Mark Noonan was unveiled on Thursday as the new Commissioner of the Canadian Premier League and CEO of Canadian Soccer Business, as a new chapter began for the sport in this country after an extensive international search for a successor to David Clanachan.
The veteran sports executive arrives in Canada with a wealth of relevant experience, from his time at Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation to his stint as CEO of Ghanaian club Accra Hearts of Oak SC. As a former player at the NCAA Division I level, Noonan’s passion for the game goes hand in hand with his marketing and business acumen.
Noonan spent his first evening in Canada at the CPL’s Toronto headquarters on Wednesday, before officially starting his new role on Sept. 1. He sat down with CanPL.ca to chat about his excitement for the job, his vision for the future of the CPL, and myriad other topics concerning the sport in this country.
The following is Noonan’s full discussion with CanPL.ca.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
CanPL.ca: Mark, you’ve just arrived in Toronto and you’re about to be officially announced as CPL commissioner. Can we begin with how this opportunity came onto your radar, and how excited you are to finally get started?
Noonan: “I couldn’t be more excited. I’m on cloud nine; my feet hit the ground today and I just couldn’t wait to get over here. I think the one message I want people to hear is that I’m all in. I’m moving up here, and I’m going to spend whatever time it takes to build upon what’s already a really incredible foundation.
“When I was introduced to Scott Moore, who headed up the search, by a mutual friend of ours, I was intrigued. Scott sent the candidate profile over and I did my diligence, and I was more than intrigued – I was excited. At a certain point, after meeting with the [Board of Governors], educating myself more about what was happening here, I went after it. I feel like a striker looking for his or her next goal, I really wanted to be here because I saw the opportunity and I feel fortunate to have been selected to lead this great league.
“I wouldn’t have put myself into contention if I didn’t think I could do the job exceptionally well. I think I’ve got a lot to learn, but hopefully, the experiences that I’ve had – not just in soccer but outside of soccer with world-class brands like Gatorade, working a lot internationally in different cultures – all that is going to come together in a package that’s going to make a difference.
“I’m here to make a difference.”
CanPL.ca: You have a lot of experience working in soccer, but a chapter that stands out, in particular, is your work at MLS and the USSF in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Do you see similarities between American soccer back then and Canadian soccer now, and how might you draw on what you learned there to apply here in Canada?
Noonan: “I see a lot of similarities. We have to do it in a way that is appropriate to this marketplace and to the various communities that we’re in.
“For example, when you talk about expansion – we had to contract a couple teams in the early days of MLS because we didn’t have the right conditions to be successful, and that was a really painful lesson to learn. But we learned it, and what you learn is that if you don’t have a community that really wants you there, if you don’t have a great owner, if you don’t have a good stadium solution, if you don’t have a passionate group of supporters on the ground, if you don’t have good corporate support, you’re not going to be successful. Hopefully some of those lessons I can apply here.”
CanPL.ca: You worked with clubs from a league perspective before at MLS, but you’ve also been on the other side, running an individual club in Ghana. Will that extra perspective help when working with the CPL’s clubs?
Noonan: “We need our clubs to be successful. The fact that I’ve sat in the CEO’s chair of a club, and I’ve worked from a league perspective with a lot of clubs – I’ve admired places like the NBA, who do such a great job with supporting their clubs – we need to help our clubs be successful and I look forward to partnering with them on their local success and hopefully they look forward to partnering with us on our national success.
CanPL.ca: As someone who’s coming to Canada with an outsider’s perspective, what perceptions do you have about the state of the game here? What excites you about Canadian soccer?
Noonan: “You start with results at the national team level, those are pretty obvious when you win your group in Concacaf qualifying and you’re an Olympic champion, and you’re constantly competing for regional titles. There’s a new quality at the highest level of Canadian soccer, which is fantastic.
“But there’s also this pathway that’s been created, between League1 Ontario, League1 Canada, men and women, plus the CPL, plus what’s happening with the Canadian national teams, that’s not going to go away. What we have to do is continue building upon that, bring it to more communities, enhance that development pipeline. That’s just going to fuel more and more success.”
CanPL.ca: The CPL is Canada’s senior men’s professional league, but you’ve also worked extensively in the women’s game, particularly around the 1999 Women’s World Cup with U.S. Soccer. How important is it to develop women’s soccer in Canada as well?
Noonan: “It’s important for a lot of reasons, first and foremost because I believe it’s a viable business opportunity for us to explore. When you look at what’s happening in places like Barcelona and Lyon, and the women’s UEFA tournament, and the NWSL – San Diego is going to pack 27,000 fans this weekend, Kansas City is building a soccer-specific stadium for their team – you’re seeing that women’s soccer is a good business.
“How would that potentially fit into the CPL model, the League1 model? We have to take a hard look at that.”
CanPL.ca: What kind of vision do you have for where the Canadian Premier League can get to in both the near and distant future?
Noonan: “I don’t think there are any limits, but there are also no panaceas. Growing a professional sports league takes time. It takes an incredible amount of effort, it takes some luck, it takes perseverance. But there are no limits.
“We absolutely need to expand this league at the right time, in the right places, with all those conditions that I was talking about. And we have to really focus on creating a great product that people are going to want to consume, and a pathway of opportunity for the players, that they can see that League1 through the CPL is a pathway to maximize their opportunities and capabilities. If we do that I think we’re going to be a really successful and competitive league regionally, and then who knows from there.
“It all goes together; the brands that are going to associate with our league and our clubs and our players, they want authenticity, they want quality, they want to be able to align with things that align with their values. I think we’ve got a great opportunity and showcase for those companies and helping them build their businesses through the various entities that we can bring to the party.”
CanPL.ca: What’s the biggest immediate challenge for you once you get started in this role?
Noonan: “I guess first is educating myself, it’s a challenge for myself. But then I think after that it’s what to focus on, because there are so many different things that we could be doing, but it’s ‘Okay, what are the biggest things that we can do that are going to make an impact? Is that expansion? Is it a product? Is it starting a women’s league?’
“It’s taking all of these potential options, boiling it down into, ‘Alright, here’s what we’re going to do first,’ and we’re going to figure that out once I get in the seat.”
Noonan: “Every successful sports league in the world, whether it’s soccer, whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, you name the sport, has to have a healthy dialogue with labour. The fact that that discussion is starting to happen in Canada means that there’s something good happening here.
“It’s incumbent upon all the sides to have that dialogue in the right place, at the right time, in a way that grows the sport and opportunity for all concerned. Sure, sometimes those discussions are difficult, but the good news is that it’s difficult because the sport is growing here, and as sports grow, each of the stakeholders has to be rewarded, and I look forward to figuring that out with our players.”
CanPL.ca: Anything else Canadian soccer fans should know about you before we wrap up?
Noonan: “Just that I’m a soccer guy. I’m a washed-up player, I love the game, follow the game, I’m intensely passionate about it. I think you kind of need that sitting in this chair.
“And I’m all in on Canada, I’m moving here. I’m stoked to learn about a new city, and learn a bunch of new cities across the country. I’m totally all in.”