Canadian sells Real Madrid way
A Canadian sports executive tries to take the world’s richest franchise to the next level
Dave Hopkinson remembers Nov. 1, 1994, quite well: it was his 24th birthday and his first day hawking season tickets for the Toronto Raptors, then a professional basketball expansion franchise in a diehard hockey town.
Hopkinson and 23 commission-hungry recruits sat in a room on the 14th floor of a building overlooking an arena construction site. Each was armed with a phone, desk and chair, and all competed to make a sale and ring the sixinch brass ship bell that their boss, Raptors founder John Bitove, had mounted on the wall as a motivational tool.
The top four sellers were promised full-time jobs. The rest would be let go.
“Dave was determined, fearless and fun,” Bitove recently recalled. “And he was just a kid, in his early 20s, but he would never give up, which is one of the things I loved about him. He would cold call anyone. He would work the phone. He would work his personality.”
Hopkinson would keep ringing the bell and look over at Bitove’s desk afterwards with a big, awshucks-boss-I-did-it-again grin on his face, which drove everybody else in the room halfway nuts, but earned him a full-time sales position.
The entry level job was a toehold on the sports business ladder that he has kept climbing: from selling the Raptors to selling just about everything for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. — owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors, FC, Argonauts and more — including a 20-year, $800 million deal with the Bank of Nova Scotia to rename the rink formerly known as the Air Canada Centre.
The deal — the largest of its kind in North American major professional sports history — reverberated internationally. Hopkinson, long sought after by NHL and NBA teams but never sold on a move, became a hot international commodity.
An executive recruiter in Los Angeles called and, this past June, Hopkinson left MLSE to become the global head of partnerships at soccer giant Real Madrid, the third most valuable sports franchise on the planet, behind only the Dallas Cowboys and Manchester United (the Maple Leafs are not among the top 50).
The move to Europe means Hopkinson has to apply the skills he honed at MLSE over two decades to a new continent, while also bringing some of the Old World back home. One of his chief mandates: selling an iconic Spanish club, not just to the true believers, but to the soccer holdouts in North America and China.
“With Real Madrid, Hoppy has stepped up to a whole new level that we simply don’t play at in this country,” said Brian Burke, a friend and former colleague at MLSE. “He is in the penthouse suite in terms of working for a professional sports team. Hoppy is a heavyweight.”
Hopkinson, known as Hoppy since Grade 7, was raised in Toronto, had only ever worked in Toronto and certainly wasn’t expecting a call from Real Madrid. He didn’t even speak a lick of Spanish. But Real Madrid was “Real Madrid,” he said, ” a magical opportunity,” a professional roll of the dice too good to pass up.
The new hire was in the bathroom of his new home in Madrid on a recent November evening, filling the tub after picking up his eldest of two daughters from dance class — a mundane, dad-at-home moment in what has been a whirlwind few months.
“I’ve already bumped into a couple of pointy objects around the office and stepped on some landmines, but I’ve also had some small wins,” Hopkinson, 48, said. “I sort of sympathize with what it is going to take to be successful here, and how to be successful around here.”
Real Madrid is valued at more than US$4 billion by Forbes magazine and generated over $1 billion in revenue in 2017, according to Deloitte UK’s annual Football Money League report. Almost 50 per cent of revenues came from merchandising and sponsorship deals. (By comparison, the Leafs, hockey’s second most valuable team next to the New York Rangers, are worth US$1.4 billion and had $211 million in revenue during the 2016-17 season, according to Forbes.com.)
Money, though, isn’t necessarily the most appealing business aspect of Real Madrid. Part of what sold Hopkinson on the move was the team’s ownership structure. Instead of being lorded over by an egomaniac billionaire or some soulless profit-driven-corporate entity, the 116-year-old club, much like the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, is owned by its fans, about 93,000 community members known as “socios,” who each pay an $185 annual fee.
Many socios have been members for more than 50 years. Collectively, they wield a corporate hammer, electing the team president and board of directors, approving annual budgets and disciplining wayward bosses who stray from the community’s wishes.
Steven Mandis, who spent parts of two years interviewing Real Madrid executives, players past and present and front line employees for his 2016 book, the Real Madrid Way, believes “community values” and culture, two airy-fairy and hard to define things, are what underpin the franchise’s enviable success, on and off the field.
“It starts with Real Madrid getting the world’s best players that match the community’s values — to play an attacking beautiful style of soccer with class, to win championships and capture the imagination and inspire the current and potential global audience,” the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker tuned business author/academic wrote in his book. “Since Real Madrid’s values are inclusive and universal, appealing to a global audience of all ages, the community grows globally.”
Mandis’ belief is both elementary and revolutionary. Sports fans are inherently tribal, soccer fans perhaps the most rabidly so, which occasionally results in hooliganism and pitched street battles between rival supporters. But Real Madrid’s tribe isn’t just shelling out for tickets and merchandise, or throwing the odd knuckle or two, it guides the club’s direction.
The results are telling: Real Madrid wins — a lot. It is the threetime defending UEFA Champions League winners and has captured a record 33 Spanish domestic league titles since 1932. Its excellence and fan involvement boosts annual revenues, enabling it to cherry-pick global stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo (recently decamped for Juventus in Italy), which begets more winning, further accelerating the growth of the international fan base and the crush of sponsors worldwide clamouring to get a piece of the action.
