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The growth of football in Canada

Rob Friend used to play football in Europe, in the German Bundesliga for example, and in the Canadian national team. 2014, he retired, but is still the heart of professional football and the development of professional football in Canada – as co-owner and CEO of Pacific FC, playing in the Canadian Premier League.


This article was initially published in the FBIN Magazine 27.
You can download the issue for free from our Content Hub.

How did you get from being a player to a co-owner and CEO of Pacific FC? How did that happen?

When I finished my (football) career, I already had a sort of business background. While I was playing, I always had other business sides or investment opportunities, mainly real estate. I was also educated at the university of business, so the business side of football was always interesting to me. When I retired in 2014, there was a discussion about the Canadian Premier League concept, and there were whispers about the World Cup coming to Canada in 2026. So obviously, a big opportunity for Canada to finally invest in football – with our own domestic league, something that was never available for players like myself before.

But of course, if there’s a business, it has to make sense, right? Because no one’s going to invest in the “start-up” League and lose a lot of money.

So the business case had to be interesting. Victor Montagliani (who is now the FIFA vice president) was the Canadian soccer president at that time, and he came up with a very interesting concept similar to the MLS’s. It means we bundled the league and then the national team into one business that owns, sells and controls the commercial interests and assets. So that’s one business that the owners in the Canadian Premier League would own. We would essentially purchase that off from the Canada Soccer and create this entity called Canada Soccer Business. Then that’s when you go sell the broadcast, major partnerships, and the sponsorship for the national team(both men’s and women’s) and the league.

That was when I got very interested in this as a business opportunity and, of course, myself as a player. I live in Canada, have kids, and am an ambassador of the game in this country. So I said, OK, I have to be involved in this because it’s going to grow the sport.

It’s going to provide opportunities for young Canadians that never have this opportunity; to support our national team. We also need to be relevant and make the World Cup, and so without our own domestic league, it will be challenging.

That’s kind of how it all started. I then brought in my other two partners, Josh Simpson (a former player) and Dean Shillington. They were very interested, and we came together. We said now we need a market, a city, a stadium. So we looked around and called the cities and their mayors.

A lot of cities said: “Well, we don’t know what the Canadian Premier League is, so we’re not going to invest”. Fortunately, we eventually found a city – Langford in Greater Victoria, on Vancouver Island and just a bit outside of Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city and region with about 400,000 people. So it was a nice size that we needed to create a fanbase and sponsorship base. The mayor agreed to build us a 6000-seat stadium if we brought the club. We’re now expanding to 10,000 seats because it has been so successful. We’ve been champions and having tons of interests. We also bring national-team games there, and it’s been a huge success. We have to thank the mayor for investing in the infrastructure because, without this stadium, we couldn’t play and have a franchise.

So when this journey began, I put both my business and football hat on together and used a lot of football intuition because I was playing at traditional clubs and understood the game as a player. Together with my business acumen, I know how to start a football or what a football club should be in Canada, which is what we created at Pacific FC. If you look at the club right now, we’re champions and have already sold players into bigger leagues – a solid business model in football. We have a strong fanbase of 4000-5000 fans for a small market like Canada, where you started from nothing. So it’s a very challenging but also fascinating journey.

As one of the founding clubs or founding members, are you somehow involved in the Canadian Premier League as well? 

So how the Premier League is structured is the founding members, the founding clubs, which were seven of us, and now we brought in Atletico Ottawa as a founding member. We all own the league together and have our percentage of the Canadian Premier League.

We’re all on the board of the Canadian Premier League and the Canadian Soccer Business, which controls the commercial interest in Canadian soccer. So we’re heavily involved on the board, make big decisions in the league, and make big decisions at the national team level.

So it would be like the Austrian Bundesliga owning the Austrian Football Federation as one business together. The founding members own it and control it together. And, of course, the national team’s success creates more interest and value in commercial and broadcast, which allows us to reinvest in the infrastructure and grow our league.

Rob Friend
Co-Owner & CEO
Pacific FC

So were you more or less involved in creating the league at the very start? 

Yes, exactly. We all founded the league together. We made an initial investment in purchasing the Canadian Soccer Business and acquired the rights of Canadian soccer for 20 years. We created and built this league from scratch and sat here three and a half years later when we started to see where this league is now. It was a start-up league, and after one year we had so much momentum but had to shut down for almost two years due to the pandemic. But we went through it, and it made us and the fans even stronger. It’s important that the fans and the community see that this league is here to stay and don’t just come and go like many leagues in North America. It’s not easy to have a sustainable league, but I think we do have one. We have the business model that sets us up for success.

