MLS owner sounds alarm bells in Montreal

By Paul Kennedy

As MLS enters its 20th season, there are a lot of good stories. New York City FC and Orlando City should both draw big crowds for their first MLS seasons. San Jose is opening its new stadium in March. The season-ticket bases of all three clubs will be at least 10,000.

Then there is the Montreal Impact, the club that has been left behind. That's not us sounding the alarm bells. That's Impact owner, Joey Saputo, saying it. In a brutally frank discussion with Montreal media at a roundtable last week, Saputo laid it all out.

His message: Things haven't gone as planned.

“The disappointment is thinking we’d be more relevant in the city after three years,” he said. “Either we missed the boat [in its promotional efforts] or we missed the boat totally in thinking this was a soccer market. When you look a it, maybe we’re not the soccer market we thought we were. If it means we have to work harder, we’ll work harder. But I won’t hide my disappointment with where we are in the overall sports landscape of Montreal.”

What makes the Impact's struggles so surprising is that it came into MLS with a solid base. Of all the teams that joined MLS from the USL or NASL ranks, none matched Montreal for its fan support, not Seattle, not Portland, not Vancouver.

Stade de Saputo opened in 2008 and was expanded when the Impact joined MLS in 2012. Montreal's average attendance of 21,688 for its three seasons ranks third all-time among MLS clubs, behind only Seattle and the LA Galaxy. But that's boosted by some huge crowds at Olympic Stadium for its first season before renovations at Stade de Saputo were complete.

Since then, Montreal's average attendance dropped 10 percent in 2013 and another 15 percent in 2014. Only Chivas USA saw steeper drops the last two season, and it is now out of the league.

Montreal and D.C. United will be the first MLS clubs to begin competitive action when they play the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals that begin at the end of February. In 2009, the Impact played in the CCL quarterfinals and drew 55,571 fans at Olympic Stadium for its match against Santos of Mexico. When Montreal faces Pachuca, another Mexican club, on March 3 in the second leg of the quarterfinals, it will be lucky to draw half that crowd.

“The buzz is not there anymore,” Saputo said. “Not only for the Concacaf game, I can say the buzz for the Impact is not there. That worries me a lot.”

Season tickets are the life blood of any sports club, and the Impact is lagging behind with only 5,000 season tickets sold for the 2015 MLS season. And that's after the club fell $2 million short of its target for ticket sales in 2014, according to Saputo.

Saputo tried to sound positive about the 2015 season. The Impact cleaned house after it fell into the Eastern Conference basement in 2014.

“If people are saying ‘Let’s see what kind of team we have before buying season tickets,’ I can say we did our part,” said Saputo. “We changed the team. We saw what wasn’t working last year. We brought in 11 new players. The 12th player, our fans, is tougher to sign.”

Still, the Impact has yet to make a big-name signing to replace retired Italian star Marco Di Vaio. Montreal made a bid to sign Alberto Gilardino, but the former Italian World Cup champion ended up moving to Guangzhou Evergrande in China on loan from Fiorentina. Saputo quashed rumors of the Impact trying to sign Antonio Di Natale as wishful thinking. He ripped Di Natale for believing "the streets of North America are paved with gold” and accused him of using the Impact and MLS to pump up his value.

Saputo tried not to sound too pessimistic. “It’s disappointing where we are now, but I don’t want people to start thinking we’re going to sell the team or shut it down,” he said. “We’ll continue to be there, but we hope the trend changes.”

Still, he doesn't like the trend he sees across MLS. “When teams spent a lot of money to bring in players," he said, "MLS likes that. But it’s not good for us because one of the teams that spends the most is our biggest rival."

Despite not making the playoffs in any of its eight seasons in MLS -- the Impact made the playoffs in its second season -- Toronto FC is expanding its BMO Field to 30,000 and continues to pump big money into its team, splashing out $35 million to sign Juventus midfielder Sebastian Giovinco and bringing in Jozy Altidore to join buddy Michael Bradley.

“Over time, only certain teams will keep spending, that is Los Angeles, Toronto and New York, and there will be those three teams and then all the rest,” Saputo said. “On one hand, it’s good because it brings credibility to the league, but long term, I fear it may hurt the league.”

Saputo, whose family dairy business had revenues of $7.2 billion -- U.S. dollars -- in 2014, sounded like he was pleading poverty when he talked about MLS Commissioner Don Garber's goal of making MLS a league of choice for international stars.

