Mark Noonan was sitting in a downtown Toronto boardroom, bags under his eyes, looking a little frazzled from his flight to Canada a few hours earlier. Still, he wasn’t interested in sitting still for long.
As the new Commissioner of the Canadian Premier League and CEO and Canadian Soccer Business (CSB), Noonan wants to do one of his first work orders visiting each of the league’s markets, and perhaps a few more that the league is entertaining to give the welcome to the fold, to “truly listen and try to understand what is unique here about soccer in Canada”.
“You really need to understand those nuances,” he said. the athletic in a 20-minute conversation, “before you can be really effective.”
With the Canadian women’s national team winning Olympic gold in 2021 and the men’s national team qualifying for their first World Cup in 36 years soon after, it could be shown that domestic soccer has never been more popular in Canada. And now, Noonan will be tasked with adding to that popularity even further.
Noonan comes to Canada with the kind of soccer experience that his predecessor, David Clanachan, did not have. Noonan previously spent two years as director of marketing at the United States Soccer Federation, where he was tasked with developing the US Soccer brand. Noonan eventually moved to Major League Soccer as Executive Vice President of Marketing and Fan Development. Most recently, Noonan served as the CEO of Accra Hearts of Oak SC, in Accra, Ghana.
the athletic spoke with Noonan about changes she could make to the CSB and CPL, the importance of a women’s league in Canada, and plans before Canada co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.
(This interview was edited for clarity and brevity)
Soccer has arguably never been more popular in Canada. Much of his football experience is based on the marketing of the game. How can you make the CPL more attractive to a curious audience?
First of all, as a marketer, you can never fake your product, right? The most important thing is your product. And that is what is happening in the field. You can have a great TV, you can have a great brand, you can have catchy commercials, you can do all the marketing tactics, but you can’t fake a product. We are a four-year league that was affected for two years by the pandemic. So we have a lot of work to do in that regard.
But we have to expect great results at the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and then obviously when it’s at home here, because as much as we can do from a marketing standpoint, the results on the pitch create excitement.
CSB has faced some public criticism after Canada’s national team players refused to play a friendly, in part due to questions about business. What is your vision for the CSB?
CSB’s vision is to be the revenue engine for soccer in this country and to be able to generate revenue to reinvest in the sport, whether it be in infrastructure, in player development, in player salaries. I am not close enough to the problems related to working with Canada Soccer. But one of the things I know from my experience is that there isn’t a successful sports league in the world that doesn’t have meaningful, sometimes difficult, discussions with its work, particularly as it grows and more money becomes available. .
So the fact that football is getting to the point in this country where there’s some debate and discussion about who gets what, that’s a good thing. It’s hard sometimes, of course. And there has to be better communication. But at the end of the day it shows that there is a maturation here.
When the men’s team refused to play Panama, they called for “transparency and a review of the Canada Soccer Business agreement.” Is that review something you plan to do?
First of all, I haven’t even met with our partners at Canada Soccer. I think it’s premature for that particular question. I don’t know all the details. I don’t know what communication has taken place since that game. So that’s a question I can’t answer right now.
But speaking specifically of the CPL, we’re open to talking with our players and we look forward to having a healthy dialogue with them about how to achieve success for the league, and that includes all of our stakeholders – that’s the players, that’s the staff, that’s the property. Those are the communities we serve. We have a lot of stakeholders like Canada Soccer that we need to make sure they benefit from any growth and the key that we all need to keep in mind is that we need to do what’s best for soccer in Canada, not one specific group in particular.
So how do you plan to proceed with the CPL player unionization efforts?
As I understand it, the CPL board has reached out to them and told them that we are open to having a discussion at the end of the season. And that’s where it is now.
I was reading about a December 2000 meeting with the MLS executives that MLS Commissioner Don Garber has since called “probably the most important game in the history of the league.” There was a level of urgency as meeting attendees realized that as teams folded, team owners needed to invest even more money for the league to survive. Do you see any parallels between where MLS was back then and where the CPL is now?
