Goal-Setter: New Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Mark Pannes aiming to grow global brand, fill BC Place

With the latest Vancouver Whitecaps front office signing, CEO Mark Pannes, we look at his introductory press conference on Tuesday, and see how he’s going to play a role to help them grow their brand, fill the stadium and more, as the front office rejig continues.

He might not score goals, but he can set and break them. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps made another off the field acquisition on Tuesday, announcing the hiring of their new CEO, Mark Pannes. After hiring a Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, back in November, the Whitecaps are making a similar hire for the business side of their front-office here, bringing in a face with a couple of decades of experience. 

From his time with the New York Knicks to working with the HSBC bank in London, with a stint working with AS Roma in Italy thrown in, as well, Pannes comes to Vancouver with a long history in sports and business. For Vancouver, who’s looking to bolster their off-the-field operations, striving to become one of the leaders in MLS in that regard, hiring Pannes is a step in the right direction. 

While the Schuster hire was part of a public search, one that was announced late in the summer of 2019, Pannes was an under-the-radar hiring, with the Whitecaps keeping the details of their search quiet until this week. 

“Just after the start of the Sporting Director search, we began quietly to look for a Chief Executive Officer, who we now have, Mark Pannes, today,” Whitecaps co-owner, Jeff Mallett, said on Tuesday. “We used Nolan Partners, the same group we used for the Sporting Director, so lots of coverage, we had 40 names, matches and interests, we got it down to 15, 15 got to 8, and then down to the final 4, and then my favourite thing happened, is that for everyone in our group, Mark was number 1.”

An organization looking to grow

Along with the addition of Schuster, the addition of Pannes gives the Whitecaps bigger executive credibility, something they’ve been aiming to build over the last year or so. With longtime club president, Bob Lennarduzzi, stepping down to become a club liaison officer this summer, along with the retirement of longtime executive, John Furlong, a couple of weeks ago, seeds of change have started to sprout in recent times, culminating with this hire. 

With this fresh slate of opportunity business-wise available to him, as the Whitecaps aim to leave behind a less-than-memorable 2019, it made coming here an attractive option for Pannes. A seasoned executive, he sees a lot of potential for this franchise to grow, as he looks to bolster the existing infrastructure with his knowledge gained at sophisticated operations such as the ones he had with the Knicks or at AS Roma.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of upside here,” Pannes said. “I look at this and see we’ve got committed ownership, you’ve got stable and sophisticated senior staff, but also, all the way down, both on the business side, and on the technical side, we’ve got pretty amazing facilities out at UBC, and tremendous sophistication in the organization in the youth pyramid, all the way up on a technical operations side.”

For someone like Pannes, who’s worked in global cities such as New York, London and Rome, coming to a relatively smaller Vancouver is an interesting endeavour to undertake. While Vancouver itself is a city on the rise, it’s not really the biggest footballing market, especially compared to a team like Rome, whos international brand recognition dwarfs that of the Whitecaps. 

Yet at the same time, Vancouver, and by extension, MLS, is finally starting to make a dent globally, so making this move does make sense for Pannes. With the sale of players such as Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams, Miguel Almiron and Zack Steffen to high-level Bundesliga and Premier League teams, MLS is finally starting to pave its way to becoming a growing league, one that can provide players good enough to make the jump to massive teams like Bayern Munich, a move that former Whitecaps man, Alphonso Davies, has done rather effectively this past year. 

MLS teams are poaching more and more young South American, African and Asian talent, stockpiling players that can grow the quality of the league, before turning profits by moving them on to hungry European teams, which is a win for the league. By doing that, MLS is starting to find a way to grow beyond the traditional growth methods seen by North American leagues, which is usually paced by high-priced expansion fees and big TV deals. 

That’s not to say MLS isn’t also following that same path, but compared to a sport like American football, where the NFL has cornered the market, the MLS is fighting a different fight, one that requires stepping outside the typical financial boundaries of American sport. 

It’s a big reason why Pannes was so excited to come to Vancouver, as he looks to help grow the team and its brand, looking to capitalize on and maximize the growth that MLS is experiencing. 

“I’m a big believer of marquee clubs in marquee cities,” Pannes stated. “And it’s unquestionable that Vancouver is a marquee city, and it really sits in a Nexus, it’s part of the Commonwealth, so there’s a 50+ country network that we’re going to be able to have a presence in, and then it (also) sits on the Pacific Rim, as gateway.”

