Riccardo Nero, the Equipment Operations Manager Toronto FC Academy at MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Partnership) is one of the hardest workers in the sport industry. That is what Stéphane Côté, Stadium Operations Coordinator for the Toronto Blue Jays said when justifying Riccardo as his choice for who we should interview next. To our delight, Riccardo Nero took time to discuss his sport journey, which actually started later than most. We share that conversation with you below.
Tell us a little bit about the Toronto Football Club Academy.
The Toronto Football Club (FC) Academy is under the Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment (MLSE) umbrella. So as many in the sport industry know, MLSE owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Argonauts (Argos), Toronto Raptors and Toronto Football Club (FC). Each team, with the exception of the Argos has minor league affiliates. The Raptors have the 905, the Leafs have the Marlies and Toronto FC has theirs. That’s where the Toronto FC Academy comes in. So e we’re a bit different in how we’re structured in comparison to the other teams.
From a talent pathway perspective, soccer, in Major League Soccer (MLS), which is the league in with the FC play, is structured like this:
|Toronto FC (Pro team)||19+|
|Toronto FC II (Minor league affiliate)||19+|
|Toronto FC Academy (Grassroots)||12-19|
So I work for the Toronto FC Academy. What we do is get the best of the best soccer players from Ontario and even sometimes outside of Ontario to play the sport in an organized way. Thus, we give them with the proper structure, a great coaching staff and the right guidelines to succeed in the game of soccer long-term. We are trying to create the next TFC stars within Canada.
So that’s basically where the academy comes in. These players are striving to get to that next level. In fact, we have several players that graduated from the academy who are now playing with our professional team, the Toronto FC. Here’s a list of some:
- Ashtone Morgan
- Liam Fraser
- Jordan Hamilton
- Jay Chapman
So that’s basically how our academy system works. We know that not all the kids are going to make it to that next level. But we do what we can to develop these young men as soccer players. I think we have the talent to create the next Alphonso Davies within TFC.
I should mention that the young men don’t pay any money to play in the league. Nor do they get paid. So we have to ensure that when they come in here to play, about 5 times a week, that their needs are met. We give them everything else for free.
In fact, they train Monday through Friday for about 1.5 hours. They have access to whenever they need. Whether they have to do a gym session before or after meals or hot meals after training, we have them for them. Also, we have an athletic therapist. Moreover, we have the best of the best equipment staff to provide them with ready to use tools they need on the field. Without a doubt, we have the best coaching staff in the league as well. Many of our coaches played soccer in the NCAA or professionally. We believe that achieve the goal of grooming the next stars, we have to provide them with the essentials they need to grow. And that’s how our academy works! You’re sure to hear some of our current players in years to come doing big things at the big-league level!
Now tell us about your role as the Manager of Equipment Operations at the Toronto FC Academy?
As the Manager of Equipment Operations for the Toronto FC Academy, I ensure that equipment is taken care of for our boys such as training kits, balls, safety apparatus, etc.
There’s three main parts of their apparel I always must ensure are taken care of as the Manager of Equipment Operations.
So each academy athlete will receive, training shorts, training top, socks, training sweaters, compression tops, and compression shorts if they need among others. Whatever they like to wear, we try and get them. When they are done training, we make sure all their stuff goes into a bin. We bring it into our laundry room and wash and dry for all of the teams. We do this for all our teams from U13 to U19.
Also, we take care of our teams travel gear. Three of our teams play in a US league called United States Soccer Development Academy (USDA). So when they travel, we make sure that at the start of the year, all the boys have all the necessary gear they need for away games.
Therefore, what I do at the start of the year, around the end of January or beginning of February; is a lot of planning and organization. We need to be able to before the season starts back , uh, we provide them with tops, shorts, pants, and cleats for travel. We give this all to them for free. So we work without budget to make sure that all this is planned for, paid for and ready for the start of the season.
The planning involves keeping detailed We travel pants, uh, travels top travel sweater and, um, brand new pair of cleats. And that’s all free. That’s all through our TFC academy budget. Um, so I have to coordinate and organize all of that based on their sizing. Uh, and then that’s where we keep records so that we know for the future what their sizes are.
This involves getting the jerseys all ready for games. For each team.
We have game compression accessories, shorts, tops, warm up tops, jerseys and more that we need to ensure are ready for all the games.
Not included on all I just said is the equipment we make sure is ready. For example, we’ll be pumping 14-15 balls to get them ready for play on a regular basis. Also, for practices we make sure pinnies, cones, hurdles, floats, and more are ready for practice.
Managing equipment is a big operation. If we don’t ensure that equipment is managed properly, it would be unorganized.
We are the foundation and the guts of the Academy.
And being the Manager of Equipment Operations involves working on budgets. Making orders and ensuring we have what we need financially to make these boys have a great experience is my job!
