April 28, 2007 MLS Toronto FC fan success (from Toronto Star)

TFC a success story in making

Ticket sales show times have changed in world of soccer

Apr 28, 2007 04:30 AM
Mary Ormsby
Sports Reporter

It's been fashionable since the last death of major-league soccer in this city to list, with glee, all the reasons the beautiful game was forever doomed here.

But after 23 years of footie forensics on the defunct Toronto Blizzard, the chalk outline may finally be erased as a young, soccer-playing, Euro-watching, web-using wave of Toronto Football Club supporters are disproving their fathers' and grandfathers' theories.

"There's no legacy for someone, say 35 and younger, of the (failed) history of soccer in this city," said Mike D'Abramo of Youthography, a youth research marketing firm.

"They don't have any baggage. They've grown up in an era where ... most of their conscious life they've known there's a North American-based soccer league that isn't embarrassingly bad and has produced some decent players."

Granddad wouldn't agree, of course, but it appears the game has never been in a better position to be embraced by the nation's largest city with the arrival of Major League Soccer's rookie club, Toronto FC. And the compelling evidence will be visible and audible today when the TFC stages its home opener against Kansas City at BMO Field.

Runaway season-ticket sales were capped at 14,000, at an average price of about $50 a seat (on par with prices for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts). The majority of subscribers come from three general groupings: families with kids and/or parents who play soccer; children and grandchildren of immigrants who have a soccer connection; and career professionals in their 20s and 30s the last of which "was surprising to us," said Tom Anselmi, chief operating officer at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the club.

Anselmi said the young professionals tended to work or live downtown and, as patrons, emerged in numbers "we didn't expect."

Another 4,500 tickets have been sold across the board for the 16 regular-season home games, leaving approximately 1,500 for walk-up purchases in the freshly built 20,000-seat stadium. Even with a disastrous winless, goalless beginning to the season, the possibility of sellouts is real.

So, too, is the passion.

Jim Kiriakakis is a 31-year-old senior producer at Buck Productions, a television and video company in downtown Toronto. The Woodbridge man bought season tickets ($480 for the pair) early, before soccer celeb David Beckham signed a whopper contract with the Galaxy in Los Angeles a sort of bragging rights for TFC folk because the game has been part of his life since childhood.

"I'm a huge soccer fan, that's the main reason," said Kiriakakis, who played competitive youth soccer and was schooled very early in the marvels of Olympiakos by his Greek father, Christos. "I like what the MLS is doing in the States and I think we're really lucky here as far as the progression of soccer in Canada to be part of the MLS ... and any kind of play that looks to create a long-standing platform for soccer in this country is something I support."

Kiriakakis expects to watch most games with his wife, Nicole, and to hold toddler daughter Demi on his lap. Periodically, his father will drive in from Kitchener to watch TFC games with his son.

What may mystify the old guard who witnessed the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League while remaining faithful to the English Premier League, Serie A or La Liga, is the inexplicable popularity of a club not named Man U, Juventus or Real Madrid.

After all, the city is still as it was in the Blizzard days a tossed salad of soccer-crazed cultures that has long been hard-wired, in theory, to accept the game in North America. The NASL, though, could never break the strong ties immigrants had to their childhood clubs, even when tempting fans by signing marquee players like Franz Beckenbauer and Pele.

So, what's different?

A key distinction is how dramatically the enjoyment of the game has evolved, from playing competitively well into adulthood to watching an unprecedented abundance of world-class international matches on free TV, said D'Abramo, whose Toronto company specializes in surveying Canadians aged 9-29.

"We underestimate this; we always associate soccer as being a sport that kids play," said Youthography's director of research and strategy, who at 34 still suits up and who purchased TFC season tickets with some of his playing buddies.

"But it's such an easy and accessible sport, it's one that a lot of 20 and 30-somethings play with an incredible amount of leagues to support it."

The Toronto Central Sport and Social Club is one such league, catering to people in that age range who want a weekly game in a variety of sports. In its spring soccer program, there are approximately 125 teams of 10 players, said the club's Rob Davies. That means about 1,250 people shell out $500 each to play recreational soccer once a week a fertile ground for TFC fans. Television has also increased the game's clout, said former pro player Dick Howard, now an analyst with TSN.

"If you look at the listings on Saturday and Sunday, I could get divorced if I watched every game because I could go from 7:30 in the morning until midnight,'' Howard said.

"It's incredible how much soccer there is on television, with the World Cups and the European Championships going (alternately) every two years. And people can watch all this for free. It really has made a difference in building fans."

Thornhill's Linda Zysman said her 16-year-old son Ryan, who plays elite soccer, is a faithful Premiership and Serie A fan. At Ryan's request, she and husband Marvin bought season tickets because their son "is a soccer fanatic'' who wanted to add the live game experience to his TV watching. Zysman said the pricing $700 for three seats was another selling point.

While hockey is by far the No. 1 sport followed by young viewers, D'Abramo said his company's surveys consistently find international soccer and basketball are "neck and neck" for second and third. Rounding out the top five are NFL, then CFL and mothers, brace yourselves Ultimate Fighting Challenge.

However, Canadian audiences are not as kind to the TFC.

After an impressive 110,000 Sportsnet viewers watched a 10:30 p.m. season opener against Chivas of Los Angeles, only 15,000 tuned in the next week on The Score to watch the local lads at New England. And this past Wednesday, 21,000 saw TFC notch loss No. 3 in Kansas City on The Score.

Another element driving the potential success story in Toronto is the league itself.

When the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup, FIFA demanded the creation of a high-calibre American league. The MLS began in 1996, had many growing pains but the 12-team league appears to be financially healthier now and is reaping a $250 million injection of star power and sex appeal with Beckham's arrival. In addition, there's a clear acceptance by fans that MLS talent does not rival European or South American play but may one day.

"The international game is leaps and bounds ahead of the MLS," said Kiriakakis. "I think if we can build soccer in this country (through) the MLS and not to be laughed at by the international community, then I think that would be amazing."

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