Toronto FC joined Major League Soccer with a bang in 2007, breaking attendance and merchandising records en route to instantly becoming one of the most-recognized soccer clubs in North America. As the team is concluding its third season and approaching the fourth anniversary of Toronto being awarded an MLS expansion team in October 2005, the TFC brand is still drawing attention and praise.
Strategy Magazine, a noted Canadian marketing periodical, recognized Toronto FC as its "Brand Of The Year" for 2009. The magazine cited TFC's courting of Toronto's large multi-cultural community, sponsorship from such soccer-friendly brands as Carlsberg and adidas, and its use of fan input from the early days of the club as just some of the reasons behind the honor.
The fact that this award comes in 2009 rather than at the height of TFC-mania in 2007 is especially pleasing to Paul Beirne, Toronto FC's senior director of business operations.
"It's a testament to the fact that though the honeymoon is over, we're still a relevant sports brand and making waves in the market," Beirne said. "It's sort of reassuring to get this recognition three years in. We know we're not a flash in the pan and we're here for the long run."
Perhaps the biggest reason for the award was Strategy described as the "authentic fan experience" at BMO Field, showing how Toronto FC has been able to tap into the city's inborn passion of international soccer by providing them with a high-caliber team of their own to root for in person. Beirne said that while the organization worked hard to attract Toronto's soccer lovers, the real credit for the "authenticity" goes to the fans themselves.
"The difference is we don't create the atmosphere, we create a fertile ground for the atmosphere. It's our supporters who create the atmosphere," Beirne said. "We empower them, enable them, but we don't script what they do and we generally try and let them be themselves. We also don't try and restrict what they do, within reason.
"We're creating a business but also creating the opportunity for a football culture to emerge. But we're not creating a football culture -- by definition that has to happen on its own."
The club will continue to develop that culture at the grassroots level, both literally and figuratively. Toronto's city council will rule this week on whether or not natural grass can be installed at BMO Field for next season, thus taking the final step in making the Reds' home venue into a world-class soccer facility. Beirne also noted that the team is planning to build a training facility for the TFC Academy, in order to help the next generation of soccer talent develop their skills towards being either future Reds and/or future Canadian national team members.
Beirne said the club embraced its Canadian roots from day one, from the maple leaf in the team logo to the red-and-white uniforms. He said that TFC plans to continue its nationwide promotion even though the new Vancouver MLS team (coming in 2011) and rumored MLS expansion to Montreal will give the Reds some competition for the hearts and minds of Canadian soccer fans.
"We've been unashamedly desiring to be Canada's team," Beirne said. "We're looking forward to Montreal and Vancouver coming into the league, it'll help Canadian football. Already our games against those two teams in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship are some of the most exciting and high-tension games we've played, so I only anticipate that those games will continue to have that electricity."
It is no coincidence that this further MLS expansion into Canada is taking place in the wake of Toronto FC's success. Other new franchises south of the border also took notes from the Reds in order to build their own brands, such as first-year expansion side Seattle Sounders FC and Philadelphia Union, who begin play in 2010.
"Seattle pretty much borrowed our entire playbook," Beirne said. "We encouraged them to. We gave them everything that we did with as much detail as they could handle in order to give them a fighting chance of replicating what we did. The Philadelphia franchise coming in next year, their entire front office spent the last game with us shadowing our staff and we spent the day going through our business plan and going through the things that went well and the things we could've done better in our launch phase."
With a foothold already established in Canada and the United States, the next step is to promote Toronto FC worldwide. Beirne said that international soccer fans already have an awareness of TFC through such heavily-viewed images as the legendary hail of seat cushions that celebrated Danny Dichio scoring the franchise's first goal on May 12, 2007. Also, bringing in storied international clubs like Real Madrid and Aston Villa for friendly matches serves as both a treat for the Toronto fans and a chance for the Reds to increase their worldwide profile.
"Our imagery has been around the world via YouTube, so there is that awareness of Toronto FC being a legit pro team in Toronto," Beirne said. "Being seen as a premier team in North America is important to us, so that's part of the thinking behind bringing in those big clubs."
With the continued fan support and magazines like Strategy bestowing awards upon the team, the final step in cementing TFC as a world-class club is winning soccer games. The Reds won their first trophy, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, in stunning fashion in a 6-1 victory against Montreal in the tournament's final game, and Beirne hopes that that title is the first of many to come.
"We really haven't won anything yet, so success off the field is certainly heartwarming," Beirne said. "But the big goal is still winning championships."
Mark Polishuk is a contributor to MLSnet.com.