BigShot Q&A: Whitecaps President – Bob LenarduzziColumnist Herb Scribner interviews Bob Lenarduzzi as the Vancouver Whitecaps enter their second MLS season
by Herb Scribner | Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Bob Lenarduzzi is “the” Vancouver soccer icon and the current President of Vancouver Whitecaps F.C. A former Whitecaps and Canadian National Team player and coach, Lenarduzzi served as the general manager of the Vancouver 86ers from 1988 to 1993. Five years later, Lenarduzzi was back with the club and later won the A-League’s Executive of the Year award in 2000. Lenarduzzi filled the role of Whitecaps Head of Soccer Operations and has since become president of the club and spearheaded their passage into MLS.
What are your expectations for the Whitecaps this season?
BL: Our goal at Whitecaps FC has been to build as strong an organization as we possibly can from the front office, to the coaching staff and to the players on the pitch.
Our goal is to compete for a playoff spot while providing an exciting and entertaining product for our fans.
Was it more stressful at the beginning of the season last year as an expansion club or this year, trying to improve on and off-field performance?
BL: The organization has grown significantly since last season and our current staff is now upwards of 80 individuals. We have made a lot of changes in the off-season which has allowed us to move forward in a different direction in year two.
These additional resources, changes made and the learning from last year have certainly helped eliminate some of the pressure as we kicked off our second season in MLS.
Because the other two Pacific Northwest (PNW) clubs have had so much success, do you feel like you have to play catch-up a bit?
BL: As one of North America’s oldest and most established soccer clubs we have already achieved a high level of success. We continue to build and grow, taking strides forward in all areas to ensure we remain successful, while continuing to grow our brand.
We had a successful first year in MLS off the pitch, and are striving to remain in the top third in the league in attendance, sponsorship and ticket sales.
Would you consider one of those clubs more of a rival than the other?
BL: Having all three teams back playing against each other in league play is something that has been very special. I believe the rivalry has been enhanced with both Seattle and Portland now that all clubs are playing in MLS.
It is a long standing rivalry with both clubs since NASL days, and both rivalries bring different elements. Seattle is geographically closer but Portland are our expansion cousins. It is always special to play both teams – it is great for our fans and our players.
How important is the Sounders/Timbers/Whitecaps rivalry from a business standpoint? Does it help drive business?
BL: Rivalries are something to be relished and we are fortunate to have one of the best ones here with the Cascadia clubs. For the fans and for the players it is always exciting to play in those matches. From a business standpoint though, I would say that being the best club we can possibly be is a major factor in driving us as an organization.
Is Vancouver as strong a soccer market as Seattle or Portland?
BL: I believe Vancouver is an incredibly strong market. Last year we were in the top third for attendance in the league, and saw incredible support from our fans.
The 2010 Olympic Winter Games further enforced Vancouver as a global sports city and now that we are downtown, excitement is even stronger.
All three PNW markets are soccer cities, but do you think having all three stadiums in the urban core helps them? Does that hurt clubs like Chicago, Colorado or Dallas, being so far away from that core?
BL: Each city is unique so it is impossible to say if there is one model that works better than another. Certainly, in Vancouver, having a stadium in the urban core is something that has a lot of value for us.
There have been other former NASL markets in the MLS and some new ones who have done well, but the PNW leads the way. What is it about the Cascadia region and these 3 cities, that makes them love soccer so much?
BL: From a Canadian perspective Vancouver is one of the most multicultural cities in the world and soccer is undisputedly the world’s game so I think it is a perfect fit. Also I would have to say that the region has been as successful as it has because of the level of support the teams get from their fans.
Would you like to see Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa in MLS one day? If so, when do you think they get in?
BL: Further developing the Canadian game is something that is very important to us as an organization. As for any growth within Major League Soccer, it is essential to maintain the quality of the level of play that exists within the league. If the right opportunity presented itself and it did not compromise the integrity of the league, I think growth would be something very positive.
Will Canada’s hosting of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, boost the overall game of soccer in the nation? Will it help the Whitecaps and other Canadian clubs? If Canada wins it as hosts, how far can that push the needle for the domestic game?
BL: I think the huge turn out we saw at the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament in January shows just how passionate Canadians are about women’s soccer, and the sport in general. Soccer is a blossoming sport at the grassroots and professional levels in this country, and being able to host a competition on the world stage will certainly only help continue to grow the game.
