A ‘MAGICAL’ ASCENSION TO SOCCER ROYALTY
Revenue expert to help storied Real Madrid club expand brand globally
It always was going to take a “magical” opportunity to pull pro-sports revenue expert David (Hoppy) Hopkinson out of his beloved Toronto.
Late in the spring, that wand was waved. The chance of a lifetime came with it. In Spain.
The 47-year-old Hopkinson, who began his career hawking tickets for the CFL’s Toronto Argos and rose to become chief commercial officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), in mid June accepted an offer from international soccer behemoth Real Madrid to become Global Head of Partnerships.
Hopkinson starts the new job in a few weeks.
In his first interview since accepting it — and before he and his family emigrate — Hopkinson sat down with Postmedia on Wednesday morning at a Queen Street East café in Toronto to discuss his unlikely career jump, the Toronto and Canadian prosports landscapes, and how he hopes to help one of La Liga’s two iconic soccer franchises grow its already monstrous global appeal.
“I’d always been very happy at MLSE,” Hopkinson said. “But really, like anybody, if something magical came along, I’d be willing to listen to something magical. And the Real Madrid opportunity is a magical one.”
At MLSE, Hopkinson oversaw how each of the company’s seven pro sports franchises — foremost, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA’s Toronto Raptors, CFL’s Toronto Argos and MLS’s Toronto FC — attempted to max out revenue streams, in order to make the teams as competitive as possible without disenfranchising hardcore fans.
How has a through-andthrough Torontonian wound up scoring a plumb job with one of the premier pro sports franchises in the world?
“I think there were a couple of factors,” Hopkinson said. “One, I was recruited by a third party: CAA Sports. A guy named Joe Becher. He phoned me in April and said he wanted to talk to me about a secret assignment that he’d been handed. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Ultimately, what helped convince Hopkinson the Real Madrid job was ideal for him at this point in his career was the prospect of applying on the largest scale possible what he has learned about best business practices and revenue growth inside some of the top leagues on the North American pro sports scene.
“Real Madrid is not a Madrid brand. It’s a global brand,” Hopkinson said. “I have loved all my days with the Toronto Maple Leafs. You know, this is my hometown team since I was a child. And I was a Day 1 Raptors guy. Same with Toronto FC, since we built and launched it in 2007. But those are still regional properties.
“Yes, we have fans around the world, but overwhelmingly it is a Toronto story. And for Real, this is an opportunity to work on a truly global brand, and with something that has huge audiences everywhere around the world.”
One means of measuring that, as Hopkinson said he explained to his father, is via social media.
“If you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a big following on Facebook — one of the biggest in the NHL, if not the biggest — they have 1.3 million Facebook followers. OK, well Real Madrid has 108 million. My Dad’s like, ‘It’s not 100x!’ Well yeah, it’s pretty close to 100 times.”
What’s more, Real Madrid draws devout and casual soccer fans worldwide to its telecasts, especially for important games, such as its “El Clasico” showdowns against Spanish La Liga archrival Barcelona FC.
“The last El Clasico back in May had a worldwide television audience of 500 million, in 142 countries,” Hopkinson said. “This is the proof that people literally around the world care about Real Madrid. So this job was an opportunity for me to work for a global sports brand, as opposed to a regional sports brand.”
Hopkinson’s first job in pro sports was as account executive with the Argos starting in 1993. Years later, he told the National Post he left the Argos to become one of several “sales monkeys” with the fledgling Raptors, a year before that expansion club’s oncourt NBA debut in 1995.
Soon, Hopkinson fast rose up the business side of the melded Leafs/Raptors operation, which eventually was renamed Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Five years ago this month, MLSE named him chief commercial officer.
What exactly does a chief commercial officer do?
“It’s a revenue role,” Hopkinson said. “Modern sports business is a hungry beast. What we need to do is make sure that we’re balancing affordability against our ambition to win. We could always make sports less expensive (for fans), but to do so would compromise our ability to win. And we could always make sports more expensive and drive this thing to even higher revenue heights, but we’d risk alienating our fans.
“So I think it’s really about making sure that we’re growing revenues to match our ambitions, but in such a way that it doesn’t alienate the communities we serve. These businesses are not like regular businesses. They’re public trusts. Sports franchises are public trusts. We want our teams to win, we want our franchises to succeed. Succeeding means we’ve got to grow revenues to keep pace with our competition.”
Maximizing revenue, though, is a hated term for many fans of pro sports teams, thanks to now commonplace gouging such as ridiculously priced food and drinks, personal seat licences, et cetera.
Hopkinson said the careful maximizing of revenue is directly tied to on-field, on-ice and oncourt success.
“Revenue is always a competitive advantage in this business. Even in a hard-cap league, teams with more revenue find a way to be a more attractive place to play for free agents — with better training facilities, better amenities. We can go and spend money in ways other teams can’t.
“For example, it was no secret that when we were recruiting Mike Babcock to coach the Maple Leafs, we really did set a new standard for what a head coach will be paid in the NHL (Babcock’s annual salary average of US$6.25 million was more than double that of any other coach when he signed three years ago). The financial freedom that MLSE enjoys — because the revenues are managed, let’s say, ambitiously — give us that type of freedom.”
As another example, Hopkinson pointed to Toronto FC. MLS allows teams to pay three players (notwithstanding the league salary cap) at the global market rate.
“So your competition for those players isn’t necessarily other MLS clubs,” Hopkinson said. “It’s going to be, say, Sunderland, where Jozy Altidore was playing in the English Premier League. Or AS Roma in Serie A, where Michael Bradley was playing. You’re able to compete for, and go get, Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus. So pulling those players out of the global marketplace is something Toronto FC is able to do because we’ve got the means to do so.”
Among many things Hopkinson said he will miss at MLSE is the diversity of its pro sports portfolio.
“I had the pleasure of working across four different top leagues — the NHL, NBA, MLS and the CFL. And despite the fact MLSE only took over formal ownership of the Toronto Argonauts back in January, I worked with the Argonauts previously in my career … It’s really been really phenomenally interesting.”
A cynic might point out that Hopkinson has not exactly picked the best time to join Real Madrid — what with the blockbuster departures in recent weeks of superstar player Cristiano Ronaldo and massively successful manager Zinedine Zidane, both to Juventus of the Italian league. Club leadership called Hopkinson ahead of those announcements to make sure he didn’t have second thoughts.
“I said maybe I should be a little more freaked out, but really, I’m not. I’ve been in this business for 25 years. Coaches come and coaches go, and players come and players go. I was around with the Raptors when Vince Carter left, and it didn’t crash the Raptors. In fact they’ve never been healthier. I was there when Mats Sundin left the Leafs organization, and that was a real blow. But I don’t think the Maple Leafs have ever been in a healthier situation.
“True fans, they love the players while they are a part of their team … Teammates will change, but the teams fans love remains unchanged.”
Even if a fan moves halfway around the world for a dream job.
I think it’s really about making sure that we’re growing revenues to match our ambitions.