Paul Barber, CEO, Whitecaps FC

Paul Barber left one of the biggest football clubs in the world to take over the Vancouver Whitecaps as they made the big move to Major League Soccer.

Paul Barber left one of the biggest football clubs in the world to take over the Vancouver Whitecaps as they made the big move to Major League Soccer.

This year the Vancouver Whitecaps made the leap up to Major League Soccer, the big leagues of North American soccer, which meant they needed a top executive with experience in the business of the beautiful game at the highest levels. In Paul Barber, they found their man – the 44-year-old Brit was already running day-to-day operations for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Tottenham Hotspur FC. All the Whitecaps had to do was convince him to leave his childhood dream job and move halfway across the world to take the helm of an unproven team.

How did you get into the soccer business?

Well, soccer is my sport. I played it from a very young age and have basically been lucky enough to play and coach and then move into the administration side of soccer. It’s been a long journey, probably since the age of about six years old.

What was your first administrative job in soccer?

That would have been around 1995. At that time I was working with the English Football Association and would have been working on England’s bid to stage the 2006 World Cup, which was ultimately unsuccessful. But that was my introduction to working in professional soccer. 

And then, from there, you managed to make your way into the Tottenham front office.

Tottenham is my hometown club and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to join the board of directors there in 2004. I stayed for over five years running the day-to-day operations of the club. I supported Tottenham as a kid, so to end up there almost 30 years later as a member of the board of directors was a great honour and a great privilege for me. 

Were you handling a lot of the commercial stuff, the business of soccer, at Tottenham?

Yes, I ran the day-to-day operations of the football club. So everything from television rights and sponsorship through to the team travelling across the world to play international friendly matches, to various aspects of the club administration. 

How big is Tottenham FC?

It’s one of the top 12 soccer clubs in the world by financial comparisons. They have around 20 million fans worldwide and obviously it is one of the oldest clubs in the world, about 130 years old now. Older than the city of Vancouver, actually! 

You were working for your childhood club, a major global business, and you decided to move to Vancouver and work for the Whitecaps. What inspired the move?

That’s a good question. There were two reasons, one professional and one personal. The professional one was that the opportunity to take the Whitecaps into Major League Soccer – to be the first British guy to lead a club into the MLS – was, for me, a fantastic challenge. It represents something unique in terms of soccer administration – to lead a club that is not only based in a beautiful city, but also one that had 40 years’ worth of its own history. 

From a personal point of view, I’d never had an opportunity when I was a kid to live abroad. My parents didn’t move to take up any jobs overseas when I was a kid. So to give my own children the chance to live and go to school in a different country, different culture, different climate, different way of life was just something that we felt was quite important for kids of this generation. So put those two together, the professional and the personal, and add to that a city as beautiful as this and I think it was a fairly easy decision. 

How big a deal is this step up to the MLS for the Whitecaps? As you say, this team has been around for a while, but not playing at this level.

It’s massive in two ways. First of all, from a sporting point of view, MLS is the highest level of soccer in North America. The competition is very tough. Off the pitch, from a commercial point of view, it’s a huge step up. We’ve gone from average crowds of 4,000 at Swangard Stadium to 20,000 at Empire Stadium. All of our games are now broadcast live on TV, radio and on Bell Mobile. We’re the first MLS club in history to have every single game live across those three different platforms. With that comes big opportunities; we’ve now got an incredible sponsorship list which includes Bell Canada, who are on our jerseys, Budweiser, EA Sports, BMO and Kia. 

That’s like quintupling the size of a business in one year. What advice can you give to other executives for dramatic scaling like that?

You need to have great ownership and we’re very fortunate that the four guys who are the owners of our club had a vision, they had a financial commitment to deliver that vision and they set about preparing the club from a long way out for the changes that are taking place this year. So probably as far away as two or three years ago the Whitecaps were building themselves up for this transformation. The front office was well staffed; the building in Gastown is well equipped from a technology point of view. There’s been a very carefully coordinated and executed plan. But what people really care about and what counts are the results on the pitch. And that’s something which, unfortunately, wearing a suit, we can only control to some degree. The athletes have to ultimately deliver the performance.