As his car finally pulled into the driveway, Bill Manning’s cell phone rang. He glanced at the number and hesitated. Manning—the two-time winner of Major League Soccer’s executive of the year award—was tired. Known for building Real Salt Lake into a perennial MLS Cup contender, Manning parted ways with Real Salt Lake in August 2015 in a front office shakeup. In pursuit of a new contract, Manning had travelled extensively to meet with teams in various sports leagues. Despite the fatigue, Manning answered the call.
On the other end of the line was Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Toronto FC’s ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE). Manning knew Toronto FC was looking for a new team president. In fact, he had been monitoring the situation for six months, and while he had met with smart, successful, and competitive franchises in various cities, he hadn’t found an exact match.
“I want to shed our elitist image. I want local families and players to feel like they are part of us. If we want them to root for us, then we have to root for them.”
Yet Toronto intrigued Manning. The team, founded in 2007, made the playoffs for the first time in 2015. Toronto FC’s supporters were growing weary and restless. Despite the drawbacks, the seasoned executive knew there was plenty of upside in Toronto due to the city’s market size and the combination of the team’s newly remodeled stadium with MLSE’s resources (MLSE also owns Toronto’s NBA and NHL clubs).
Average 2014 home attendance
Average 2015 home attendance
Largest BMO Field home crowd
(vs. Houston Dynamo on May 10, 2015)
Highest attendance (vs. Los Angeles Galaxy—Champions League match, Rogers Centre on March 7, 2012)
Made by all-time team leader Dwayne De Rosario
Best home win score (vs. Orlando City on August 22, 2015)
Most season wins, achieved in 2015
After speaking with Tanenbaum, Manning took three trips to Toronto over the span of two weeks. His wife and sons fell in love with the city, and Manning and MLSE found a match in each other.
MLSE hired Manning, and he started managing all aspects of business operations on October 16, 2015. The move sent a sign to the soccer world: Toronto FC was serious about building a winning team. In Manning, the club landed a respected executive with a winning pedigree.
After growing up in Massapequa, New York, Manning attended the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he was an All-American soccer player. Later, he helped the 1991 Brooklyn Italians win a US Open Cup before playing professionally in the United Soccer League (an MLS predecessor). In 1993, Manning moved to the game’s administrative side with his first front office job, and in the next year ran the marketing department and played for the New York Fever. As a budding executive, he won several leadership awards and helped the Minnesota Thunder increase revenues to record levels. He’s since worked in MLS, the NBA, and the NFL.
In 2008, Manning joined Real Salt Lake, and as team president, he managed a business group that tripled revenues and led the franchise to the 2009 MLS Cup.
With Toronto FC, Manning has made his goal clear—he wants to win the MLS Cup—and he chose the organization because MLSE trusts him to deliver. “They wanted me for the job, and I can thrive under this structure because they’ve given me the autonomy to run the franchise following the board’s vision,” he explains. Manning’s background in soccer is an undeniable asset, but the business skills he developed in the NBA and NFL are equally important, as he’s charged with earning the respect of coaches, attracting on-field talent, and increasing sponsorships and ticket sales.
The first four months saw Manning getting to know the organization’s key personnel; each day, he sat down with at least one of the sixty members of the front office staff and team, from captain Michael Bradley, to board members, to other executives. “Not everything automatically works like it did somewhere else,” he says. “It’s critical for a team president to understand the market and the franchise. I never try to come in and change everything—I try to take what we have and make it better.” After his first few months, Manning restructured the front office by moving people to different roles to accentuate their talents. After uncovering hidden needs in his informal interviews, he hired a communications director and a video analyst.
Named NCAA All-American with the University of Bridgeport
Named to Berner HS Hall of Fame
Won US Open Cup with the Brooklyn Italians
Started first executive position as GM of the Long Island Rough Riders
Named USL Executive of the Year
Won USL A-League championship with the Minnesota Thunder
Joined the MLS’s Tampa Bay Mutiny
Earned US Soccer “A” coaching license
Joined the NBA’s Houston Rockets
Joined the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles
Entered University of Bridgeport’s Hall of Fame
Joined the MLS’s Real Salt Lake
Won MLS Cup
Named MLS Executive of the Year
Named MLS Executive of the Year for the second time
Joined Toronto FC
While the franchise has renewed its commitment to winning, Manning actually eschews the “innovative” label. “I don’t try to be original or unusual,” he says. “Every team has to win based on great players, great coaches, and great executives. Everybody knows what to do. I’ve gained so much valuable experience over the years that at this stage of my career, I think I just do it better than most by now.”
In Toronto, he’s relying on best practices that have worked throughout his career and lessons learned from those he respects, like Maples Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown, and former Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts. Those lessons include the wisdom of consistency, the need for collaboration, and the value of taking risks.
Manning has also learned the importance of customer service. He’s looking to improve Toronto FC’s image in the soccer community and plans to do that by creating an unprecedented lower-level team, known as Toronto FC II, for players from ages sixteen to nineteen who might not be ready for an existing minor league team. In addition, each Toronto FC academy coach will be responsible for establishing and maintaining relationships with ten local community soccer clubs or coaches. “I want to shed our elitist image,” Manning says. “I want local families and players to feel like they are part of us. If we want them to root for us, then we have to root for them.”
Manning sees a lot of potential in Toronto and says the team is further along than Real Salt Lake was when he started its turnaround.
He’s looking to develop players from within and secure the top talent in the world. The team added a handful of high-quality players by signing Drew Moor, drafting Molham Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh, and trading for Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson, and Clint Irwin.
In 2016, Manning is implementing a five-year plan. While winning the MLS Cup is the ultimate goal, it’s not his only measure of success. He wants Toronto FC to compete at a high level each and every year. “If you put yourself in the mix, you’re going to win it all at some point,” he says, pointing to teams like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since the 1996–1997 season but have “only” won five times in those eighteen seasons.
That’s what Manning and his colleagues are looking to build in Toronto—a culture of winning and of consistency. And if they can do that, there’s no doubt that Toronto FC’s supporters will celebrate their team’s first ever championship trophy.