Photo courtesy torontofc.ca
In this guest post, Brandon Copeland and Chris Dunne examine the business impact Toronto FC’s upcoming MLS Cup appearance will have on soccer in Toronto, and across the country.
In what’s being heralded by some as the best playoff series in league history, Toronto FC advanced past the Montreal Impact to become the first Canadian Conference Champions in Major League Soccer. With that honour also comes the title of first Canadian club to make it to the MLS Cup final; a game that will take place in Toronto on December 10th.
Certainly, the expectation is that the 2016 MLS Cup will draw more Canadian viewers than any MLS final has before. After all, both legs of the Toronto – Montreal series broke records for soccer viewership across our nation. The first leg, hosted in Montreal on November 22nd, saw slightly over one million people tune in and set the record as the most watched MLS game in Canadian history. That record was quickly smashed on November 30th when 1.4 million viewers watched Toronto FC advance to the MLS Cup final. Perhaps most exciting is that throughout the course of the game, approximately 4.4 million unique viewers watched some part of the match. For context, that number is over 12% of our country’s population. It’s a stark comparison to last year’s MLS Cup game between two non-Canadian teams, the Columbus Crew and the Portland Timbers, which saw less than 100,000 Canadians tune in to watch.
On the national level, what does this all mean? With the game taking place on a Saturday night, I think we just need to ask a simple question – If you’re at the bar on December 10th, are more people asking for the MLS Cup, or Hockey Night In Canada?
Despite the growing interest in the sport country-wide, Canadian teams, and the MLS in general are still struggling to appeal to the mass markets. The fan base is a passionate, but small one. They tend to be heavily concentrated in urban centers, in many cases, almost neighborhood-centric. And that’s a major challenge when competing for viewership during primetime. Will we see the MLS Cup on the screens of suburban Jack Astor’s locations this Saturday? Probably not. But will it be on at the majority of pubs and bars in Liberty Village? It should be.
Not one of them had the TFC game on. When I asked the servers if they could put it on, they didn’t know what “TFC” was.
From a local perspective, MLSE dropped some serious cash in the transfer market to acquire Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. These additions have paid off at the gate with an average attendance this season of 26,580, over 85% of the 31,000 capacity at BMO field. They’ve helped establish a dedicated local fan base of tens of thousands strong who fill the stadium, the streets, and the bars of Toronto’s west side on game days. But herein lies the challenge: how do you gain share of sports fans from other major sports and turn them to casual TFC and MLS fans? You win. On the night of TFC’s one game knockout round showdown with Philadelphia, I happened to be at Shark Club, a large bar in Dundas Square with about 100 screens. Not one of them had the TFC game on. When I asked the servers if they could put it on, they didn’t know what “TFC” was. Now, with some playoff success and a championship on the line, you can bet the game will be on at least 50% of those screens come Saturday because that’s what winning does. Just ask the Blue Jays.
MLSE is doing an excellent job of following that model for success. By investing in some high profile players and winning games, you get the casual fans on board. Eventually these casual fans turn into brand ambassadors and really, the life line of any sport franchises. We saw this transition occur rapidly with the Blue Jays. Torontonians who only knew a slider as a mini burger two or three years ago are suddenly spending $200 a ticket just to be a part of the culture.
For TFC, they’ve invested, and they’re winning. Now it’s about seizing the momentum and using it to grow the brand across the city, and the country. A win on December 10th will go a long way in making that goal a reality.
Brandon Copeland is a real estate developer, urban planning enthusiast and business consultant. He avidly supports Toronto FC from his home in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Chris Dunne is Business Development Manager for Elemental, a full service advertising agency based in Toronto. In 2015, he was named to Marketing Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30.