Overall winner – Frenzied fans fuel Toronto FC

Toronto FC has scored some serious points since being officially introduced as the city's newest pro sports franchise in 2006. Although it may have yet to establish itself as a bona fide winner in Major League Soccer (MLS), it's irreproachably achieved that status in the eyes of Toronto soccer fans. They come to watch home games in droves.

Toronto FC has scored some serious points since being officially introduced as the city’s newest pro sports franchise in 2006. Although it may have yet to establish itself as a bona fide winner in Major League Soccer (MLS), it’s irreproachably achieved that status in the eyes of Toronto soccer fans. They come to watch home games in droves.

Since day one, the stands at BMO Field, a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium built just for the squad, have teemed with exuberant fans, chanting, even beating drums as they madly wave red team scarves in the air. TFC’s inaugural season saw 14,000 season tickets sold (two tickets per name), increasing to 16,000 in years two and three. The waiting list ballooned from 5,000 people in year one to 10,000 in year two and 16,000 this year.

When they set out to launch the brand, the team at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) behind TFC knew that winning over Torontonians wouldn’t be a cakewalk. The city’s saturated with well-established sports franchises, and its soccer fan base, though robust, is mostly fractured by differing ethnicities and team loyalties.

‘We knew that there are thousands of people getting up on Saturday morning and watching European soccer. It was important that we didn’t try and replace that for them,’ explains Paul Beirne, senior director of business operations for Toronto FC. ‘We wanted to be their local soccer club. You might be a Liverpool supporter sitting beside an Everton supporter, but you could share your love for Toronto FC and enjoy your mutual distaste for each other’s teams.’

That’s how the slogan ‘All for One’ was born, the rallying cry that MLSE, its internal agency Vision and original branding partner, Toronto-based design shop AmoebaCorp (Taxi 2 came on board as AOR in year two), used to entice hardcore soccer fans of all backgrounds from across the city.

Promotions really began with speaking directly to fans. TFC held pub crawls across the city where patrons could discuss the potential for a successful pro soccer team in Toronto with the team’s head coach, players and staff. They even had the chance to vote to finalize the team name.

‘Listening to our supporters was something that is core to this brand,’ says Beirne. ‘The launch was all about access. It was about going out to football fans on their turf.’

Advertising was created with a gritty ‘of the people’ feel, drawing from ethnic street art and handmade signs to establish a grassroots aesthetic, and featuring TFC’s logo and tagline printed in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Mandarin. It permeated throughout Toronto’s multicultural neighbourhoods via print, OOH executions, streetcar wraps and bumper stickers.

‘Celebrating the love of the sport and the fact that you have a place you can go and actually enjoy this game live, that’s where we found fertile ground for our brand positioning,’ says Rick Amaral, designer and strategist at AmoebaCorp.

To create an authentic fan experience, they drew from football leagues around the world like Italy’s Serie A league, Spain’s La Liga and most notably the English Premier League. For example, TFC is a football club – hence ‘FC,’ not soccer.

Most teams in those leagues come out of athletic associations, so TFC’s name and look hearken back to those origins. Their logo is classic and crest-like. The team’s primary colour, red, often represents champions in the sport. Membership cards were given out with season ticket purchases, and ticket prices were set to ensure the brand’s accessibility, ranging between $23 and $70.

And there are no mascots or cheerleaders. ‘Something we tried to avoid was the Disneyfying of the sport for North America – taking a property from the rest of the world and changing it to make it palatable for our audience,’ explains Mikey Richardson, co-CD and partner at AmoebaCorp.

The in-stadium atmosphere is also tailored to exude a sense of authenticity. The food served during games is not just hot dogs and pretzels, but also international fare. One popular initiative involved attaching TFC scarves to tickets to the team’s first home game of the inaugural season so fans could sport them in the stands, which is a regular spectacle at matches overseas.

‘This came out of an insight that Rick had as a fan of the game, and has turned into a huge trend for them,’ says Richardson. ‘There are [now] companies knocking them off and selling them in the parking lot.’

The team has reinforced the club’s connection to the international football world by arranging friendlies with reputable international squads. Most recently, a match against star-studded La Liga juggernaut Real Madrid set the fans at BMO Field, and all of Toronto, ablaze with football frenzy.

TFC also successfully leveraged corporate partners early on to enrich the experience, like title sponsor BMO Financial Group, a stakeholder in the stadium whose name adorns all of TFC’s gear, and Carlsberg, which has its own open patio at one side of the pitch.

