A conversation with Whitecaps COO Rachel Lewis

Rachel Lewis heads operations at one of Vancouver's biggest sports franchises. The Whitecaps COO's plan? Make it even bigger

Credit: Pooya Nabei

In the male-dominated world of sports, Lewis is an anomaly at the top of Vancouver’s Major League Soccer franchise

Today’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC shares a name with the soccer club that Rachel Lewis joined in 2003, but the similarities end there. Back then, the Whitecaps were in the second division of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and had four other employees. Home games drew an average of 4,292 that season, according to the team.

The Whitecaps have since joined North America’s biggest league, Major League Soccer (MLS). About 150 staff now work for the club, which last season welcomed an average of 21,416 fans per game.

Lewis has served as the team’s chief operating officer since 2008. Besides the owners (Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett and Steve Nash), she has only two superiors: Whitecaps legend and CEO Bob Lenarduzzi and executive chair John Furlong.

A Richmond native, Lewis earned an MBA at UBC’s Sauder School of Business before spending time with the Professional Golfers’ Association’s Air Canada Championship and the Canadian Women’s Open. When an opportunity in event management opened up with the Whitecaps, she traded in the clubs for cleats.

Looking ahead, Lewis has two main goals for the team: be part of a successful bid to bring the World Cup to North America (and Vancouver) in 2026, and celebrate an MLS Cup win at BC Place. The ‘Caps get the ball rolling on the latter when they begin play this month, with an eye on taking the championship in December.

Were you a soccer or sports fan growing up?
I was. My family’s always been really into sports; my dad and my brother watch a lot of sports, play a lot of sports. So it was always a topic of conversation around the dinner table, soccer in particular. We were Whitecaps season ticket holders in the old NASL [North American Soccer League] days, and I remember going as a little girl; my dad would take turns taking my brother and I and my mom to games. It was a really special treat to go to games.

How involved are you and the Whitecaps in the North America 2026 World Cup bid?
I’m on the Vancouver committee that’s put forward its application to be one of the host cities. We made the first short list and, of course, now hope to make the second short list and ultimately host games here. I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity for Canada in particular to really amplify the sport and what it can do for inspiring more kids to get engaged in it across North America.

Did the 2010 Olympics prove that Vancouver can handle a big event like that?
I think Vancouver is an outstanding host city. First of all, what more beautiful place is there to come to? I think we’ve demonstrated success, not only with the Olympics, but the Women’s World Cup was a standout success in Vancouver, and I think we’re building a reputation as an amazing city to come to with a lot to offer that has an incredible expertise in hosting world-class events. So this for us should just be the next step.

What’s it been like rising through the ranks in the world of sports?
I’ve been really, really fortunate. Our owners come from tech and have always given me every opportunity. That being said, it’s still not uncommon to sit in a boardroom where there are 70 men and yourself. I think as female leaders, we need to continue to create opportunities for young women to seek a career path in sports and see it as something that they can choose and be successful at. All the data shows that having a diverse leadership team creates better organizations, and I think sports still has a way to come in this, but I’ve been very fortunate to have great opportunity in my roles.

Have you dealt with resentment from males, or closet sexism?
There have definitely been moments in my career where someone’s mistaken me for the executive assistant as opposed to the COO. And, you know, I think that’s just unfortunately the reality of what we’re still dealing with. It’s getting better, but we need to rise to the occasion and not accept those kinds of stigmas. Thankfully that’s never come from within my organization.

The Whitecaps were one of the best teams in the league for attendance last season. Where do you see the team going from here? Is there more room to grow?
Absolutely. I think we have so much room still to grow, and that’s what’s really exciting. We’re only seven to eight years into Major League Soccer here, and our fan base is great, it’s growing every year, the engagement in the community is fantastic. But there’s so much more opportunity. Atlanta came in this year with 70,000 fans. The great thing about BC Place is that we have the opportunity to expand our capacity and grow. Our objective over the next few years is to fill that lower bowl and bring home a championship. We need to do both, and they fuel each other.

Can you compete with the bigger franchises? Seattle is a powerhouse, as are Toronto and New York. Do you think the Whitecaps have the potential to get there?
Absolutely. There’s no question. The great thing about Major League Soccer is that there’s a lot of parity among the teams. You look at the final playoff spots this year, and you’ve got Columbus and Houston and Toronto and Seattle, and they represent a fairly broad spectrum of teams and spending and styles of play. In any given year, teams are competitive. We continue to get better and better, and we have to find our way deeper into the playoffs and bring home the Cup.

Better, Faster, Stronger

The Vancouver Whitecaps gained 13 points in the standings from 2016 to 2017—the  biggest increase since the 2012 season—taking third place in the Western Conference

The team recorded 52 points last season, one behind its best-ever campaign in 2015  

This season’s squad features familiar faces like teenage star Alphonso Davies and new arrivals such as prolific scorer Kei Kamara