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A little bit of Tottenham in Vancouver

Paul Barber is the CEO of Vancouver Whitecaps – the newest franchise in Major League Soccer.

He left his position as executive director at Tottenham Hotspur to take on this challenge - the same Tottenham Hotspur that he has supported his entire life, and the same club that is experiencing a period of success not seen since the 1980s.

As he explains to, the challenge of his new role is a unique one and entirely unlike anything in European football.

The Whitecaps are a relatively new organisation, what sort of challenges have you faced in getting involved with the MLS?

The key challenge has been the sheer competitiveness of the league. Because of the nature and design of MLS, every team has the potential to beat everyone else. Every game is competitive and difficult.

Another challenge is the schedule due to the vast geography of North America.  For us, it’s possible to fly five hours to a game, have a change in climate of 20 degrees, and experience a three hour time zone change. 

What are some of the major differences in setting up and getting an organisation like the Vancouver Whitecaps off the ground?

Well first off, you have to spend a lot of money to secure a place in Major League Soccer by way of a franchise fee. 

From day one, you need to sell season tickets, broadcast rights and secure sponsorships to start to generate revenues. In England, you earn the right to be promoted to the top league and many of the main commercial deals – TV and sponsorship – are sold centrally.

Another key difference is the MLS salary cap. We have to find a way to make a large number of players fit into a relatively small salary cap which creates its own challenges. We have to think about how we find top players and attract them to our league and to our club over others. 

As well, deciding how many designated players we are going to have and who we are going to place in that role is something we have to consider. 

Our designated players need to be good on the pitch and good off the pitch in order to justify the larger costs, the majority of which sit outside the salary cap and are club funded.

Do you prefer the salary cap system?

I think there are definite benefits to the salary cap. Clubs are financially stable because they’re not in bidding wars for the best players. 

What can happen in England, for example, is clubs end up paying huge amounts of money for a player but their income doesn’t grow by the same proportion and they can very quickly find themselves in financial difficulties. 

For the most part, I would consider the salary cap to be a massive advantage in terms of a club’s stability but occasionally it can cause issues because the best players are sometimes attracted by higher wages offered by other leagues elsewhere. 

What does your role involve?

My role has three main parts; to act as a face and voice for the club, to ensure the business side and soccer sides of our club are performing at an optimal level and complement one another; and to lead and manage our staff. 

Being the face of the organization entails being a direct reflection of the club’s values. In terms of bringing the commercial and soccer side together; my job is to ensure that they balance, and that they knit together, and we create that virtuous circle between business and sport. 

Specifically, having a strong soccer product will help to create a strong economic model and vice versa. 

Finally, keeping the staff motivated enough to support the rapid growth of the club is another part of my role. Keeping people interested has its challenges because the season is long and people get tired. 

We have a young staff that are incredibly talented but need clear guidance and hands-on support at times. 

It’s important to allow them to grow and develop in their roles while not letting them sink under the pressure we are under every day.  I try to be a visible, accessible, and a friendly face around the office.

How does your role now compare to your time with Tottenham Hotspur?

It’s very similar but the key difference is that we are the only professional soccer club in the city, whereas with Tottenham, we were one of 13 clubs in London all of which were vying for the same media, fan and sponsorship attention. 

Also, we are still selling the sport here. In England, people grow up with soccer. 

Whitecaps FC is the only way for the Vancouver population to engage with a professional soccer franchise but with that, we still have to compete against other sports franchises. 

For example, here we are compared to the Canucks and BC Lions on a daily basis in terms of quality of our product, brand and match experience, and of course ticket prices.

Demographics tend to be a little more focussed in other sports in North America, whereas soccer is universally more popular. So we have a huge audience, which is great, however, a vast market and a diverse population have its challenges because it is hard to focus a campaign.

David Beckham's move to the LA Galaxy brought a lot of hype to the MLS over in the UK. Do you think that hype has done good things for the MLS, both in terms of popularity with fans and in terms of the standard of football?

It has definitely done some very good things. I was lucky enough to work with David for five years with the England national team and he is a fantastic ambassador as well as a top athlete. 

He brings a profile to the game that inevitably draws in bigger crowds and sponsors. 

He has helped attract other high profile players to North America, as well, and helped to make it easier for them to come here and play. David continues to serve North American soccer extremely well.

We have seen players like Landon Donovan come over to the Premier League and do well, are there any guys at Vancouver or elsewhere in the league who you think could be successful in the big European leagues?

Absolutely. There are some very good soccer players emerging in MLS all the time. This is a very good league getting stronger every season. I think we will see an increase in players going from North America to Europe and vice versa. 

Seeing a transfer of not only players, but of coaches and executives too is something I believe will continue to increase as the game becomes bigger in North America. 

Do you think North American players are underrated because soccer is not a big sport in North America?

I don’t think they’re underrated, just not as well-known.  The standard here is changing and getting better all the time my strong belief is that the number of North American players moving to the Premier League will continue to grow although, as MLS develops, I’d also like to think players would want to stay and compete in our league for longer too.

How do you bring in young talent at Vancouver, is there a college system similar to that for American football and basketball?

Yes, there’s a very complex draft process for MLS! In addition to that, there’s a transfer system in place to move players between clubs or bring players in and out of the league. 

Furthermore, we are constantly looking to develop our own young players as well. We have a strong scouting program that looks at players all over North America at various ages and the Whitecaps has the most developed and sophisticated youth development program in North America. Developing young soccer talent is vital to our future and something we believe in passionately.

Do you feel that soccer in North America misses out on some great talent as athletes will often aim to have a career in American football or basketball for example over a career as a soccer player?

Traditionally, a lot of talented athletes have been driven down the route of North American sports such as ice hockey, basketball, football and baseball because that is where the best scholarships lie. 

Ultimately the career path for them from college into professional sport in North America is more geared towards those traditional sports than it is for soccer. 

The rewards are potentially greater for the best players as well because they can earn multi-million dollar contracts at young ages. 

However, increasingly, because MLS is becoming more established and the potential of earning good money is there, there are more athletes staying with soccer and I believe that will continue as the game develops here.

Vancouver is obviously a huge ice hockey city, with the Canucks drawing a lot of attention. Have the Whitecaps been well received in the city and do you get a good turnout of fans for home and away matches?

The Vancouver Canucks is a fantastic franchise that does very well; but we are fortunate because there are more soccer players in the city of Vancouver than ice hockey players in our entire Province, British Columbia, which shows the incredible growth potential we have for our sport and our club. 

As far as attendance goes, thanks to our new world class stadium’s capacity, we already get more fans at our games than the Canucks. 

Our level of home support has been phenomenal especially considering the difficult season we have had.  We finished as the third largest draw in MLS with the third highest season ticket holder base. We have had great support to away games, even with the long travel times. 

Finally, what are your hopes and ambitions for this season and beyond?

On the field, we haven’t performed the way we hoped and we realize it will take time and patience on our part and that of our fans who were magnificent throughout 2011. 

The goal is to have continuous improvement over the years ahead. We are set up very well for future success on and off the field.

By Peter Dreyer

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