You mentioned that you played at the traditional German and European clubs. What did you take from those clubs, and is there something you would like to do differently?

I think it’s a bit of a hybrid. There are a lot of traditions when you look at clubs like Hertha Berlin, Mönchengladbach, or Eintracht Frankfurt. But I think the challenge with tradition is it’s hard to leave them, right?

So I think what we can learn from those clubs how vital the fan base is and what the club means to the community. And that’s a fabric of football, right? What it means to the community, how it inspires the community, and how it’s a major part of your community. And when you’re from that city, representing that club is very important to you and your family. Hence, we have to educate the Canadians because people never had football and what a football club means to a community. We want to say that this city and this football club represent our community and the fans want to wear the shirt and go to games because it represents them. When building this club out, we must understand the community and its culture because every country or city is different culturally.   

So when placing the “tradition” element in Canada, which has a different sports culture, we have to educate people, especially young kids, what football means from the top down together with entertainment. Interestingly, in North America, sports and entertainment come together, unlike in Europe, where sports first and then entertainment. It means that we must have good food, good beer, and fun activities around the stadium. So we must have areas built in the stadium for families who want to bring their kids, the likes of face painting, bouncy castles, and so on. Meanwhile, in Europe, we go to the game, you watch football with a hot dog, a Bratwurst, and that’s it. So that’s one of the different elements we need to create our model.

With my background playing in Europe, I think we still need to build the community as the core, which will take some time to educate the people and the city. We need to tell them: “Hey, this is professional football, a global game. This football club represents your region, and you should be proud to support it. It’s more than just 90 minutes on the pitch”. So it’s a challenge, but I can see more people turn to us now and it’s taken 4 years to get here, but it’s part of the journey.

What were the biggest challenges when you first started with the Pacific FC?

I think it was defining the club and defining what it means. As I said, Canada is new to football, and football is new to the community. Most Canadians are hockey fans or other sports fans. Still, football (soccer) is a popular sport and has very high participation at the youth levels. There are also many immigrants who are also football fans, so it’s going to grow and articulate what football clubs can mean to the community. So the first task is to get the community’s support and figure out the right formula. Then the next challenge is to create the entertainment value for those families who pay for the tickets – how to offer them drinks, food, and entertainment at the stadium. It started with this concept of a club before we even kicked a ball, which is bizarre to think about. Imagine if you have to tell the people here’s a new football club in Vancouver and ask them to buy tickets or merchandise, but they have never been to a game and don’t know any players or coaches. However, once they are at the stadium, you have the opportunity to capture their interests and turn them into lifelong fans. So we always ask ourselves, how are we going to do that? How do we create the stadium experience or the connection with players? How can we invest in the community so they can feel that? So it’s the whole journey into the stadium and then keep them there and keep them as lifelong fans. And it was a big challenge when we first started.

So what are the challenges right now? How did you cope with COVID and any challenges post-Covid era?

Our biggest challenge in the country right now is making the Canadian Premier League more relevant and popular. If you go to mid-sized countries like Denmark, Norway, Austria, and Croatia, they all have their own leagues, right? I mean, you don’t have to be a football fan to recognize your country’s national league. We’re still not there as a country, so if you travel to Toronto tomorrow, get in a taxi and ask: “Do you know the Canadian Premier League?”. The answer is probably no. We’re still not there in terms of everybody knowing it. We’re still new but getting out more and becoming more relevant as a professional league. Everybody knows the MLS now, the likes of Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, or CF Montréal, but not the Canadian Premier League. So that’s the biggest challenge right now.

How big is the Pacific FC regarding how many people are working there, especially on the business side? How does your business situation look like at the moment?

Our targets are 4 to 5 million in revenue a year. Our average fan attendance is 3,000 on a low game. On a big game with a packed stadium, it would be 6,000. We have 15 business staff and 16 technical staff, and the players. So it’s a good size operation. We’re not at the MLS’s level yet, whose budget is 25 – 50 million, but we could be strategic to claim the Canadian championship and compete with the other three Canadian MLS teams. Last year, we beat Vancouver Whitecaps with a budget of $25 million and lost to Toronto, whose budget is $40-50 million. We’re now going into CONCACAF because we won the league. So I think you could compete with much smaller budgets, but you have to be very strategic and clever about how to compete on and off the field.