“This is a city that has that, it’s a very unique combination, it allows us to reach into Asia for fans and players, and allows us to reach into the Americas for fans and players, it allows us to reach into Europe and Africa for both (fans and players), it’s a very unique combination.”

He also added: “There’s a lot of stability here, at the ownership level. Often times, at the clubs I worked at, I’ve been fortunate enough that when I arrived, first as a junior person in New York, you get to learn a lot, observing, although I spent a decade there, but at the beginning, you see clubs at a fluxion point, they’re ready for significant growth. There’s an old line that says: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes’, and it sure sounded like it was rhyming here.”

Stadium Questions?

Jeff Mallett at a press conference in August (Keveren Guillou)

One big question that quickly arose when Pannes’s name was announced was surrounding BC Place stadium, as Pannes played a big part in Roma’s attempts to build a new stadium during his time with the club, instantly making people wonder if something similar could be in store for Vancouver. With rumours of the Whitecaps wanting to build their own soccer-specific stadium dating back to even before their MLS days, Pannes seems a logical fit to lead a hefty venture like that, as they look to maybe one day become yet another team to join the parade of soccer-specific stadiums in MLS. 

But that day won’t be in the near future, at least according to Pannes himself, as he conceded that while all teams dream of building their own stadium, the Whitecaps do have a pretty good venue themselves. 

While a lease with BC Place also probably ties their hands to a certain degree, it can’t be ignored that teams such as Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders have succeeded in making their similarily-profiled buildings become among the best and most feared in MLS, giving Vancouver a blueprint to build around. 

“I think there isn’t a team in pro sports that would say that they wouldn’t want to have a purpose-built stadium for themselves, for sure,” Pannes conceded. “What I would say is that I think we have a building that’s a real asset right now, in its size and muscularity, and it’s location downtown, and so forth, so I think that’s the initial focus, and as we get in and dig in a bit, we’ll see where the thought process leads us, but for now, we’re focused on BC Place.”

So if anything, expect more when it comes to the relationship between the Whitecaps and BC Place. People have long-stated that BC Place could be filling up a lot more than it currently is if the right changes are made, as soccer has a history of putting fans in seats in the building, at least if past Vancouver franchises are any indication. 

With the Whitecaps usually among the top half in attendance in MLS, despite their soft capacity cap sitting in the high 20 000s, people drool about the prospects of them opening up all of the 54 000 seats on a regular basis, joining the elite of MLS in terms of attracting people to games. 

And considering that Pannes immediately pointed out how enamoured he was with BC Places’s potential, look for that to be a goal for Vancouver to pursue over the next couple of years. 

“I look at BC Place, and we’re not an MLS side that’s constrained by a 22 or 25 000 seat building,” Pannes confidently stated. “As I was doing my research for this opportunity, one of the things that stood out for me was that when the city of Vancouver was half as large as it is today, it was able to draw, on occasion, upwards of 50 000 people.”

“It’s a 54 000 seat stadium, and there’s a lot of customization possible with the sale structure, so whether we’re drawing 25, 30, 35 or more, we have that capability, there’s some flexibility there to create a really intense home-pitch advantage, and that’s something that’s very appealing.”

They’re not just going to open up all of the seats and just let things run rampant right away, with Pannes’s talk suggesting that it will certainly be a medium-term goal, at least while observational studies to improve attendance occur, but it’s good to see that it will be something that will be tackled head-on. 

Even when they have 25 000-29 000 people, if they’re all engaged, BC Place can bring the noise, so even just building on that number would be exciting. As the on-field product improves, while changes are brought to the advertising, ticketing and fan engagement side of affairs, attendance will only rise, and with Pannes open to really maximizing the potential of BC Place, that means that some big crowds could be coming in the future. 

Up first, however, is building off of what they have, and then from there, they’ll see. 

“Obviously, we want to fill the building,” Pannes said. “When we say fill the building, it’s configured for mid-to-high 20 000s, we want to fill that. So selling tickets is part of the challenge. I think the league has media deals coming up, so there’s some anticipation that comes along with that.”

One big thing to tackle to help that? Finding a way to bring fans in, and keep them. BC Place can sell out for soccer, as seen by the 54 000 fans that piled in to see Mexico play Canada in 2016, and those fans can definitely also come for the Whitecaps, with derby and playoff games attracting in the neighbourhood of 29 000 fans.

