The Vancouver Whitecaps have announced that chief executive officer Paul Barber will step down effective February 29, 2012. To call this a shock is an understatement.
Earlier today, the Vancouver Whitecaps hastily scheduled a press conference, which is unusual for them. They announced that team co-owner Jeff Mallett would be at the press conference, which is even more unusual; neither Mallett nor any of the other owners (Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, and Steve Nash) have made a habit of attending press conferences; not for player signings, not for coach hirings or firings, not for anything.
Barber joined the Whitecaps from Tottenham Hotspur, where he had been executive director, and also brought experience as a marketing executive with the Football Association. His was a high-profile hire, a sign about how serious the Whitecaps were about becoming a world-class organization. His departure will be no less high-profile.
Barber's impending resignation has sent a shock through the Whitecaps world. If this has been coming for a long time then it's a secret the Whitecaps have kept very well. The fact that Barber is remaining until February suggests he's jumping rather than being pushed, although we don't know where he's jumping to. Has he got a better opportunity or is he the first rat fleeing a sinking ship? Barber is still just 44 years old; he has a long career ahead of him in one place or another and he may just not want to spend it in Canada.
Vancouver is in shock. We know very little beyond the official story and even that's not all that clear. There are plenty who will be happy to see Barber's back and a few who'll be worried.
Paul Barber leaves a mixed record. From a commercial perspective, the Whitecaps have made the move into Major League Soccer a successful one. Their new long-term home at BC Place Stadium seems to be working out, crowds are good, and relationships with supporters have been reliably improving. The team has lured marquee sponsors waving big-money contracts to be associated with the Whitecaps and, while the team hasn't let lived up to its ambition of being "one of the top 25 clubs in the world", they're luring international-profile talent like Jay DeMerit and Young-Pyo Lee.
On the other hand, when he was hired in 2009 Barber said his top priority was to build the Whitecaps a new training centre that they still haven't got; he was unable to bulldoze through the political maelstrom that is civic government in greater Vancouver. He's been criticized for his policies towards fans, with issues such as the ticket pricing structure and Whitecaps employees being restricted from communicating with supporters coming up. Very few of the old dreams seem to be coming true: no training centre, no waterfront stadium, no first-year playoff run.
Barber was not always well-loved among Whitecaps fans. There are ex-employees with nothing but scorn for him, although there are also those who speak well of the man. The Whitecaps' decision to sell the team's allocation of away seats in Seattle and Portland to a third-party reseller made die-hards frothing mad. Then again, he was always courteous in person, often replied to the e-mails fans sent him, and as I've indicated relationships between the club and the fans have been steadily improving over the past several months. I've heard it said that Barber actually dislikes die-hard supporters, but his organization certainly hasn't treated those die-hards like it was so.
Barber's role will be split between president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis. You would have to be wired closer to the highest echelons of the Whitecaps' front office to know what this will mean. Lenarduzzi's role for the past several years has been as much advisor and public relations face as actual involvement in the business end; the fact that the duties are being split with a senior member of the business management team suggests to me this will continue. The Whitecaps are owned by businessmen (well, three businessmen and one basketball player); it's safe to say they'll want a businessman rather than an old athlete to hold up the business end.