New Vancouver Whitecaps CEO on how to win back fans in 2020

Jan 8 2020, 1:55 pm

The Vancouver Whitecaps have added to their executive team with the hiring of Mark Pannes as their new CEO. The Whitecaps’ global search was whittled down from 40 candidates, with the team picking the Norwood, Massachusetts native.

Pannes brings 30 years of experience in sports leadership — most notably six years with Italian Serie A club AS Roma, where he spent time as a CEO. He also worked with the NBA’s New York Knicks for 10 years, including three years as vice president, and helped launch the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

Pannes is the first Whitecaps CEO since Paul Barber, who held the position from 2010 to 2011. Meeting with the media on Tuesday, Pannes answered a number of questions, as the Whitecaps look for a bounce-back year on and off the field in 2020.

“I’m excited and motivated. The staff is excited and motivated,” said Pannes. “The question is can we harness it in a way that will really help drive the business?”

Winning fans back

The Whitecaps had a significant drop in fan support last season, with the average announced attendance dropping from 21,946 in 2018 to 19,514 in 2019.

Fans were unhappy with the on-field product, as well as the circus off the pitch. The team finished last in the Western Conference with an 8-16-10 record, so getting fans to return in 2020 could be a challenge.

“We want to fill the building,” Pannes explained. “It’s (soccer) configured to mid-to-high twenties (thousands). Selling tickets is a challenge.”

“I would say to fans, I can understand last season felt like it was bruising at times,” Pannes added. “The thing about sports, February 29, everyone is starting fresh.”

“When you finish last place in a season, there is always some impact on that. That’s what happens, we understand that.

“If you look already at what’s happened this offseason; we brought in (Sporting Director) Axel (Schuster), I’m fortunate enough to join the club, we have had already a significant signing (Lucas Cavallini) from a player standpoint.”

More player signings coming

The Whitecaps will begin training camp on Monday, January 20 at UBC and Cavallini remains as the club’s lone key signing this offseason. As players get set to arrive back in Vancouver next week, will there be any further signings to come before camp starts?

“We are absolutely on path to continue… people know there’s a six missing, there’s an eight missing,” said Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett. “We have Cavallini in there, but we are absolutely on path to continue (signing players).”

Ticket prices

Lowering ticket prices is a sure fire way to bring fans back to BC Place. But figuring out where to cut prices, and how that impacts the bottom line, is the tricky part.

Not every match is going to be a hot ticket, but you want to create as much demand and sell-out as many matches as possible. That starts with creating a positive fan experience.

“You’re cutting ticket prices in some places, and you’re probably increasing ticket prices in some places,” Pannes said, explaining his ticketing philosophy. “There are parts of the building that might not be selling well, and you try to optimize that.”

“The on-pitch product has to be compelling, that’s a given.That’s every team, everywhere. You try to enhance customer experience so it’s some place they want to go to.

“There’s going to be a series of games where everybody says that’s a marquee game, and then some matches where it’s a bad opponent, night of the week. The goal is to pull as many games in the middle, over the line.”

“You want fans to come and say, ‘I love our players, the way I’m treated when I’m there, and I love the environment’. That’s always the goal.”

New stadium plans?

Whitecaps fans have always wanted a soccer-specific stadium to call their own, with a waterfront stadium still the dream. While at AS Roma, Pannes was the project lead of the club’s €800 million Stadio della Roma development from 2013 to 2016.

“There isn’t a team in pro sports that would say they don’t want to have a purpose-built stadium for themselves,” Pannes said. “I think we have a building that’s a real asset right now with it’s size, muscularity, and location downtown.

“I think that’s the initial focus. We’ll see where the thought process leaves us, but for now, I think we’re focused on BC Place.”