But the hardest part of attendance is making noise beyond those novelty games, where everyone wants to go watch, such as derby or playoff matches. When Vancouver is playing Orlando on a Wednesday night, they still have to find a way to fill the building, and that’s a task that Pannes says will be crucial to work on. With that, growth across the board will come. 

“As far as bringing people in, look, the on-pitch product has to be compelling, that’s a given,” Pannes said honestly. “And we saw when we were in last place, we had issues last year, but that’s every team, everywhere. And then you’re trying to enhance the customer experience so that it’s someplace that they want to go to. So the way I always try to explain this is that there are going to be a series of games that everyone’s going to say: ‘that’s a marquee game’, (Seattle) Sounders, absolutely, Toronto, we want to see that match, LAFC or LA Galaxy, we want to see those matches.”

“And then there’s going to be some matches where you say: ‘Oh, there going to be really tough’, where people aren’t going to be attracted to that game, the opponent isn’t a good opponent, it’s a bad night of the week, whatever else. The goal, from a front-office standpoint, is to get the rest of those games, if this is kind of the dividing line between these are must-see, and these are the not-so-much, is to pull as many games that are in this middle 60% over the line to that ‘oh yeah, this is compelling, I want to go’.”

A global brand?

While growing their reputation within their market is important, especially if they want to improve attendance, extending their global reach is going to be big, as well. As mentioned earlier, that can come through using Vancouver’s market potential, reaching various fans and players across the globe, but it can also come by growing their brand. 

With Jeff Mallett saying that MLS teams have now been given more flexibility to pursue global corporate sponsorships, distancing themselves from the typical MLS bubble that envelops those kinds of things, it gives teams free rein to pursue deals that can positively grow their brand. Given that operating within that MLS framework usually restricts teams, which is good for sustained growth, but not necessarily positive news for teams looking to be aggressive, Pannes will be expected to help Vancouver’s quest to start reaching out to new shores. 

Along with a new TV deal soon coming into the league, expected to inject money to teams on both sides of the 49th parallel, MLS franchises will continue to grow in the near future. Allowing MLS team brands to expand globally will only help exposure for the league, which also helps the product on the pitch, which are both things fans hope to see when they support a circuit.

Which for Pannes, who has plenty of experience with the brand side of football clubs from his time at Roma, it’s an exciting opportunity to use that experience, along with this opportunity, in order to help put the Whitecaps on the global footballing map. 

“But also the deals with Canada are going to be a little different than US deals, as part of that, so there’s a series of things that’ll be going on there,” Pannes said. “For sponsorship, I think that’s one area that we’d love to bring in some global partners, that was something that sends a real significant signal to the market (at Roma), when we brought in Nike for our kit deal, we did a deal with Disney, we did a deal with Volkswagon, with some major global brands, so those were very catalytic in making things tangible for fans, and signing players.”

“And I’ve got to tell you, the ability to work, joined at the hip with Axel is pretty awesome, because his reputation globally is outstanding.”

Growing the football club

Signings such as Hwang In Beom are seen as the start of a shift in the way the Whitecaps recruit (Keveren Guillou)

At the same time, despite talk of global brand outreach, all of it’s for naught if you can’t perform on the pitch. There’s a reason teams like Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, amongst many others, dominate the global market, and that’s because they achieve success on the field, complimenting their various off-the-field ventures. 

While MLS is in a much different situation than their European peers, even looking at South America paints a similar picture, with clubs such as Flamengo, Boca Juniors, River Plate, Gremio and Santos being globally recognized teams, despite not being in that centralized European football market, thanks to the success those teams have had in terms of winning trophies and developing players. 

That’s why selling an Alphonso Davies is as important for Vancouver as signing a brand deal with a global car company would be, because while the former brings in money and boosts the club, the latter usually does not exist without that sale, which creates an interesting relationship. Footballing success paves the way for business success, and that means developing, selling and buying good players, while also competing for domestic trophies, before also pushing towards continental success. 

And that’s something that Mallett stressed on Tuesday, when the subject of improving the team was raised.

“At the end of the day, we’re a football club,” Mallett said. “That goes, as we talked about, from first kick, we’ll have our camps, we’ll have our academies across the country, we’ll have our MLS academy, we’ll have our REX program for the Women, so it’s all about developing football players. To discover the game, and go to elite status. And that’s what we all rally around, it’s the pillar, that’s what we do for a living.”