‘When people, especially football fans, think of Carlsberg, they align it with football because they’re on [Liverpool FC] jerseys and others,’ says Beirne. ‘It was important for us to be aligned with a football-authentic beer brand, and it was important for them to own soccer in Toronto.’

Deals with media partners like Sportsnet and CBC (which is airing the 2010 FIFA World Cup), the Toronto Sun and MLSE’s own assets like Leafs TV, Raptors TV and the recently acquired Gol TV, have allowed TFC to extend their offering to fans at home. Given a modest marketing budget, TFC has also relied on them to activate the brand in market since its launch campaign.

Adidas, another major partner, is behind TFC apparel. On top of MLSE’s in-house merchandise stores at BMO Field and the Air Canada Centre, TFC apparel is sold in Adidas and related stores. The team currently leads MLS jersey sales.

Corporations have recognized the team as a cash crop, and quickly lined up to don TFC red. Since starting with 18 corporate partners in the 2007 expansion season, TFC now boasts around 40. The team experienced revenue growth of 25% from ’07 to ’08 and 10% from ’08 to ’09. It’s sold out of inventory but is trying to find more.

‘There’s certainly more appetite,’ says Beirne. ‘We expect continued growth for the next several years.’

The brand’s success in creating an authentic experience has even seen other teams borrowing from its playbook. TFC lent its business plan as a template to Seattle Sounders FC, who played their first MLS game this year, as well as Philadelphia Union, which will play its first game in 2010.

All in all, it’s really the fanatical joy and sense of camaraderie that Toronto soccer fans of diverse backgrounds share that’s been the team’s secret sauce. With consistent sellout crowds and a growing number of independent supporter groups like the Red Patch Boys and Tribal Rhythm Nation propping up the atmosphere, in year three its safe to say that TFC’s momentum is showing no signs of slowing down.

‘I envision an expanded BMO Field, I envision a dynasty, if you will,’ says Beirne. ‘I think we have an opportunity within our league to create a team that can not just win one year, but can be very competitive on a perennial basis.’

TFC fun facts:

- At every single home game in the 24th minute, TFC fans sing a song to (now retired) player Danny Dichio, who scored the team’s first-ever goal in the 24th minute of the fifth game of their inaugural season. Search ‘Toronto FC first goal ever’ on YouTube to see the foamy seat cushion frenzy that resulted.

- Here’s some possible campaign fodder: TFC is looking to replace the turf at BMO Field with real grass.

- TFC also likes to grow its own talent. It has a youth soccer academy that looks to attract the best talent in Ontario to its under-16 and under-18 teams.

TFC fan bios:

Name: George Watters

Age: 57

Profession: self-employed

Neighbourhood: Whitby

What is the craziest thing you have done in the name of TFC? At the All-Star game last year, and also at an L.A. Galaxy game, I dressed up as the King, Elvis, in a white jumpsuit with all the trimmings. My daughter Elizabeth sat with me in our two front row season tickets [seats] for the L.A. game, and my son Scott sat with me at the All-Star game – I made the highlight reel on Sportsnet. For the L.A. game and the All-Star game I was interviewed at half-time by CV2 [a segment on TFC TV]. We travelled to both games in a white stretch limo with all the family and a few close friends.

Name: Sarah Pittard

Age: 30

Profession: lawyer

Neighbourhood: The Beach

What is the craziest thing you have done in the name of TFC? I have definitely had some great times warming up for the games at the local pubs, but haven’t done anything too crazy (haven’t been tasered as far as I remember). I did inscribe our wedding date and names on the TFC Fan Wall as a wedding gift to my husband. We also had a Toronto-themed wedding, and the TFC was definitely part of that. Guests signed a TFC ball, and one of the tables was named BMO Field.

Name: Bobbi Guy

Age: 41

Profession: DJ/promoter

Neighbourhood: Little Italy

What drew you to become a fan of TFC? I was brought up in a football family. My uncle Tommy Docherty was manager of Manchester United, Chelsea and Scotland amongst others. Some of my cousins played for Wolves and Man. City, but I never reached the pro stage. I became a fan as soon as I heard the rumour of a club starting here.

Name: Tom Drilios

Age: 32

Profession: customer service representative

Neighbourhood: Greektown

What is the craziest thing you have done in the name of TFC? A month ago, I attended the open practice for Real Madrid. I wanted to get a look at this star-studded team. Well, I lasted all of five minutes. I fell over the leg of a barricade and got a bloody nose for my troubles. I guess you could say I spilled a little blood for the team. The nose is fine now. But that is the length I will go to for Toronto FC. And I have left my own mark on BMO Field.

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The Hour’s George Stroumboulopoulos