That meeting went exactly as Don described it. It was a crisis. In fact, I wrote a press release about withdrawing from MLS. And sadly, we ended up signing two teams at that meeting, for all the right reasons. We needed to do that so the remaining 10 teams would be healthy. And that was also the time when we created Soccer United Marketing (SUM), and bought the television rights for the 2002 World Cup on US soil.
When I look at what have been the assets that have been brought together here within the CPL and the CSB, there are a lot of parallels, because the reason SUM was created was because there was a lot of interest in football at the time. the United States, but it was really fragmented. There was not enough interest in MLS. There was youth participation, there was women’s soccer, obviously there was a huge and growing Hispanic fan base for the sport. But without SUM, to be able to create opportunities to capture soccer audiences, to talk to soccer audiences from different segments, MLS would probably have continued to struggle. It was that combination of assets that really put the league on a stronger foundation and helped give it the ability to grow.
And it’s not the same here. We have to do it in a uniquely Canadian way. But I learned a lot through those, those very challenging years. And hopefully, I can apply some of those lessons here.
What have you learned that can be applied? I live a 10 minute walk from a CPL stadium and sometimes you wouldn’t know the team exists in the community. How can the marketing of the league be improved at the local level?
Every market is going to be different. There are nuances, so I’m not going to talk about a specific market, but the most important thing is to be consistent, be authentic and do it over time.
One of the things I like to talk about is if there’s a soccer ball being kicked in your community, we need to have a presence there. We need to figure that out from a grassroots point of view, whether it’s a club logo, the CPL, the national team, but it’s creating a presence. Maybe that’s just showing up unannounced with some branding stickers or materials. It’s really about connecting with the organizations that organize football in the communities and showing them that you care. In some cases it’s about the practicalities of the business, getting you to a game, letting you experience the game, putting together a great package of tickets for your team at a discount, maybe we’ll walk you through the locker room at some point, or we’re going to let to go down to the field or that kind of thing. It’s creating that connection between people who are starting to get into the game and fueling that, hopefully turning it into a passion.
Should we expect further expansion of CPL in the short term?
We’re definitely going to be looking for a lot in an expansion. We know that there are several great Canadian cities that deserve a team. And we need to grow our footprint.
One thing I learned the hard way in MLS is that if you don’t have the right conditions for expansion, you will fail. If we don’t have the right owners, if we don’t have the right stadium situation, if we don’t have the right community support, if we don’t have the right business support, if we don’t have a support group that is very excited and will really start to evangelize for the new club, we are not going to be successful. And when we get those, I’m excited to bring in some new clubs.
Is a CPL salary cap increase possible as a means to compete with other leagues and improve the product on the field?
It’s a discussion we’re going to have at the board level. I don’t see that we are going to sign Lorenzo Insigne right now. But I need to understand if we’re losing players because we can’t pay them another $10,000 or something.
Let’s imagine in a perfect world, when either BMO Field in Toronto or BC Place in Vancouver host their first match in the 2026 World Cup, what will the CPL look like?
We are bigger. I would say between 10 and 14 teams, as long as we have those conditions to be successful. I think we have grown in all aspects of our business. Our product has improved.
We’re going to take a very, very hard look at the development of a women’s league. We have that in League One, and we’re going to sit down with our partners in Canada Soccer. And I say that not because it’s the right thing to do, I say that because I think it’s smart business. And you see what’s happening in places like Barcelona, Lyon, the Women’s Euro Cup, NWSL will have 27,000 fans at their San Diego game, Kansas City is putting a new stadium online. So I think there is a business opportunity there.
What has to happen for that to happen?
Let’s be perfectly honest, I need to meet with the people of Canada Soccer, I need to meet with our board, we need to do a lot of research.
But I can tell you that it is something that is going to be high on the research agenda. I want to be very clear: tomorrow we are not starting a women’s league. But it’s something that I think is a really good potential business opportunity. And we’re going to look into that with our partners at Canada Soccer and see if and when it makes sense.
(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Premier League)