“And then what we do, is then match them up with fans, whether it’s BC Place on a Saturday, whether it’s Chilliwack for a camp, or whether it’s in Yukon for the academy, and our job is to measure that, and that’s the commercial element that allows us to buy Cavallini’s, so that’s the model we go about, so that means the real excitement effort is around the FC.”

That’s why these off-the-field changes are important, as these different aspects of the Front Office interleave with each other, making it important to focus on the football as much as business. While MLS seems like a foolproof investment, given that the expansion fees have increased substantially, raising some franchise values ten-fold over the last decade, instead of sitting back and waiting on things continuing to increase, Vancouver appears to finally be chasing the growth themselves, at least if the hiring of Schuster and Pannes are to be any indication. 

Considering that the pair have been hired to bolster both the business and footballing sides of operations, and that those two aspects are overtly linked, it also means the on the pitch should improve, at least if the Whitecaps are to strive towards some of the business goals they ambitiously stated. For a team that’s been typically rather thrifty, 7 figure investments on players such as Ali Adnan, Hwang In Beom, Lucas Cavallini and Erik Godoy have shown that they’re looking to avoid falling behind the Elite of MLS, who have typically spent numbers that dwarf what Vancouver usually spends. 

And with more signings still to come this window, with several roster gaps still yet to be filled, Mallett doubled down on the promise for more, saying that his team isn’t done acquiring and investing in talent. 

“The answer is absolutely,” Mallett stated. “We’re absolutely on path to continue on this one, people know there’s a #6 missing, an #8 is missing, we’ve got a Cavallini in there, but absolutely we’re on that path.”

While it would have hoped that there would be more player acquisitions than front office ones at this stage of the offseason, sometimes you need to get your house in order before inviting people over, so these recent moves are positive in that sense. The jury will be out on how these hirings perform in their new roles, and how the players brought in live up to expectations on the field, but just having organizational structure can be positive, especially for a team that has typically been accused of not having much over the past few years. 

So for now, it’s just time to wait for results. On the pitch, they’re expected to improve rather soon, especially with the investments shown in some players, as they hope to use short-term success to pave the way for a longer-term developmental model. Off of the pitch, they’ll hope to use Pannes’s experience to start building some big projects on the business side of things, such as filling up BC Place and growing the global Whitecaps brand. 

The off-field stuff won’t come fast or easy, but given what was said, Vancouver seems committed on working towards it, so now it’s waiting for that project to continue and develop.

“I always talk about bamboo,” Pannes said. “When you plant bamboo, it’s probably this big (about a foot) this year, but the taproots are growing down about 8 or 10 feet, and at the 18-month mark, you’re like: ‘Wow, it’s 6 feet in 6 months!’, and at the year and a half mark, you’re like: ‘Wow, it’s 15 feet tall, how did that happen?’. 

“Well, that happened because you’re allowing it to get all that infrastructure built, and all that strength, that may not be visible in the first 60 days, or 90 days, or even 1 full season, but you’re going to see signs immediately, on both sides, but don’t underestimate how important is to get structured right.” 

Bonus: World Cup dreams still smouldering?

While we didn’t fit this into the rest of the article, there was an interesting nugget dropped by Mallett on Tuesday, surrounding the 2026 Men’s World Cup, which will be played in Mexico, the US and Canada. 

Vancouver didn’t originally look likely to be a host city, with British Columbia and FIFA supposedly unable to reach a consensus on a potential deal, but Mallett said that hope isn’t quite dead when it comes to Vancouver maybe playing host to the World’s finest in 7 years time. 

“We’ve recasted a 2026 plan,” Mallett said. “When the world comes to our front door, the football world, comes to our front door, and that’s another project we’re working on, hopefully it’s really on our front door, in Vancouver.”

It’s hard to know what kind of plan they’d have as regards to making that happen, especially considering how dead the possibility looked a year ago, but given the public scope of his comments, you’d figure he’s been in conversation surrounding the matter. With BC Place already hosting big Canada Soccer fixtures, it was always thought that they’d involved themselves with this event, especially after hosting the Women’s World Cup final in 2015, but things seemed impossible after Vancouver pulled out of the original plan for Canada. 

While there’s clearly a lot of moving parts in this situation, it does seem that some things aren’t set in stone, so maybe this could be the start of the Men’s World Cup making it’s way to the Pacific Coast. After plenty of twists and turns in this story, another shift has come, so now we’ll stay tuned and see in which direction it leads things.  

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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