From the Pigeon Loft: Pissing it all away

From the Pigeon Loft: Pissing it all away

My last column for AFTN was back in October when I penned an open letter to Bob Lenarduzzi calling for him to resign. I felt like the toxic culture of the organization had rotted its way from the front office right through to the dressing room and someone has to be held responsible for that.

But I would have called you a doom-monger if you had told me then that the worst was yet to come, and yet here we are, two thirds of the way into the worst season in Whitecaps history and possibly the worst since ever for a Vancouver sports team, except maybe the Grizzlies.

What was an angry string of tirades at the post-season press conference was a mere prelude to the subsequent operatic tragedy of sexual abuse, dashed hopes, aloof leadership, dwindling attendance, and a nearly complete inability to compete with other teams in both MLS and the CPL.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve written extensive letters to Rachel Lewis about the sexual abuse situation. I seem to have concluded every match watching experience with a long Twitter string about corporate strategy and supporter relations.

I’m literally at the end of my lanyard, seriously considering not renewing my season ticket, not because I won’t continue to attend matches, but because at this point I can literally get tickets for free.

I’m firmly convinced now that there is no way for the owners to be influenced to fix this situation meaningfully. Prompted by some very erudite arguments on Twitter from Rebecca Contant, and supported by research and reading I’ve been doing into the economics of American soccer, I am convinced that the owners have no incentive for listening to supporters, improving the competitiveness of the squad, or indeed even caring how many people are in attendance.

For these three men, Greg Kerfoot, Jeff Mallett, and Steve Nash, the benefit in owning the Whitecaps comes from the appreciation in the value of the asset. As an asset the Whitecaps are a bullet-proof investment. They play in a closed league with long term TV deals and a dedicated league marketing arm, a central contracting system that limits salary costs, and play in a publicly funded stadium with a sweet lease. They can run year after year of operational deficits because in the end, there is just enough revenue to make an Alphonso Davies deal a sweet windfall and the real riches come from expansion fees.

MLS is set to expand to 30 teams in the next few years, and each new team is due to pay upwards of $200 million for the right to join the league. Since the owners bought the Whitecaps franchise in 2010 for $30 million, they have helped themselves to a share of nearly a billion dollars. On top of that, once MLS closes the doors at 30, the value of teams will stay steady or increase as cities in the US vie for a franchise to put themselves on the map. Sacramento may well end up being the final resting place for the MLS Whitecaps. Perhaps the Whitecaps legacy will end up in the CPL (where we actually belong) or perhaps the whole 45 year history will simply evaporate and new local CPL teams will draw the few thousands left in Vancouver willing to pay for live soccer.

Regardless, the owners are operating on a financial plane that is far above the ability of supporters to have any influence whatsoever. They have been loyal to their Executive and completely shielded from local media (even protected, if you listen to some of the local radio hosts who have long standing friendship with Lenarduzzi). For us, trying to influence them by restricting their operational revenues won’t work. Many MLS teams play in front of empty stadia. The owners don’t care. They don’t need us, and in not showing up it just makes it easier for them to move the team. Boycotts work FOR them, not against them. In MLS everything is upside down. The asset increases, and the value of my ticket goes down.

It took a months long concerted effort by supporters groups and international media attention to even get the club to address the sex abuse scandal earlier this year. There were basically zero financial ramifications from addressing that situation. And it still took huge amounts of effort to pursue. If anyone thinks that getting the owners to shift their financial strategy is easy, they’re delusional.

And in response to this we got two words of cryptic encouragement: “Hang tough” from Steve Nash, who has some bloody nerve to tweet that out to long suffering supporters.

When the Whitecaps started in MLS it was promised as a “new era.” Little did we know what was in store, but it truly was a new era. It’s almost as if we deliberately erased our history. We went from a club with a glorious list of honours and a stellar reputation for developing World Cup calibre players for our national teams to a complete soccer backwater. BC hasn’t provided any players of note to the national men’s team for years, and in MLS the Whitecaps have languished far behind later teams like Portland, Atlanta, and LAFC in terms of on-field success.

And Bobby Lenarduzzi, the face of soccer in Vancouver for so long, the guy who is synonymous with the Whitecaps, has presided over the whole sorry mess. It’s tragic to know that his legacy will have been to sell out the club he helped build as a player and a manager to a team of billionaires who many feel don’t give a toss for local supporters and community all the while destroying local soccer through meddling in the local pyramid structure and amplifying a culture of cronyism, nepotism, and favouritism throughout the system.

My prediction is that, if things continue as they are, the owners will thank Lenarduzzi for his service and in a few years, after the expansion gold rush is over, they will cash in on their careful fiscal management of a community asset. My only hope is that they will find a local buyer for the team, but I doubt they will care at that point. If they are offered $350 million or more to relocate the club to the USA, at the end of the day that’s a tidy piece of business.

They are totally immune from criticism and poor public relations. They have shown no willingness to take responsibility for the worst season in the club’s history, let alone any willingness to stop the endless pain. The team needs serious injections of talent to compete on the field, and the Whitecaps are probably the only major professional soccer team in the world without a scout. What a shitshow.

I’d love for them to give us a real indication that this scenario will not come to pass, but I have no trust whatsoever in their intentions. It’s easy to see where the money is. Why spend when you don’t have to? Community support, care, and pride don’t show up in the balance sheet. The league table are determined in the Board rooms, not on the fields of play.

Hang tough, folks.

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There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Avatar
    M smith at 07:55

    very well written. A sad commentary detailing the complete incompetence of the Whitecaps ownership and management. You can add coaching- how can a coach of a professional sports team use the excuse “the players are feeling fragile”?

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