The Hon. Joe Volpe, Publisher
TORONTO - Nicola Sparano, Canada’s Dean of Soccer Reporters, earned a standing ovation when he delivered his rather straight-talking synopsis of the state of soccer in Toronto at a gala event to commemorate those who “built soccer” in this city. Mind you, the bulk of those present were of the “glory days” vintage. You know, the days when young men played for the “glory of god and country”.
Days when little money accomplished great results. When employers precipitated themselves to offer part time employment at full time rates to subsidize talent on the field. When clubs like the Polish White Eagles, Serbian White Eagles, Toronto Italia, Roma Club from Niagara Falls, Metros Croatia and others worked to establish what became the Eastern Pro League and its successor North American Soccer League.
It attracted quality talent on the field. Eusebio played with our very own Bob Iarusci and Carmen Marcantonio when Toronto [Metros-Croatia] won the famed NASL Soccer Bowl in 1976.
Roberto Bettega relaunched his career in Toronto. The fans loved him. He reciprocated, making himself available to fans and social clubs when others might have found reason to be elsewhere. He became an ambassador for the game, and Italian fans kept the game alive in Canada.
To be fair, other ethnic groups, like the ones mentioned above (among others) were as assiduous and energetic in their demand for top notch product on the field.
Franz Anton Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Pele’ and [again]our own Bob Iarusci gave the New York Cosmos some stellar memories, selling out stadia when the New York Giants and crosstown rivals, the Jets, could not. But American football had TV revenues and superb marketing strategies.
Toronto only had knowledgeable and loyal fans, thanks to people like Tino Baxa, whom Sparano acknowledges as his teacher, and former business partner/broadcaster Emilio Mascia who brought the World Cup Finals to Canada via satellite TV in 1978 and 1982. Heck he “donated” the finals to the CBC because he wanted all Canadians to enjoy the game the World loves.
But Soccer could not shake the image of being an “ethnic sport”, dependant on the support of one ethnic minority or another for its survival. “Appendages”, so to speak, to the main business model – to be cultivated the way that successful Empires of the past, Roman and British, did: divide and exploit.
Still, the game and its fan base are more important than the erstwhile owners and their administrators who lament that the “fan base” may not be as “responsive” as they should be. They prefer “homers” who buy the sweater and drink the cool-aid rather than those who demand quality and class in return for their loyalty.
Italian Canadians, for example, were responsible for securing the funding necessary to build what is now BMO Stadium. In so doing they were able to guarantee the FIFA under-20 Tournament for Canada in 2007 and, with it, validate the TFC franchise.
Without the stadium, the franchise ran the risk of collapsing or triggering an increase in the franchise fee of an additional $10 million – a 40% increase that would jeopardize a Toronto entry in the MLS.
Now that it is up and running, the business model seems to have changed. The Club’s expectation is best characterized by the saying “we’ve built it; it’s their responsibility to come”. True fans, like the ones indicated above, labour under a rather arcane expectation that the Franchise (ownership and players) might actually reach out to the “community”.
Image their surprise at the response by the TFC when the organizers of the Soccer Wall of Fame were told that, No Giovinco would not attend, as per their request. Giovinco for those who don’t know, but might care, is a Star player for the TFC in the MLS – a huge improvement over the much-ballyhood “bloody big deal” refugee from the English Premier League three years ago.
It is his and their right to say yea or nay thanks. In an e-mail (copy of which was obtained by Corriere Canadese) a TFC rep suggested that there was a correlation between the level of support by the Italian community and the negative response.
Injudicious, perhaps. We (read, I personally) called for clarification as to how the marketing department could ascertain the ethnicity of the ticket buyer. They cannot. They were in fact referring to the ability of certain organizations – four, to be specific - to “deliver” anticipated spectators on given “heritage nights”.
I suggested that their network may require some updating, inasmuch as Corriere Canadese and its staff continually connect with about 350 others beyond those four. There are probably an additional equal number in the TFC market base.
Case closed. Or so I thought, until someone from their Communications Department decided to douse a flickering flame with gasoline, suggesting that we were relying on third hand information, that we had no right to the e-mail, that I had not properly identified myself or that we were working on a story.
What arrogance! None of the four groups above are friends of the Corriere Canadese, quite the opposite if truth be told. They are, however, Italian Canadian.
A piece of advice to them: the next time TFC or some other “mainstream” organization comes calling, ask for a deep, deep discount. Their product and class is over-rated and your value under-appreciated.