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Friendly business where profit and sport collide

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - Neither Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pochettino nor Toronto FC's Ryan Nelsen seemed particularly enthused about their mid-week friendly but smiled grudgingly while accepting the match as part of today's global soccer reality where new fans and revenue streams must be cultivated.

For both men, Wednesday's encounter was a meaningless contest where sporting and business interests collide.

Tottenham will play three such matches against Major League Soccer (MLS) opposition on a brief North American pre-season swing, a barnstorming expedition where the score lines will not matter nearly as much as the other numbers that will be crunched by the club's sponsorship and marketing departments.

Pochettino, in his first year in charge at White Hart Lane, has been provided with a sobering introduction into the concessions and demands placed on one of soccer's glamour clubs who seek to climb ever higher up the sport's food chain.

From a purely competition perspective, travelling nearly halfway around the world for a friendly against the Seattle Sounders last Saturday, followed by a cross-country jaunt to Canada for a date with Toronto FC before wrapping up at the weekend in Chicago against the Fire is not the ideal way to begin preparations for the upcoming Premier League season.

But from a commercial standpoint, the whirlwind visit has been trumpeted as a success, helping the Spurs grow their brand while tapping into new lucrative markets.

"This is a very good relationship with Toronto, this is a commercial relationship, this is important for our club and Toronto," said Pochettino, in a pre-match press conference.

"It's not easy for us because we are in the middle of our pre-season but we understand that the club is a big club, that they have to come here for different things."

GREATER DISTRACTION

For Nelsen, who himself had a brief stint with Tottenham during his playing career, the game was an even greater distraction.

Sitting third in the MLS Eastern Conference standings, the Reds played Houston on Saturday followed by the friendly against Tottenham with a game against table-topping Sporting KC looming large on Saturday as they try to reach the post-season for the first time in their eight-year history.

"For the English media, for you guys, it would be like playing a game in the Christmas period when you are third in the league and you've got Man. City to play on Saturday," said Nelsen. "Not the greatest time.

"For me, I just hope they come out unscathed."

For Tottenham, ambition comes not only on the pitch but off it as well.

If Spurs are to challenge the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds, ranked one and three on the most recent Forbes list of the world's most valuable sporting franchises, they must not only win trophies but the bigger battle for global popularity.

A four-year commercial partnership with TFC, who are part of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) empire that includes the National Hockey League Maple Leafs and National Basketball Association Raptors, will be key to that goal and provide Tottenham with an entry point into the North American market coveted by the world's top clubs.

The TFC-Tottenham partnership was formed during negotiations that brought prolific Spurs striker Jermain Defoe to Toronto in a reported $10 million deal that made a big splash in North America.

As part of that agreement the two clubs will develop cross-promotions, marketing and branding opportunities while sharing their expertise.

"It emerged as we started talking about what it would take for Tottenham to transfer Jermain to us," David Hopkinson, MLSE chief commercial officer told Reuters.

"We could have just cut a cheque but they were interested saying, "Hey, you have a sophisticated sports organization in North America, we're interested in building the Tottenham Hotspur brand over there. Could you help us as part of this transaction?".

MINING RICHES

Certainly there are riches to be mined in North America.

At a friendly against the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl on Wednesday, Manchester United debuted Chevrolet as the team's jersey sponsor, a seven-year deal that will pay the English soccer club $559 million.

Jersey sales are a major source of income for the world's top soccer brands and Spurs also hope to gain a bigger slice of that pie with the help of MLSE, which will sell official Tottenham merchandise at its various outlets.

In return, Hopkinson says Spurs will sell Toronto FC merchandise at White Hart Lane.

"At Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment we have the Leafs, a 100-year-old franchise, and the Raptors, a 20-year-old franchise. We have good experience in these spaces but really we are still new to the soccer business," Hopkinson told Reuters.

"With Tottenham, we have the opportunity to learn from guys who have a long and rich heritage in soccer."

With a new stadium on the way and more big money transfers targeted, Spurs are looking to do more than sell a few jerseys from their MLSE partnership.

"They (Spurs) see North America as an opportunity," said Hopkinson. "Tottenham are not the most popular brand of English Premier League soccer here, so can we help them climb from sixth to fifth to fourth to eventually unseat Manchester United as one of the world's most popular soccer brands?

"We are going to do everything we can to support that."

(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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