“For sure, if you spend crazy amounts on players it will be the league of choice," Saputo argued. "But for me, it’s not the way to do it."
11 comments about "MLS owner sounds alarm bells in Montreal".
  1. R2 Dad, February 10, 2015 at 1:19 a.m.

    This is not rocket science, Saputo. How is your academy developing? Do you have any homegrown players who will garner a lot of media attention? You can't possibly outspend the bigger clubs--where is your plan B?

  2. Futsal nation, February 10, 2015 at 10:40 a.m.

    R2, you beat me to it. Only other solution to spending big to aquire established talent is producing it yourself. Stop crying about it and pick one. In Chicago we see no development of future pro players whatsoever. We have 2 parent coaches running our Fire ACademy. All of their kids picked on top Academy rosters as starters. Coincidence? Thats why I stopped going to Fire games even though my kid plays for them.

  3. David Sirias, February 10, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

    Chicago and Montreal and San Jose should be huge clubs with gigantic academies and and least two international grade attacking players in their prime or near prime . They simply have inferior management and ownership unable or unwilling to spend. San Jose's new stadium won't save them long term from being bottom feeders unless they actually want to be a big club and invest and spend accordingly. MLS ' hard core base is becoming quite savvy. They see an organization trying and they come out even if the results are not there yet. See Toronto. See RSL . Even Dallas is getting that critical mass of hardcore fans in their un-ideal location because management now looks like they know what they are doing.

  4. Mike Jacome, February 10, 2015 at 2:49 p.m.

    No reason to panick, if a venue is no doing good I'm pretty sure there are many otherm markets ready to invest, Sacramento republic or even San Antonio Scorpions. We should stop thinking that one tw\eam struggle represent the struggle of the league. that is why any league around the world has a promotion relegation format. A team struggling more likely gets relegated and the space available taken by a team with a stronger management team willing to do what it takes to thrive.

  5. Amos Annan, February 10, 2015 at 3:54 p.m.

    Actually, the Montreal team has done a good job attracting talent. Problem is not all teams can win consistently even when the talent and money is there (see Toronto). Fans expect too much and consider winning the only measure of a team.

  6. Glenn Maddock, February 10, 2015 at 6:04 p.m.

    Suputo has nobody to blame but himself. He made the terrible moves that did not pay off. He's one of the richest men in MLS. He can sign anyone he wants to. He has no baseball team to compete with in the summer. He should be selling out every single match in that nice stadium. There are no excuses. Put a good product on the field and market the hell out of it.

  7. Rick Estupinan, February 11, 2015 at 12:22 p.m.

    Toronto bringing Altidore ? big mistake, bring a good South American striker like Valery of the Portland Timbers . It's time to think about good young talented players . In their last game the US National team ,in the last 20 minutes were playing with an attitude of "super stars",making bad back passes , afraid of going forward.They just look so clumsy to say the least.This guys will never get any better.But for JK they are Okay,specially Altidore.

  8. Clayton Davis, February 11, 2015 at 3:28 p.m.

    Does Montreal only have games broadcast in French? Once when I wanted to watch DCU and there was no local DC broadcast, I had to watch a local Montreal broadcast in French. Could this be contributing to their problems?

  9. Andrzej Kowalski, February 12, 2015 at 12:16 a.m.

    Impact is playing boring , defensive , counterattacking,physical soccer, with no offensive playmaking abilities. If you play soccer style like Real Salt Lake you would have much bigger attendance.Your head coach had shown no coaching talent in Chicago and Montreal.There were a few talented coaching candidates in MLS that know how to play and coach attractive soccer, Schalotto, Nowak,Preki,Mariner, Ralston,Richie Williams,Octavio Zambrano, but you did not offer them a job.Instead you hired a coach who has shown nothing good in Chicago.

  10. Andrzej Kowalski, February 12, 2015 at 12:21 a.m.

    You need to play latino style soccer, but you instead always go to Italy for players and coaches. Italians are famous for playing defensive Catenacio style soccer.

  11. Andrzej Kowalski, February 12, 2015 at 12:30 a.m.

    There are to big differences now in size of payroll in between MLS teams.I think the basic salary cup should be raised to 6 Mln and in addition each owner could add another 6 MLn and used as he wish no DPs.

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