Toronto FC - how to succeed in the fast-moving business of soccer
A football club needs to win – success on the field is what attracts the top players and creates scenes of euphoria in packed stadiums. It took Toronto FC 11 years to achieve 100 regular-season wins, but that seems to have changed. With six title wins from the past nine, Toronto have gone on to virtually dominate the Canadian Championship.
The club is looking hard to beat, not just within Canada but across North America. The Reds were undefeated at home this season with six wins and two draws, their latest victory at the time of writing being a 2-0 win against DC United on June 17, in which Sebastian Giovinco set up goals for Jozy Altidore and Jordan Hamilton in front of 28,627 ecstatic fans. That's a sell-out at Toronto's BMO Field, and another tick against Bill Manning's to-do list.
Manning is a survivor in a notoriously ruthless environment. A successful player at college and beyond who went on to become a US Soccer National “A” licensed coach, he went into sports management in 1993, graduating to the MLS in 2000 as President and General Manager of Tampa Bay Mutiny; named MLS Executive of the Year by the Washington Post.
Before coming to Toronto in 2015 Manning held leadership roles at Philadelphia Eagles, the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets and Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer (MLS being the top tier of the sport across North America). But it's a mistake to think running sport is just like running any other business, he warns: “I have seen a lot of very wealthy, smart people get into the sports business and try to run it like their other businesses – and fail miserably.”
Manning arrived at TFC at a time when the club was trying to recover from an extended visit to the doldrums. “When I came in my task was to provide some stability and consistency. Toronto FC had had nine coaches in 10 years, six general managers, and I was the fourth president in that time. Hundreds of players had gone through over that decade and continuity and stability were noticeably lacking.”
The foundations of recovery had been laid with the appointment of general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and chief coach Greg Vanney in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Manning joined this triumvirate with the task of ensuring a consensus in order to build the foundations of a successful franchise. “The key job I had was to bring consistency, stability and, of course, leadership.”
As the loudest voice among strong personalities, consensus building is at the core of Manning’s management style, which he otherwise characterises as democratic dictatorship. “I believe in people; giving them leeway to do their jobs, and frank and open communication. If you give them the support they need they can do great things.”
Manning’s experience gives him authority, and that's something that can only come with time. He says he wishes he'd known at 41 what he now knows at 51, but recognises the intangible nature of experiential learning, a big part of which he says is learning from one's mistakes.
The unusual thing Manning’s colleagues notice about him, he believes, is his eye for detail. The first thing he latched on to when he joined was not the five-year strategy, but the imagery on the club’s publicity photos; it focused too much on the star players, a keen eye he moved to team consciousness. “For me the little details can be very important. I like to see that everything is aligned. If something is out of alignment I usually catch it!”
The day to day relationship between Bill Manning, Bezbatchenko and Vanney is absolutely vital – other clubs take note. They don't always agree. If, however, one of the three passionately disagrees with a proposal, that path is not taken and another way found. Much of the time, such is his faith in these colleagues that his role boils down to supporting what the General Manager and Chief Coach wish to do, and that's how he likes it. “Being aligned is the main thing, and there's no confusion that our job is ultimately to win championships – we are all going to do whatever it takes to do that,” Manning says.
The best players are expensive, but what happens on the pitch defines the club. Clubs that tend to have a consistent group of players over time appear to do better than clubs that experience significant churn. The approach to the team has changed now, and Manning is happy to have been able to replace the ‘complete squad overhaul’ that seemed to happen annually, with fine tuning.
There is a direct correlation between success on the field and off the field, he emphasises: “The greater the success on the field the more tickets you sell, and the more advertisers want to get involved and sponsor you, like KIA Motors, who sponsor our training field. TV ratings go up.
“The more people following your team the more merchandise you sell, and the greater the number of people who come to the stadium the more concessions we can offload. Business success all goes back to success on the field.”
Back in 2014, TFC had lost its way on the field and fans were deserting the stadium. Manning credits much of the rebirth of the club to the former CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke, who enabled the club to engage some top players like the British striker Jermain Defoe and current captain Michael Bradley. “The fans responded by coming out to support us, and the teams started to do better. I had the opportunity after Tim left to continue to move forward and so far, it has gone well.”
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the parent organisation not only of TFC but also of Toronto's hockey and basketball clubs, the Maple Leafs and Raptors, is the operator of the BMO Stadium. The Maple Leafs are the senior partner, going back a century, now led by Brendan Shanahan. Meanwhile, the Raptors have experienced huge success in recent years under Masai Ujiri. Manning has deep respect for his fellow presidents, and there's no feeling of rivalry, he says, more a kind of corporate team culture reflecting what each of these leaders expects on the field.
MLSE takes care of the back office, allowing each of its pillars to develop independently. If he had any fears that soccer would be sidelined by its older, more mature partners, these have been dispelled. “TFC is a big beneficiary of the best practices across the other two teams,” Manning explains. “One of the great things about MLSE is that it's putting so many resources behind TFC and we feel on an equal standing with the other teams.”
Manning feels that TFC's ceiling is now higher. Soccer is growing fast in both Canada and the USA. Now that it looks like CONCACAF will host the 2026 FIFA World Cup in a joint bid between Canada, the USA, Mexico and the Central American and Caribbean nations, with 10 games booked for Canada, the sport can expect to go into turbo drive.
“I was in the US in 1994 when they hosted the World Cup and saw how it boosted soccer there,” Manning recalls. “We can do that for Canada in 2026.”
There is so much potential for Canadian soccer in general, and for Toronto FC, in particular, to grow. Last Saturday's sell out is a pointer. The average attendance is 26,000, but there's still headroom. Season ticket holders number 21,000, and if Manning can achieve his target of raising that to 24,000, and the renewal rate from its current 91 to around 95%, every game would be a sell-out.
Then the club could look at its pricing: the average ticket price is a modest $39, and the Toronto market can definitely sustain a reasonable increase. They also want the introduction of flexible pricing using the model adopted by the Raptors, where you pay more to see a match against a highly rated competitor. But that can only happen as long as the team keeps winning.
The next big challenge for Bill Manning, Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney will be to retain its hold on the Canadian Championship, which it won last year. Later this year they, and the entire population of Toronto, will be rooting to overturn last year's result in the MLS Cup, when TFC narrowly missed out to Seattle Sounders by 5–4 in a penalty shoot-out after a goalless 120 minutes (with overtime).
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.