While working in Ghana, Mark Noonan wanted to purchase land for a new soccer training ground.
To close the deal, Noonan had to supply two bottles of peppermint schnapps, a case of beer, two canvas bags filled with cash and arrange for a cow to be delivered once a year.
Noonan’s time as the chief executive officer of Hearts of Oak, Ghana’s oldest and best supported club, plus his experience working for Major League Soccer and other sports properties helped prepare him for his latest job.
He was introduced Thursday as the new commissioner of the Canadian Premier League and chief executive officer of Canadian Soccer Business, replacing David Clanachan who left the role in January.
“The opportunity has no limits up here and it’s just getting started,” Noonan said in a telephone interview. “I’m amazed at what the league has been able to do in four short years, two of which were blighted by the COVID pandemic.”
The CPL had its inaugural season with seven teams in 2019. An eighth team was added in 2020. Another team based in Vancouver is expected in 2023.
Formed in 2018, Canadian Soccer Business represents all commercial inventory of Canada Soccer and the CPL. Its mandate is to manage all rights related to the country’s men’s and women’s national teams, naming rights to new and renovated CPL stadiums and represent the Canadian Championship, Canada’s professional club championship that features all Canadian professional clubs.
“When I look at what’s happening here … I couldn’t be more bullish on the opportunity,” said Noonan. “It’s a great combination of my background, what I’ve done in my career and being able to build something that’s going to be a lasting legacy for soccer in Canada.”
One of Noonan’s first challenges will be dealing with concerns raised by both the men’s and women’s national teams over the link between Canada Soccer and Canadian Soccer Business (CSB).
The players are asking for more information about a 2018 deal which they believe resulted in Canada Soccer giving up their image rights to CSB without their approval.
The two senior national teams are also calling for a Sport Canada investigation after a TSN report shed light on the financial relationship between Canada Soccer and CSB.
The TSN investigation found that while revenue from ticket sales for national team games stays with the national program, any revenue from sponsorships goes to CSB, which has the exclusive power to sell both broadcasting and corporate sponsorship rights to the men’s and women’s national teams for a guaranteed fee paid to Canada Soccer.
The CSB uses its revenues to fund teams in the CPL.
Noonan, who takes over his new job Sept. 1, didn’t want to comment on the questions raised by the national teams.
“I’m not fully educated on the issues,” he said. “I really don’t have an informed opinion at this stage.
“I haven’t met with our partner at Canada Soccer yet to get their perspective, I’ve not met a single player. I really haven’t got a good download from our board on that.”
Noonan also takes over at a time when the men’s team is negotiating with Canada Soccer for a compensation deal for qualifying for this November’s World Cup in Qatar.
The players are negotiating their cut of the FIFA World Cup prize money, expected to be at least US$10 million for Canada, as well as a package to help get friends and family to Qatar. Revenue from sponsorship and image rights is also a key part of negotiations, especially given Canada is co-hosting the 2026 tournament with the U.S. and Mexico.
It’s only the second time the Canadian men have qualified for a World Cup, the 1986 tournament being the other.
The impasse over compensation led to the men's team boycotting a June friendly against Panama in Vancouver.
Noonan sees the negotiations as a sign of soccer’s growth in Canada.
“Any successful soccer organization around the world is going to have discussions with its labour,” he said. “What’s happening now is actually a healthy thing because everybody is seeing the growth of soccer and wants to make sure they are being fairly rewarded for their contribution.
“It’s a healthy discussion. Sure, it’s a challenge but it’s a good thing because the entity is growing.”
Noonan currently operates a sports marketing and media company called Focal Sports. Besides his experience with Hearts of Oak, he was the chief commercial officer with the World Surf League, the chief marketing officer with U.S. Soccer, director of integrated marketing with Gatorade and spent time with Major League Soccer as executive vice president of marketing and fan development.
While with MLS, he was involved in the creation of Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of Major League Soccer and the exclusive marketing partner of the United States Soccer Federation.
He sees a parallel between MLS’s success and the potential of the CPL.
“I have experienced what works and experienced what doesn’t work,” he said. “I hope I can apply those experiences to the CPL and CSB.”
A native of Westport, Conn., Noonan currently lives in Denver but plans to move to Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2022.
Jim Morris, The Canadian Press