The renovations to BC Place were certainly nice, and the efforts to minimalize the excess seating admirable, but do you miss the cozier dimensions of Empire Field?
BL: Certainly there is a lot of history that will not be forgotten over at Empire Field. We were able to create an amazing atmosphere and some great memories at the temporary stadium last year.
In contrast though, BC Place is a world-class, state-of-the-art, soccer specific facility in the heart of the city. From the video board, to the pitch side seating, the secondary soccer roof and the retractable roof, I think the experience for both our fans and players is greater now than it has ever been, and we are extremely excited to be playing at BC Place.
Is the club still pursuing building a soccer specific stadium on the waterfront? If so, where are you with progress with it? What is the current timescale?
BL: Our focus is on making BC Place a fortress for our team, and creating the best experience we can there for our fans and our players.
Can the club be profitable if it had to remain at BC Place for the next few years?
BL: Yes. We continue to work with BC Place to ensure that we create an exceptional product and experience for our fans and our players.
Should the Amway Canadian Championships include lower level clubs outside of Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton?
BL: The Amway Canadian Championship continues to grow and there is a lot of potential for expansion in years to come.
What do MLS clubs need to do in order to get to the level of their Mexican counterparts and rival them in CONCACAF Champions League play?
BL: Awareness of the CONCACAF Champions League is a big thing, as well as support at the matches. It is great to see the competition being promoted here much more than in the past.
For example, Toronto FC had over 47,000 fans at their quarterfinal versus LA Galaxy. You can see how much support these matches are beginning to get.
Do Canadian clubs or the CSA ever inquire about hosting the CONCACAF Gold Cup or is it a foregone conclusion that it will always be hosted in the USA?
BL: Please contact the CSA for comment on this question.
Is the CSA governing Canadian soccer and steering it in the right direction? What changes would you like to see them make for the growth of the game?
BL: CSA has taken strides forward in the development of Canadian talent and we look forward to a continued working relationship with the CSA which we hope will further help with the development of players in Canada.
There is talk in the USA that MLS (and the sport) is now considered the #5 team sport after the NFL, MLB, NBA and the NHL. Using those sports leagues, CFL, curling and others, how would you rank the MLS in the current Canadian sports landscape? When do you think it becomes #2? Anyway it can rival hockey or is that blasphemy?
BL: We have a large and strong fan-base here in Vancouver and I believe that we are a major force in the Vancouver sports market. As we continue to establish ourselves, our presence will continue to grow.
How would you describe youth soccer development in Canada today? Is it producing enough quality players?
BL: Overall I see the development of Canadian talent as important to both our club, as well as for helping further the game in Canada. Whitecaps FC’s residency program is something that we are very proud of, and have chosen to continue to invest in. With three Canadian MLS teams, I believe that we will continue to see more development programs emerge, and more players come through the system.
Should the 3 Canadian MLS clubs have more potential CMNT players on their rosters? Or does that hinder them compared to their American counterparts?
BL: As all three clubs develop players, we look forward to seeing more Canadian players compete at the highest level in North America.
Bryce Alderson and Russell Teibert have been called up to the Canadian U-23 National team to participate in Olympic qualifying. Both Bryce and Russell are a direct result of our Residency program.
What steps does the Canadian soccer need to take in order to qualify for the World Cup from the CONCACAF region consistently like its southern neighbors the US and Mexico?
BL: In order to qualify for the World Cup from the CONCACAF region consistently we need to continue to develop players and create a clear development path for them.
Fans seemed to really take to the logo upon release. However on a recent SoccerNewsday 2012 MLS kit review the Whitecaps home kits fared worse than the away. Is there a possibility that the all-white monochrome home kit (similar to the LA Galaxy) will have some colors added in the shorts or socks? Any plans for a reintroduction of the iconic blue chest stripe making a return?
BL: Since introducing the revised logo and kits we have received a huge amount of positive feedback from our fans. We are very pleased with our current kits.
We also plan to introduce a third, alternate kit, which will be unveiled later this season.
Do the Whitecaps have an official relationship with the PDL minor league Victoria Highlanders?
BL: No we do not have an official relationship with the PDL minor league Victoria Highlanders, however we have a great relationship with the soccer community on the island. For example, this year, we played one of our pre-season friendlies against UVic.
