‘A soccer guy with incredible business acumen’: Behind the scenes of the CPL’s search for a Commissioner

The Canadian Premier League entered a new era this week, as Mark Noonan arrived on the scene to take over as the second commissioner in the young league’s history.

This moment, a much-welcomed breath of certainty, was eight months in the making. After inaugural commissioner David Clanachan stepped down in January 2022, the CPL embarked on a mission to find the right person to lead it beyond its infancy and into the future.

Almost immediately upon Clanachan’s departure, work began to find a successor. The league and its Board of Governors formed a search committee in February, headed by one of Canada’s top sports and media executives Scott Moore, formerly of the CBC and Sportsnet.

The new committee included a handful of executives from across the CPL. Moore was joined by Atlético Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez, Pacific FC president and former Canadian international Josh Simpson, Valour FC CEO Wade Miller, and Scott Mitchell, chairman of the CPL and Canadian Soccer Business as well as managing partner/CEO of Hamilton Sports Group.

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Considering the magnitude of the task facing any incoming CPL commissioner, this was not an undertaking to be entered into lightly.

“We had a very methodical search to ensure we got the right person,” Mitchell told this week. “This is someone we expect to be with us for a very long period of time. Arguably this person is in one of the most important positions, no doubt, in Canadian soccer, and we wanted to make sure we got it right.

“David Clanachan did an outstanding job in helping us to get where we got to this year, and now it’s time to take the next step for someone who can put in all the time and commitment necessary to take the league and the business to the next level.”

So began the search. The first order of business, of course, was assembling a basic idea of what kind of candidate the committee hoped to attract.

“First of all we were evaluating the profiles, what we needed this person to be, what type of background we need,” Lopez explained. “Do we want someone fresh; do we want someone North American; do we want someone with experience, and in what sectors? And once we had the profile nailed down and exactly what we wanted for our candidates, then we started looking.”

From there, the call went out to prospective candidates. Interest began to flow in from all over the world; a number of executives from as far as Singapore and East Asia, to Europe, to North America all threw their hats in the ring.

Lopez estimates that the search committee began with around 20 to 30 serious candidates, from a variety of different backgrounds both within and outside of the soccer world.

Moore and his small group did the major legwork in vetting  that initial list of candidates, whittling it down to a shorter pool of 10 that they could bring to the Board of Governors.

“One of the things that we wanted to do is not limit this to North American people or candidates, so we opened it to people around the world,” Lopez said. 

“I think what made the process, to me, very interesting and fulfilling is I think we had people from leagues, from federations, from soccer clubs, from marketing agencies, people with a lot of experience.”

At last, the shortlist came down to a few final candidates, including Noonan, whose career has taken him through all four of the backgrounds Lopez listed.

Noonan first caught wind of this opportunity via a mutual friend with Moore.

“Scott sent the candidate profile over and I did my diligence, and I was more than intrigued,” he said. “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 felt like a striker looking for his or her next goal, I really wanted to be here.”

Noonan’s specific experiences gave him an edge over other finalists, said Lopez. His work with Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation meant he had applicable experience in an emerging soccer organization, and his breadth of experience across the sporting world gave him a diversity of perspectives upon which to draw.

“I think the way that he, at least to myself, showed passion about Canada, showed passion about the CPL, showed passion about the potential and the commitment, of the things that he wanted to do, his ideas, the way he wanted to take a league to a different level, I think that was key,” Lopez said.

“But I think the most important fact was his background. We’re talking about a guy that has been, first of all, at MLS, at the beginning of the creation of MLS … in the most difficult years of MLS. I’m sure he knows perfectly how to deal with some of the issues we’re dealing with as a new league, and how to navigate all that process because he basically did it before.”

Mitchell said it became clear Noonan, who was also named chief executive officer of Canadian Soccer Business, loves the project and the opportunity to make Canada a dominant force in Concacaf and in global soccer. 

“He’s done a lot of very interesting, neat things. He clearly is not intimidated by a challenge, between his great experience in the World Surfing League and the bull riders; it’s a really impressive resume,” said Mitchell. “But at the end of the day, what you have is a very experienced soccer executive who was a former player, understands the game, played the game at a very high level. His brother’s still a great coach, just won a national championship at Clemson [University]. He’s a soccer guy who has this incredible business acumen.”

Noonan’s time as CEO of Hearts of Oak SC in Ghana further strengthened his candidacy. Someone who has been on both sides of the table, working at a league and at a club, was particularly valuable to a league the size of the CPL, where the head office works so closely with each of its teams.

“He knows how to run a club from the inside,” Lopez said. “How to talk to players, talk to coaches, sell tickets. We need to bring people to the stadiums, we need to drive revenues. So I think all this together make him a very comprehensive and compelling candidate. I’m not saying other candidates don’t have other skillsets and other backgrounds but to me he was the perfect guy.”

Noonan’s marketing background also caught the committee’s eye. As the CPL grows and matures, it’ll be important for each club to expand its impact on its local community, developing an approach that can attract new, and particularly young, fans.

He will also play a key role in strengthening and growing the relationship between the CPL and Canada Soccer. Strong communication across all levels of the game will be crucial with the soccer landscape ever expanding and maturing rapidly in this country,

“We really need to build a bridge with Canada Soccer, really to grow the relationship between us at all levels,” Lopez said. “We need to structure soccer in this country, more than the CPL – I know we’re doing it right now with League1 Canada, but we need to take it deeper and I think that the knowledge Mark had from his previous years in U.S. Soccer are going to be crucial to take those conversations and really help us create that fabric with Canada Soccer.”

The process of appointing a new commissioner and CEO of CSB was long but Mitchell and the rest of the search committee are confident that they’ve found a leader who is worth the wait.

When Noonan officially takes the reins on Sept. 1, he’ll officially open the book on this new phase in the CPL’s evolution. Now that a commissioner is in place, the sky is the limit for growth, especially at such an exciting time for soccer in Canada.

“The timing is great, leading into the 2022 World Cup in Qatar,” Mitchell said. “And then of course, we’ve got an incredible horizon here in the next four years leading up to the 2026 World Cup, and you’re seeing the great growth of the CPL both on and off the field as well.

“We’re very fortunate that Mark wants to join us for this next chapter of his career.”