Which is where the guy from Toronto comes in.
Hopkinson understands how flaky talk of “values” sounds, especially to a North American sports audience, and especially around his hometown, where the greed of former Leafs owner Harold Ballard scarred a generation of hockey fans, and a pint at Scotiabank Arena sells for $12 a pop. But after three months in Madrid in a job he parachuted into in part to walk the tightrope between taking a storied franchise in some new business directions and observing its old traditions, he has bought in.
He is taking Spanish lessons, working with a language app and sees Real Madrid’s values reflected in everything from the tenure of its employees — people get hired and they don’t leave — to the tiniest of personal touches. For example, sending out company wide emails to announce an employee celebrating a birth or mourning a family death, regardless of corporate rank.
“I don’t see these values articulated anywhere — there is not some plaque in the lobby saying, “This is our way,” he said. “But it is something that is understood around here; it’s palpable.”
Of course, as a sales guy, Hopkinson wakes up every day thinking about the value of money and how he can squeeze more revenue for Real Madrid out of a globalized sports industry.
“Dave has no problem putting a big number on the table and justifying it,” said Brian Cooper, chief executive of MKTG, a Toronto-based marketing/sponsorship company that represented Scotiabank in the MLSE naming rights deal.
A lifetime ago, Cooper was a Raptors executive when Hoppy was a “ticket sales grunt.” In many ways, Cooper said, Hopkinson has grown by bounds, but in others he is the same kid with the easy smile that he was from the start: smart, well-prepared, relentless, quick to remember a name or a fact, keen to network and able to make everybody feel as though they are part of the team.
“Dave’s team at MLSE would do a tremendous amount of work up front on who you are and what your needs are — and who your target audience is,” he said. “And he is going to bring that sophistication to the Real Madrid brand.”
Hopkinson, like almost every executive in every industry everywhere, sees Real Madrid’s greatest potential for growth in China and the United States.
“Despite the fact that football is the world’s most popular game, it is underdeveloped in the two biggest markets,” he said.
Real Madrid already has an office in Beijing, and will open one in the U.S. sometime before U.S.-Canada-Mexico host the 2026 World Cup.
Hopkinson gives a purely imagined example of how Real Madrid might crack into China’s corporate coffers. Take a hypothetical Chinese domestic brand — a toque, an electronic gizmo, a you-name-it — that is manufactured in China and, as with many such brands, nobody in the West has ever heard of.
Enter Real Madrid, sports behemoth, with more than 200 million followers on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), only about three per cent of whom actually reside in Spain, plus a Champions League final television audience of around 165 million viewers annually. (The average Super Bowl draws about 100 million viewers; the Cowboys count around 13 million followers across social media platforms.)
Marry all those eyeballs, tweets and likes to a Chinese toque on an imagined Real Madrid player’s noggin and that brand suddenly goes from having zero international profile to the big leagues. The big leagues, in theory, give a company licence to charge a premium for its goods associated with Real Madrid’s superstars and, naturally, give Real Madrid licence to charge the company a fortune to be associated with its trusted, winning narrative.
“If you look at the statistics of the value of Real Madrid, plus their numbers in terms of fandom and fan behaviours, then you start to realize the magnitude of what they are talking about,” said Cheri Bradish, a sports marketing professor at Ryerson University.
Although consumers have never been more adept at ignoring advertising messages — the average human’s capacity to delete or ignore pop-up ads, videos, television commercials and email-marketing blasts is by now well honed — getting attention from existing fans isn’t a problem for Real Madrid.
But getting attention in the U.S. is different. Football — soccer on this continent — has been trying to conquer the U.S. ever since Pelé and the New York Cosmos burst onto the scene in the 1970s. Major League Soccer has 23 teams, including three in Canada, and its fans are enthusiastic, but the sports pecking order list still reads: NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL … MLS.
Dan Mason, a sports professor at the University of Alberta, argues pecking order isn’t what it is important. Real Madrid doesn’t need to convert Joe NFL Fan. It simply has to convince U.S. multinationals interested in boosting their profile overseas to harness the Real Madrid brand power to do it for them.
Real Madrid isn’t exactly a non-entity in the U.S. market. Fox’s English and Spanish broadcasts of Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory over Juventus in the 2017 UEFA title game drew a combined three million viewers, or about a million more than the average MLS championship game.
“Just because Major League Soccer isn’t as successful as the other major sports leagues in North America, it doesn’t mean that Real Madrid isn’t a valuable brand in North America,” Mason said.
Hopkinson declined to disclose any Real Madrid state secrets, but one imagines the likes of General Electric Co., Verizon Wireless, Coca-Cola Co. and more should expect a call from Spain soon.
Despite the fact that football is the world’s most popular game, it is underdeveloped in the two biggest markets.
DAVE HOPKINSON, Global head of partnerships, Real Madrid
Canadian sports marketing executive Dave “Hoppy” Hopkinson is taking his sales and promotional skills to Real Madrid, a world soccer juggernaut controlled by its 93,000 member “socios.” The club, a perennial winner of the UEFA Champions League, is valued at US$1 billion and generated an estimated $1 billion in revenue in 2017.