When I arrive at work in the morning, I help with anything needed.
You went to University for Economics. Worked in Game Day Operations. Tell us what led you to become the Manager of Equipment Operations for the TFC Academy?
I’d love to give you a breakdown from 2016 onwards. That’s how I can pinpoint exactly what led to my role as Manager of Equipment Operations.
In 2016, I decided to get a graduate certificate related to Sport Management. The program I chose was one year. The program was structured like this. Four months of in class work. Then a four month internship. Finally, four more months of class work happen.
My internship was at SDI Marketing. For four months, I interned there as an account administrator and I mainly worked on experiential marketing. This meant that I would work with Molson, Rogers, Ikea, Jack Links Beef Jerky and more accounts. I mainly focused on helping with any research needed or on coordinating different events that the marketing agency that most in the client wanted our agency to take care of.
Then about a week before my internship ended, I interviewed for a position the Toronto FC’s game crew. I got the job. My role included but was not limited to the following:
- Be on the field during promotions during breaks and before/after games
- Arrive 3-4 hours before game to set up
- Coordinate any groups that come in to do on-field activities
- Participate and energize the crowd through our pre-game activities
- Prepare huge opening ceremony with flags
My time working in game day operations helped me to develop the skill, art and craft of being detail oriented. Coordinating so many things in a fast-paced environment with little room for error groomed me my current role.
Game day operations was really my niche. I liked to say it was my bread and butter. A job opportunity with the Raptors game day crew came up, in which over 500 people applied. I made it to the final two. Shorly thereafter, I became the Manager of Equipment Operations for the Toronto FC Academy.
How did that happen? Well, a lot of it had to do with making connections. Getting out there and making people get to know me. That’s really the only way to make it in the industry!
So after my first season with the TFC, we won the MLS Cup. I was asked to be the keeper of the MLS Cup when it was here. What this meant was that I was hired to take the cup to different places for events. For instance, I took it to a season ticket holder event at Casa Loma. I also took it for a visit to a special needs high school. I’ll also never forget taking it for a visit to Sick Kids Hospital. It was truly an awesome experience.
They started to know my name and my name started to spread a little bit. So I asked around, “Do you think you could let me know if an opportunity comes around that might interest me for a promotion?” And one of my mentors here at MLSE heard about the equipment manager position for the academy and he said, “Riccardo, you’re responsible for 150 kids in the academy and we’ve got to have someone that can create the right relationship they need to thrive.” He thought I’d be great for the positio. The management team saw my interactions with children on the field for the Toronto FC games. So I applied in March of 2018 and that’s really how everything happened.
What are two skills you have that you wouldn’t be able to do without as the Equipment Operations Manager of the Toronto FC Academy?
A strong work ethic was instilled in me when I was very young with my parents, whether that was in school or whether that was in my jobs. It was just something that was natural to me. It was a non issue for me. I went into every day of my job and busted my butt. For me, you’re putting in 120% effort regardless. When I walk in every day to the academy, I ask myself what else can I put in? What extra stuff can I do to make sure that I’m constantly on my feet constantly working? I’m constantly on the go, and that was because of my parents. My mum and dad always worked hard, and my mum was a modern languages department head at a high school for about 35 years. My Dad worked in the food sales industry, and I had never saw them take a breaker. They rarely took a vacation.
And even still today, this woman never stopped, and she loved the kids, and she wanted to make sure that they were successful. My dad worked mostly in the food sales industry. For him, it was at that time because of the Italian culture, you graduate high school, you’re not going to university to play, you’re going to work and bring home money for the family, and that was really it for him. He retired in 2000, and it was after he had a heart attack in 2012 that he had to take a break.
And so he’s been semiretired since, but whatever he does, he’s always putting in that effort of and having the mentality of, “What can I do to make this better? What can I do to improve the company?” That’s really what it was for him. So for me, that was really how I went into a job. When I was a commissioner of the basketball league, I asked myself, “What can I do to improve the standards? Let’s do an all star game, let’s do individual stats.” So I was in the office, two, three hours, four hours after every game day, and that’s how I’ve been for every job. The work ethic has to be there or else you don’t get recognized.
A second skill is adaptability, the ability to adapt to your surroundings or adapt to different situations. Especially within the sports franchise, you have to adapt to different personalities that you’re working with. When the team is winning, we’re all good. So when a team’s losing, it’s a tougher environment to be in, so you have to adapt to those scenarios, and not every day is going to be sunshine and rainbows. When they’re losing, it’s tough, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to make sure that we switch that.
So being able to adapt to those surroundings, especially within this new role for me was something I had to develop. I adapted to working with kids from different age ranges, working with different operations’ staff and their personalities and how they work, working with different equipment and different personalities. If you don’t have that adaptability, especially within a Toronto franchise, because of our culture and our ethnic community and how multi-cultural we are, it’s going to be very tough to survive, especially in the sports industry. You don’t adapt, you don’t survive.
