There's been some debate going on in the last little while about what the Montréal Impact need to do to drive ticket sales, and overall, to gain more fan support. Everything from revamping the marketing team, to better media coverage, to signing a big-time striker, have been tossed around as ideas or solutions to the problem.
I think, however, that there is a greater issue that hurts Joey Saputo and the success of the Montréal Impact. It's pretty simple: Montréal, and Canada as a whole, lacks a tangible, winning soccer culture. Canada has never been a contender on the world stage, nor has it ever presented a World Cup or major competition of any kind. As a nation, we don't know what it is to be successful at soccer, and winning is a lot more important than you'd think.
Success at the highest level
Both the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won a cup in years, yet both have no trouble selling out their rink. Why? Because there's still an aura of potential success that surrounds each club, despite the years of failure. Both teams still carry a feeling of "we're just a few moves away from winning", when in reality neither may ever win again. So why do people still believe in them? I'd argue it's because they've won before; there's a history of success there.
With soccer, there is no such feeling. Sure, the Impact were successful in the NASL, but few can really say with a straight face that that's much of an accomplishment. In truth, nobody harkens back to Canada, or any Canadian pro team, winning anything at soccer. So from a fan's standpoint, the idea of winning is foreign.
This sheer lack of historical success makes it hard for the casual fan and even the diehard ones to a certain extent, to stick it out with the team. They can't see the light at the end of the tunnel because, in fact, they've never actually seen it!
Winning tends to create star players, and star players create a following, not just by fans but by young aspiring soccer players as well.
The explosion of basketball in the last 10 or so years in Canada is no fluke. Two stars, Steve Nash and Vince Carter, and one successful run by the Toronto Raptors is all it took for basketball in Canada to really take off. Suddenly there are top Canadian players chosen in the NBA draft every year, and it's just the beginning.
Canada produces a ton of great athletes, but seemingly not many great soccer players. But is that really true? Or is it just that the would-be great soccer players end up playing another sport that has a culture of winning, like hockey? After all, if given a choice, who can blame the next Canadian phenom to follow in the footsteps of Sidney Crosby, instead of say, Dwayne De Rosario?
The only way to turn around all these trends is to create a winning culture of soccer in Canada. Even a successful run by Toronto or Vancouver in the MLS playoffs would be a positive for the Impact, because it would create a healthy competition amongst the Canadian teams. Once a winning precedence is set, I think it will spark Canadian teams and Canadian fans to want to win that much more.
All this leads back to why the Montréal Impact struggles to hold onto their fan base. Despite the fact that most Montrealers have played or enjoy soccer, the lack of winning culture that resides within the sport greatly impedes the success of the team. Fans here are used to winning. More marketing would help, better media coverage, too. But at the end of the day, the only way to really draw bigger crowds at the stadium is to win, and win often.
So what does that mean if you're Joey Saputo?
Well I suppose it means that now is the time to spend, not later. Putting out a team that is competitive is nice, but it might not be good enough for the fans. In his defense, there is no question that the team has been improved significantly. Still, it may be foolhardy to wait too long to splash the cash on a new, top striker. Unfortunately for Saputo, he may not have the luxury of building the team in a slow, methodical way.
For the owner of a soccer team in Montréal, the mecca of hockey, such is the harsh reality.