If Victoria ever had a NASL or USL Pro club, would that help or hurt the Whitecaps? Would you encourage a derby?
BL: There is a strong benefit to having clubs in Canada play at the highest level. Increasing the level of competition will only help further develop Canadian talent and grow the game in British Columbia and Canada.
Do you foresee the CSL expanding nationwide one day?
BL: It would be great to have an established second tier in this country.
Would it be beneficial for Canada to have its own domestic minor leagues and pyramid, instead of playing within the mostly American NASL and USL?
BL: It makes sense to continue to have Canadian clubs play in the NASL and USL as Canadian clubs benefit from the competitive opportunities of playing in these leagues. Also, playing in the NASL and USL leads to less travel as Canadian clubs compete against clubs which are in closer proximity to them.
If the NASL never folded in the 1980s, and the Whitecaps were able to keep the club running from then to now, would they be the biggest sports club in the city today? In 30 years from now, can they be?
BL: I cannot speculate on what could have been, but I think it is encouraging that Whitecaps FC fans are happy to have us around today and are excited to see us play at the highest level in North America. Last week’s sold out game is definitely a testament to that.
There is definitely room for multiple sports team in this city as each sport offers a different experience for fans.
Almost every club that rebranded back to NASL nicknames like Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps, Earthquakes, Rowdies, Strikers, Lancers (indoor), etc have done well since in terms of local recognition, branding, merchandising and possibly bridging a gap to past fans. Do you want to see more MLS and the new NASL clubs resurrect old NASL club names (ie: Calgary Boomers, New York Cosmos, etc.)? Can that help MLS?
BL: Brands are only important when they resonate meaning with the fans, which is why clubs like ours have chosen to stay true to our roots.
Did MLS take too long to embrace the rich NASL history in some markets and a generation of pioneering fans?
BL: The rivalries and rich histories that many clubs bring with them continues to help grow the league and the sport.
Would you say most owners and existing MLS clubs are pro-expansion? Are you?
BL: Under the right circumstances I support expanding the league. MLS has done a great job in not expanding too quickly and therefore has a strong base to build upon in the future.
In the future, can you foresee MLS with promotion and relegation? If so, when? Does it help the North American game as much as some fans think?
BL: The most important thing for Major League Soccer is to continue to develop a solid base for its existing clubs before seriously making any considerations to revising the structure of the league.
Can MLS become the world’s best soccer league before or after it becomes the strongest sport in Canada or The States?
BL: The league has experienced phenomenal growth with many great high profile players such as Barry Robson, David Beckham and YP Lee, among others are coming to play in the league. The potential is huge.
When part-owner Steve Nash retires from the NBA, do you foresee him having more of a hands-on role to the day-to-day running of the club?
BL: Steve is a very committed and has great interest in the club. We would welcome any involvement from Steve if that is what he decides to do after he retires from the NBA.
What would you like to see changed with MLS in the future?
BL: The league continues to make changes that benefit its clubs. For example, this year the league has moved to a balanced schedule which will lead to a reduction in travel. We continue to be involved in discussions with the league on improvements. The league, although still young, has strong leadership in Commissioner Garber and the senior team. The potential is huge.
Was one of the clubs mandates for new coach Martin Rennie to encourage a more technical and entertaining brand of soccer?
BL: One of Martin Rennie’s greatest talents is his ability to inspire the most out of players and get them to want to be the best players they can possibly be. Once you do that it is bound to be entertaining.
What are the clubs goals on and off the field for the 2012 season?
BL: Our long term goals are to be one of the best small market sports franchises, to be a significant community asset, and to grow the game of soccer in BC and Canada.
We also strive to be in the top third in all business metrics including partnerships, ticket sales and attendance, in Major League Soccer.
On the pitch our goal is to be challenging for a playoff spot this year while playing an exciting and entertaining level of soccer. We look to develop a team that the whole city and province can be proud of.
As a true living legend and pioneer of North American and Vancouver soccer, with many great days behind and in front of you – one day when you retire what do you hope your legacy will be best known for?
BL: I hope my legacy will be to have played a part in the growth of the sport in BC and Canada. I’ve been part of the soccer community in Vancouver for 37 years and am so lucky to have had such a great career involved in the sport I love.