In short, I would say we’re a mid-level club that gets 3,000 – 5,000 fans a game, and though we have a salary cap, we still have to invest in that to be more competitive. We also want to be sustainable, and that’s why the salary cap is so important because you can’t have one or two owners trying to spend, and then everyone else tries to compete. Eventually, it will not be sustainable. We invest a lot in our business because it’s more than just football. We have strong marketing people and want to invest in the community. So we’re different from Europe, where sporting success is still heavy, and people tend to spend all the money on the performance.

What is the vision of the Canadian Premier League? And what potential do you see in Canada for a football league?

Our goal is to be a top-three league in CONCACAF. Of course, the MLS and the Mexican leagues are world-class leagues now with big investments there. So if we can be the third-best, I think we’ve done a tremendous job. Our target is to become the third-strongest professional league in CONCACAF in 5 years. So how do we invest in the youth in Canada? We have a lot of good players here, and how can we get them into the Canadian Premier League. Then how can they move on from there? I see nothing wrong with being a league that sells players, which is our goal. For example, the MLS – our neighbor league, is starting to spend a lot of money on player transfers. So how do we get them to invest in us? What is our international strategy? We have seen seven foreign players that were allowed to play per team. It’s important that we target very young international talents, not some 29-year-old but maybe a 19-year-old who does not have an opportunity in Venezuela or Colombia but wants to come to Canada. Hence, we must leverage Canada as a safe country where people want to live, and footballers play here.

It’s a combination of investing in Canadian football and the young players by identifying them and creating platforms for them to develop to be successful once they come into the Canadian Premier League. I’m telling you we have a lot of talents, and then, of course, the success of the national team directly impacts us because Canadian people will be more interested in the game, like: “Oh, I love Canada soccer. I’m a big Alfonso Davies fan. Maybe I’ll go to my local team, my local game. Because now I’m interested in Canadian football. And that’s going to grow the interest in the game here in Canada”. So that will have a direct success to our league. 

You know we have a five-year plan to be top three in this region, which I think we’re pretty close when you look at how our teams are already competing in CONCACAF.

How would the World Cup impact the league?

Since we directly own the Canadian Soccer Business, we have a tangible effect. Plus, as our national team is now in the 2022’s World Cup, more sponsors want to partner up with the national team, which is ours. So that sponsorship will go into us, and then we get to reinvest it into the Canadian Premier League and Canadian football. We have another World Cup in four and a half years in Canada, which will be even more investments and interest. That will again go back into our league to develop infrastructure and become stronger and more sustainable.

Which are the key revenue streams of the league? Is it the typical one, such as broadcasting/TV rights?

We have a fantastic deal with Media Pro, which owns broadcasting rights of La Liga in Spain. They bought our rights for ten years plus another ten years, and so we have a strong deal and stable revenue from them, and they do a fantastic job. We have a streaming service called One Soccer that you can go on and watch all the games. You can watch the Canadian Premier League and the Canadian National team when there are games, and they have some other leagues on that as well. It’s crucial to have some other leagues on the platform to grow and drive traffic because the more content we have, the more interest for the Canadian Premier League. Besides, streaming platforms compete for content. So One Soccer is not quite there yet, but it’s one of our number one objectives to become more relevant with people watching games outside the stadiums.

You are also a managing partner of SixFive sports and entertainment. That’s the owner, the owning company of a Pacific FC, right? Could you tell us more about it?

Yes. SixFive sports and entertainment is an investment fund that owns Pacific Football Club, and now we’ve also acquired the Vancouver Football Club. Of course, everybody talked about how you can own two clubs in one league, but the way it’s structured is more of an investment fund. There’s an entirely separate operation.

Investors have a lot of interest in football, but they can’t invest in a football club and don’t know what’s happening. With our investment fund, investors can now have the opportunity to invest in football with operators like ourselves who has the knowledge, the network, and an opportunity to invest in the Canadian Premier League without just spending a whole fortune. Most people can’t buy a football club in the Canadian League because it’s very expensive, and so this provides a chance for a lot of smaller people that want to invest in the game but don’t know how.

