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Whitecaps and EA Sports get in the game

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Major League Soccer is getting a real swagger; from the front office to the clubs.

General managers, team presidents and even league commissioner Don Garber are talking about the league eventually rivaling the likes of the English Premiership and Serie A. There are no more apologies for soccer in North America.

That was in evidence Monday as the Vancouver Whitecaps and EA Sports — maker of FIFA 11, the hottest-selling sports video game, well, ever — announced a new partnership that will see EA promoting the Whitecaps through its technology, and putting in support for the development of grassroots soccer in British Columbia.

The Whitecaps become the first pro soccer team in North America to become an official partner of EA.

Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber, when announcing the deal, said the move was all part of the team’s plan to become one of the top 25 clubs in the world. That’s right — the planet.

“This will bring fans closer to the game and highlight our club,” said Barber.

“We believe in the Whitecaps’ commitment to become one of the top soccer clubs in the world,” said EA Sports vice president and general manager of soccer, Matt Bilbey.

EA also has partnership deals with Chelsea, Real Madrid and, ahem, Arsenal. Barber, being a former Spurs executive — and owner Steve Nash, being a Spurs fan — might not talk too much about being on the same page as their Public Enemy No. 1. (It should be mentioned that Colorado, the champs, are affiliated with Arsenal — a natural fit because Stan Kroenke has ownership stakes in both sides… will Colorado-Vancouver be a new North London derby?)

Barber’s goals are grandiose, but they echo what is coming out of the league office. There has been a definite change in the language from New York; when commissioner Don Garber addressed the media at MLS Cup, he said the league will get to the point where it will compete with the likes of the EPL and Bundesliga — it’s not there yet, he allowed, but that day is coming.

A lot has been made out of MLS’ poor ratings for the Championship game — which got less than 40,000 viewers in Canada on ESPN2, and less than 600,000 on ESPN in the USA, for the English broadcast. A real picture can be painted if the ratings also incorporate online viewers and the Spanish-speaking TeleFutura audience. But, even though the raw numbers aren’t great, if the demographics are good, MLS can still turn the story into a positive one. If a large percentage of the viewers are in the free-spending 18-35 age range, the sport can be sold as a true niche market, with a small but extremely loyal and high-spending following. This is sort of how the NHL is marketed in America, though no team would ever admit it publicly.

That’s why Volkswagen is a perfect fit for MLS as its car sponsor, a brand that has a bit of an upscale cachet, rather than Toyota.

The EA brand is how a lot of young fans actually get introduced to the pro leagues — they learn about teams and players through the games. Bilbey said fans will have the opportunity to “play the Whitecaps” at BC Place on the new FIFA game before the Whitecaps themselves actually move into their renovated new stadium.

Of course, the Whitecaps have home-field advantage; FIFA 11 is developed in the EA studio in Vancouver. Still, it has to sting Toronto FC that the new Canadian club is flexing its muscles — and securing a deal that is aimed at the hipster-kid audience MLS so badly craves.

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