The former Tottenham executive director explains his vision for soccer in Vancouver, B.C.
First, it must be said, that Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber, 43, is a true, diehard Tottenham Hotspurs supporter. He went to White Hart Lane as a young boy and followed the team like many in his family and others who resided in north London. Barber also has carved out a career in professional sports management. Among his management experience: he was Commercial Director for the Football Association (FA) in England and fulfilled a boyhood dream of working for Tottenham as its executive director. He was appointed CEO of the Whitecaps organization in November 2009. Barber sat down with Sportspress Northwest writer Stanley Holmes to discuss the development, or re-development, of the Whitecaps brand as the club enters Major League Soccer on March 19.
What attracted you to the Vancouver Whitecaps?
Barber: I love the fact that Whitecaps had 40 years of history. I liked the fact they wanted to run like a European style club with an academy, a real focus on good facilities, good coaches, good philosophy of the game, of wanting to play football, of wanting to entertain the fans. I liked the fact that there were group of owners prepared to invest in that vision, and I like the fact there were a group of people totally dedicated to soccer and again, I love the fact in North America, the game is growing so quickly, that the future is bright. I know there is going to some ups and downs and trial and tribulations along the way, because you know virtually every soccer playing country in the world has setbacks. Bu all of these things combined made me think this is a great opportunity to be little bit of a pioneer, to be an evangelist if you like for the game.
How did you plan to refresh the brand — a brand that had 40 years of history but was also entering Major League Soccer as a new organization?
Barber: We wanted to try to contemporize the brand we had. Retain the best of the past, retain rich history but give it a modern look and contemporary feel and use the MLS to draw new people in. What I learned in Vancouver is that people really do like top level of sport. They love to see the Canucks in the NHL, they love the fact the Olympic Games was in the city, they love the fact Whitecaps were going to the top level of our sport in North America. They are very supportive of their franchises and their teams. They are very supportive of sport but they like to see it played at the highest possible level.
Soccer in North America is still growing, still struggling to gain a larger foothold in this culture. What’s your assessment?
Barber: Soccer is still a developing sport in Canada. Its still a game that has to compete very hard with hockey, still has to compete hard with other sports in North America. From that point of view, it can be tough at times to get the kind of airplay you need to grow a game. Were now increasingly seeing were getting fantastic support from the media, were getting lots and lots of radio and TV coverage, and now were the first MSL club to have all of our games live on TV, live on radio and live on mobile. which is a phenomenal achievement.
What are your expectations for the team on the pitch?
Barber: The MLS is going to be tough. The adjustment and step up is going to be huge. My job over the next few weeks is trying to help coaches to take pressure off the players. Theres a big expectation. We have to make sure people understand this is a different level from where theyve been playing. This is a tough level of soccer to play. This is a tough league. Its physical. Its quick in places. There some good teams out there. Our fans have to be patient. They have to be realistic about what we can achieve this year.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber recently gushed about the level of sponsors the Whitecaps have attracted. Is it as good as he says?
Barber: Weve done a very decent job. Weve been very fortunate weve had some big companies supporting us. Bell is a big name. They’ve been hugely supportive in lots of ways, financially obviously, but in terms of their technology, to have our games broadcast on Bell Mobile is fantastic. Were the first MLS team to have that, but also with marketing. It’s the power of our sponsorships that the commissioner was remarking on as much as the value in terms of dollars and cents. Weve done as much as weve possibly can to get the game, the club and the brand in front of as many people as we can.
Weve still got a lot to do. Were not in any way shape or form done with what we want to do. Weve got more sponsorship dollars to bring in, more season tickets to sell, more players to bring in. We need to build our new training facility. Season doesnt end on March 19. The real work begins after that.
What does that say about the power of the Whitecaps brand that you were able to attract such blue-chip sponsors?
Barber: It does reinforce the history of the club and the very positive memories. If I pick up the phone to England, they are responding as much to the Whitecaps name as my name. When I announced my decision to leave Tottenham for the Whitecaps, no one said who are the Whitecaps, not one journalist said who are the Whitecaps, because the game transcends the Atlantic Ocean, and because the Whitecaps are known in the football world in a very positive way. The Whitecaps have significant resonance around the football world.
What were your impressions of the owners when you first discussed the possibility of joining the Whitecaps?
Barber: I met Jeff Mallet and Steve Nash when they were interested in buying a stake in Tottenham, and I was the bearer of bad news. We kept in touch and then Jeff called me when they got the franchise and asked me to come over and run the club. I like the city. I met Greg Kerfoot, a quiet guy, but hes been a great supporter of me and my family. All four of them are passionate about what were doing. They’re interested, theyre engaged, they get involved, but they are respectable of the executive team. Everything weve wanted to do theyve been supportive. They are just passionate about soccer and in particular about the Whitecaps.
What is your strategy in building support for the club?
If you can ensure the core of your support, which is in the city, which is behind the team, thats a pretty good foundation. We did the same in London — we had to make sure the heartbeat of our club, the local supporters, stayed with the club in a city with 17 pro football clubs. We had to ensure the new people stayed with Tottenham.
In Vancouver, weve got no divine right to Vancouverites being Whitecap supporters. We have to earn the right for them to be supporters. From that point of view, we have to keep playing good soccer, keep treating our fans well, and if we continue to do that, we have to make sure we keep them proud, and if we do that, we will have fans for life. Vancouverites are incredibly loyal, fiercely loyal to their teams.
How important is the supporter culture to the Whitecaps and to the continued growth of the MLS?
Barber: I think its vitally important, and Im delighted weve been able to convince the commissioner and the league to allow us to invite traveling fans from all the teams to our own stadiums. A Northwest rivalry is a good thing. Understandably, looking at European supporters, it creates a nervous feeling for some people not used to fans traveling to games. In Europe, it works, because we manage it. It can at times get tense. I think what we want here is the best of the European rivalry between the fans, and we dont want the worst.
Every thing I’ve seen in North America shows me weve got a sophisticated public here, very passionate public, but thankfully a more respectful public, when it comes to the more extreme ends of supporter passion. We dont want that raw end that sometimes in Europe exists. Thankfully in England its been a long time since weve had trouble inside stadiums; occasionally, trouble occurs outside, usually alcohol related, but thankfully its a diminishing trend.
It certainly is not a trend we want to see here in any way shape or form. But we do want the passion. We do want the noise. We do want the banter. We do want the rivalry. We do want Portland taking poster (billboards) sites in Seattle and teasing Seattle fans, and we do want Seattle fans traveling to Portland, and we want both fans traveling to Vancouver. We want that.
Ive said publicly those people will be welcome in our city, very welcome in our stadiums. Provided everyone behaves, they will welcome back anytime. We want their noise. We want their passion, and were looking forward to it. Bring it on. We want to send them home disappointed.