed most of all: hope.
During the 2013/2014 offseason, the team embarked on a number of roster moves. Again, we’d gone down this road before, so these were greeted with a golf clap (although they might well prove crucial²). Leiweke, no stranger to the mega-deal (he’s the man who brought David Beckham to the L.A. Galaxy), wasn’t finished.
In January, rumours began to swirl that the team was close to signing England international and Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe. Hope burned a little brighter, despite the risks (a few months earlier, stories emerged that TFC was close to signing Diego Forlàn). But this time, the stories didn’t fade away. In fact, they grew in prevalence and scope: now, TFC wasn’t just signing Defoe, but also U.S. international Michael Bradley from AS Roma.
On January 13th, in a packed sports bar (!), TFC revealed their two newest signings to a crowd of excited fans and media alike. Later that night, both Defoe and Bradley sat courtside at a Raptors game, and were welcomed by a packed Air Canada Center and a reel of their career highlights, played on the arena’s large screens.
Things didn’t stop there, however. This new MLSE and TFC brass knew that simply signing great players wasn’t enough: they needed to counter the cynicism that had become commonplace throughout the fan-base. And to do that, they turned to the hype machine of advertising.
This new MLSE and TFC brass knew that simply signing great players wasn’t enough: they needed to counter the cynicism that had become commonplace throughout the fan-base. And to do that, they turned to the hype machine of advertising.
While seemingly obvious, this is a significant move. For years and years I’ve thought that MLS’ advertising is terrible³, so I’m excited to see an honest-to-goodness hype campaign. The Defoe signing, in particular, was hyped (although I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bradley turns out to be the most significant addition…he’s a damn good two-way midfielder) with a catchy tagline that played on the Brits (“It’s a bloody big deal”), full-page newspaper ads, an amusing-if-also-silly TV spot:
…and other, shall we say “less traditional”, advertising.
The result of all this activity is that for the first time in many years the fans of Toronto FC are excited for the upcoming season. Even non-fans who follow the sports scene in general are intrigued. We might have even forgotten our cynicism for a moment. You might say we have hope. And that, friends, is a bloody big deal.
You might say we have hope. And that, friends, is a bloody big deal.
¹They’ve won the Canadian Championship on a few occasions, but that just doesn’t count
²Hey, other folks agree!
³I’d love to be part of the solution, but I believe MLS does all their marketing out of the HQ in New York, and I’m not moving anytime soon. What of TFC, then? Their activities are coordinated by MLSE, and they never seem to have marketing jobs open. A year or two ago I was all set to apply for the Marketing Director role with the Vancouver Whitecaps, but they abruptly took down the posting the day I was finalizing my application package. But c’mon, North American soccer! Get your act together and learn from the other pro sports leagues. Give fans awesome highlight packages, and great coverage, and brand your product a little bit! Most of your fans also watch European soccer, and can see that the on-field product is different (my wife, who doesn’t particularly like soccer, walks in when I’m watching MLS and will remark that “This isn’t nearly as good as that English game you were watching”), and while you’re making strides you also need to be honest. What makes MLS different? What makes it exciting? Why should we watch, besides loyalty to the game in general?