THE BOARD OF TRADE’S ACADEMY OF GREAT MONTREALERS INCLUDES NAMES LIKE PHYLLIS LAMBERT, OLIVER JONES, JEAN DRAPEAU, ARMAND FRAPPIER, AND CHARLES BRONFMAN. GIVEN HIS DEVOTED EFFORTS IN CHAMPIONING MONTREAL, AND QUEBEC, JOEY SAPUTO IS ANOTHER LIKELY CANDIDATE FOR THIS LIST OF LUMINARIES.
Since 2012, the owner of the Montreal Impact has invested over $100 million in the franchise and related infrastructure. Saputo has proved to be a tireless promoter of soccer, not only at the professional level with the MLS, but also in player development. The Academy, the Impact’s extraordinary training program, helps identify the elite players of tomorrow and offers nearly 80 young people a sports-study program, completely free of charge.
If you think I am exaggerating about Saputo being a Great Montrealer, then let me ask you something. How many Quebec companies or business people have invested as much in purchasing a professional sports team for Montreal and building a new stadium, almost solely with their own money? How many have helped develop amateur soccer to get children moving in an era of alarming statistics on physical inactivity? And lastly, how many have spent an additional $16 million to renovate a vacant fire station and four soccer fields, two of which are now available for the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough to use?
The Saputos may have amassed a large fortune, but it is the investment of this wealth in their community that is so inspiring. “My family has always been grateful for the success it has found here,” notes Saputo. “That’s why it’s important for us to give back to the community. Every decision, however, is very carefully considered.”
These are the words of a warm, thoughtful, generous individual. While he could buy himself Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys, such pursuits are not really a priority for him. It turns out he has very simple pleasures. “What I really enjoy is being active with my children and my wife. We play hockey together every Friday and these are special times for me. We also like skiing.” When he talks about his family, Joey Saputo shows his true colours, and values.
“I spend all that energy on the Impact so I can show my kids that even when we are born privileged, it’s important to have a passion, work hard for it, and try to leave a personal legacy.”
How much longer can he wait? Despite the millions invested in the club, the Impact has not yet reached the break-even point. In a January 2017 meeting with the Canadian Club, Saputo noted that he would like to break even within the next five years.
“I’m not willing to continue losing money indefinitely, but I’m proud to show North America—and the world—what Montreal is capable of.” Saputo’s love for his community, however, is not without its frustrations. “I’d like to feel as if everyone, as a community, had the same sense of pride. Montrealers regret losing the Expos. I’d like the city to have a greater sense of loyalty to the Impact. From the very beginning, we’ve shown that we’re working hard to do things right, and with style.”
“We never requested that the city, its government or the business community make major financial contributions, so everyone seems to think the Saputos don’t need any help. The reality is, I’d like the team to become more of a communal project.”
Joey Saputo goes on the clarify: “Even though we know what we’ve gotten ourselves into, I still think that Montrealers and the business community should be more invested in the Impact.”
Three years ago, when Joey Saputo purchased the Italian Bologna FC soccer club, the public immediately expressed its appreciation. “As soon as we bought the club, and promised to restore its former glory, season ticket sales shot up, and companies wanted to work with us.”
“In Montreal, on the other hand, fans insist that teams be winners, or else they go ignored. In Bologna, and in other places, organizations are simply asked to demonstrate a commitment to putting together the best team possible, and offer a quality show.” Though not an ultimatum by any means, the message is clear: the franchise needs more support.
It’s important to have a passion, work hard for it, and try to leave a personal legacy.
The landscape in Major League Soccer is changing. Saputo invested $40 million to get Montreal into MLS. In the current expansion round, the number of teams will rise from 24 to 28, with the entry fee now at $150 million, and a dozen cities have submitted concrete offers.
When the round is over, eight cities will be disappointed, and some may decide to try purchasing and relocating an existing team. The math is easy: potential franchisees would be willing to pay between $150 million and $200 million.
Concerned by a rumour I had overheard, I decided to ask Saputo about it after he raised his concern over community support. I asked if it was true that you paid for the franchise, used your own money (including a $23M investment from Quebec) to build the stadium on the grounds of the Olympic Stadium (which is exempt from taxes), and that once the stadium was finished the City of Montreal said you owed it $2 million per year? “We did in fact discuss this with former mayor Denis Coderre…”
I also asked if it was true that Saputo was required to pay taxes on the vacant firehouse that you paid to renovate, which has two adjoining fields for the use of young people in the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough? “We want to try to find solutions without conducting our negotiations in public…”
The value of MLS franchises will climb even higher as many cities offer to build turnkey stadiums, so one can easily understand that there may be limits to generosity. “Our average ticket price is one of the least expensive in the entire league while funding from sponsorships is among the lowest of all the teams, so I’m sure that, together, we can do more,” notes Saputo. “I love Montreal. I believe that we can be just as successful as Kansas City, Seattle, Portland or Toronto.” No two ways about it: Joey Saputo is a great Montrealer, and his pride and patience is sure to see great reward with greater support from our community.