VANCOUVER, B.C. – For Vancouver Whitecaps chief operating officer Rachel Lewis, CEO Paul Barber’s resignation means a return to the club’s top business position.
Following the Londoner’s departure, set for the end of February, the Whitecaps will essentially revert to the leadership structure that existed in the second-division era, with Lewis heading business operations while club president Bob Lenarduzzi oversees the technical staff.
“For me, it’s not so much that my job has changed, but I have a better appreciation now for the level that we’re at [in MLS]," Lewis told MLSsoccer.com during a sitdown interview last week. "Having Paul’s mentorship has been fantastic for that; it’s given us a good foundation now with our move into Major League Soccer, our move into Empire Field, and then our move into BC Place, to sort of position the club for how we want to grow and where we want to be in the future.”
The 37-year-old executive, who has been with the club since 2003, first as director of stadium development and event management before being promoted to chief operating officer in 2007, has an affinity with the club that predates her employment.
Growing up in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, Lewis’ family had Whitecaps season tickets during the club’s glory days in the original North American Soccer League.
“Coming to [the original] BC Place when it opened, cheering on the team – Bob Lenarduzzi and Carl Valentine back in the day – it’s been a part of my culture growing up,” Lewis reflected. “Sports was a really important thing in our household – to be active, to be physical. I think it teaches really good values.
“Being in soccer is something I’m really, really passionate about and as I said before, the opportunity and the role models it provides to kids and a sense of community is fantastic and something I grew up with.”
Although the team struggled on the field during its first MLS season, it enjoyed tremendous success off the field, boasting the league’s third-highest attendance and a collection of corporate sponsors many teams would envy.
Those relationships with the corporate community won’t be in any danger following Barber’s departure, with the existing sponsorship team led by vice president of brand and partnerships Kim Jackman working to build a firm financial base for the club.
“It’s one of the key revenue sources of sports franchises, so it’s very important to be intimately involved in that and continue to push that forward,” Lewis said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done this year. For a market our size, it’s quite remarkable and it demonstrates the appetite for the corporate community and the respect they have for soccer and the growing game in Canada and North America, in particular what we can offer in our market.”
But while the day-to-day duties will be plenty familiar for Lewis, the club’s step up to MLS will mean a more prominent public role.
“It is [a new role],” Lewis said. “Quite often, operators tend to be the quiet person behind the scenes, so with Paul’s departure that will be a newer piece of the role to me. I’ve done a little bit of media in the past, but it’s a good opportunity and a good challenge.”
Barber recently told a local radio station that one of his only regrets from his two years in Vancouver was that he didn’t secure a permanent training facility for the club. Lewis is focused on making sure the club completes that objective as soon as possible.
“We need to continue to move our training center initiative forward,” Lewis said. “That’s really important. It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time that we haven’t yet been able to bring to fruition. It’s one of the most important priorities for the club as we look to 2012 and beyond, to create that staple training environment for our players."
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.