And with the growth of football in Canada, it’s an exciting investment. You’ve probably seen how the MLS clubs’ values went from $10 million to $500 million, LAFC even worth $ 800 million. We’re not going to be at that level, but there’s a growth opportunity and investments.

We also have other opportunities to invest in Europe like Austria and create a multi-club model with their investment funds. So this strategy allows us to become more efficient and centralized, maybe in scouting and marketing, thus allowing us to hire better people. So it’s just a way to scale a little bit better. So that’s SixFive sports, and we started the investment fund about a year ago. So we’re just starting to gain a lot of traction right now.

So anyone who wants to invest in football could get in touch with you to invest, right?

So if you want to invest in the Canadian Premier League and believe it’s going to grow and become more valuable with Canada and the World Cup. But you don’t have $20 million to invest in the football club. How could you be a part of this? That’s where we provide that opportunity. It allows many people, especially those in the community and Vancouver, to have small investments or a small piece of the club. This is important for people who want to invest small amounts and feel like they’re contributing.

You’re owning one club, owning the rights for a second club that is not yet playing, and you’re looking for at least one club in Europe. So what’s the plan for that?

That’s our short-term plan for the next 18 months in Vancouver. We just announced the location a couple of weeks ago, and now we’re promoting the brand and the club next month, most likely in June, and then we’re kicking a ball in next season. So Vancouver, or whatever we’re going to name, will kick a ball in the Canadian Premier League next year. So it’ll be the ninth team. Hopefully, we will acquire a European club in the next short term – 6 months. Then that creates a nice portfolio with the foundation that will always be Canadian football because that’s our passion, and that’s where I think the most opportunity is. But I think Europe is always Europe, and I believe there are still many opportunities to invest in the right European clubs. And then we have other ancillary opportunities such as marketing, or we’re actually starting a stadium company where we can build small stadiums, so it’s a little bit more than just football. But football is the core investment of SixFive Sports.

Interesting! Why a stadium-building company? Or is there something more than that?

We’re so far behind in Canada regarding football infrastructure. There are not even 100 football stadiums, but there’s a growing league. We have created a second division now that we call League One Canada. So now we’re starting the second division in Canada. They need small stadiums like 2000-4000-seat stadiums. So we partnered with one of the biggest stadium manufacturers in Asia to have them come to Canada and North America to build these. These small football stadiums are just as important as anything else. We’re doing this to build infrastructure around the country, and it doesn’t have to be 30,000 capacity. Small stadiums across the country are crucial to grow the game and create our own football culture in this country.

Is that something similar to the USL, which focuses not only on the stadium but also on the development of the surrounding area?

Absolutely. USL is doing a fantastic job by creating their own little niche right. The way I look at it is a bit society in general. For example, you don’t want to drink the big-brand beers, but the local ones, the ones in America, craft breweries, or you want to support the small coffee shop versus Starbucks. And I see football as an element that creates your own little micro-community where people would rather say hi to the person sitting next to them. People prefer to support that than the big corporate brands, right? This is something happening in the USL zone. Every club that comes up will create a new little community, stadium, and development infrastructure. They’re 10-15 years ahead of us, but, to me, we have some more interesting elements with our Canadian Soccer Business owning our own commercial assets, and broadcasting deal with Media Pro.

So you know, having eight clubs playing and the 9th club that is ready to play next season. What’s the vision for the league? At least in terms of the number of club members?

Canada is a big country, and I think we’ve targeted around 16 markets in Canada. It’s a pretty simple exercise, just population-wise across Canada, I believe there are 16 to 17 markets that are big enough to support the Canadian Premier League. We also have a lot of investors’ interests. The biggest challenge to our growth is the stadium infrastructure. There’s a market that investors want, but there’s no stadium. So the question is will the city pay for the stadium or the investors? Canada is a very expensive country for land, so buying land to build a stadium is almost impossible. So you would need support from the cities. That’s like what we’ve done in Vancouver and Victoria. Ultimately, our goal is 14 to 16 teams, and it’s not a matter of investor interest. There are, in fact, a lot of investors. So that’s why we have this slow but sustainable growth. Also, the pandemic slowed things down a bit more. Our goal is to add one team every year, like Vancouver, for the next year. If we get to 16 teams, we can be a very strong and fantastic league. The goal is by the World Cup 2026 in Canada, we can have 14 teams. And I’m very excited to see what it will look like.

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