How did volunteering in the industry help you in your job as the Equipment Operations with the Toronto FC Academy?
So when I started at George Brown, a friend of mine in the program had a cousin who worked at SDI marketing and they were looking for volunteers for the Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer event that happens every year. So that Friday I went in from about 3:00 PM until about 11 at night helping them set up the tents and everything they needed, and the next day we were in at 6:00 AM, and I worked til 6:00 PM. I was helping with the Scotiabank Kid Zone, making sure they were okay and safe.
After I was done, I went to the supervisor and said, “Joe, I’m all done. Is there anything else that you need?” And then Joe said, “I want you to come meet someone.” So I went to go meet the client service manager, Carolyn Sacks, and she said to me, “Ricardo, I’ve known you for about 10 hours right now and I’ve never met a volunteer with your work ethic and your drive to get stuff done.” I then told her I was interested in the marketing coordinator internship for raptors, and she said I should take a look at FDI and the opportunities. So I took a look at FDI, and I went in two days after that to interview with Carolyn. That’s basically how it got started.
The second story of volunteering is about when I met Kadeem Bandali at his events for George Brown. I said, “if you ever need volunteers, I’d love to help out” and sent him an email offering help for any of the playoff games. He needed help with people doing giveaways at the gates. I basically just handed out free flags to people coming through the gates and then got to watch the game, and then I sent him an email literally 12 hours later saying, “Kadeem, thank you so much for the opportunity. I really do appreciate it.” That’s where he kept my name in. January of next year, he said, “Hey Ricardo, I’m looking for about eight or nine new crew members.You’re the first one I contacted. Let me know if you send your resume in.” That was all through volunteering; I didn’t look to get paid.
And I think that’s the difference because money’s a clear part of this generation nowadays. They don’t even stop to realize that volunteering is worth way more long term than it ever is going to be with a paid position because that’s how you get your name in a company. If you’re volunteering, and you’re not looking to get paid, and you’re putting in the time and the hours and the effort, your name’s going to be out there way more often. And that’s how it was for me. I work full time at TFC; I still volunteer for Pinball Clemons Foundation for Canada Soccer whenever they have home games. I’m still constantly volunteering wherever I can just to make sure that I stay humbled.
It’s not about advancement now. It’s about making sure that I stay relevant, but it’s also that I try to still be a humanitarian whenever I can. I think that if students could learn something, it’s that volunteering is real and it takes a certain person with a certain work ethic to do it, but when you do it, it pays off.
If I could give one piece of advice to students who want to get a jumpstart or anyone else that applies, volunteer. Try and volunteer, and volunteer with a company you want to work with because that’s how your name is going to stay. It’s going to stay relevant when a position comes up that you were gunning for.
Tell us who you think we should interview next?
Coordinator, Game Presentation and Business Operations at Toronto FC & Toronto Argonauts. He needs to be at the top of your list. The way he leads the team, his work ethic and the way he leads others, it’s second to none. He’s been instrumental in grooming and mentoring me for the position of Manager of Equipment Operations that I am currently in.
Coordinator, First Team Operations at Vancouver Whitecaps FC. I think Steph said a whole lot about her in his piece. I’d love to see her story chronicled. Memories of working with her I’ll never forget.
She’s a rising star, and she’s unbelievable. Her story is quite impressive as well, and I think that’s something that not just sports industry professionals would react to, but women within the Spanish community would also react to it as well.
A fourth would be Patrick Graham; he works in global partnerships. I was in the same semester with Patrick, and he busted his butt, even at George Brown, and now he’s on the rise at MLSC within GP. He’s really impressive, and I actually admire him quite a bit and respect him and his work ethic and what he’s done.
The final person is Melissa Robinson, who I had the pleasure of working with when I was with the Argos. If you want the definition of a strong, independent, hardworking woman within the sports industry, which is very rare to find, she is the first name that comes up in my opinion. Just her work ethic in general is really impressive. She’s someone I’ve come to respect.
He’s been my friend since day one at George Brown and he’s worked at MLS for his internship. He’s worked with the Jays, and now he’s at Hudson’s Bay Company as a Marketing Coordinator. His name is Trevor Hoff. He has such great passion for marketing. I rarely say this, but I don’t think I’ve met a person who does as much research or conducts themselves in such a manner that he does, especially when he was with the Jays.
Now that he’s working with Hudson’s Bay Company, he’s had a lot of opportunities that haven’t been given to him that he rightfully deserves. He has an analytical mind that I haven’t met before. He’s someone that I’ve come to admire really quickly, not just as friend, but as a colleague.
Any words of wisdom you’d like to share with young sport professionals who may be headed towards a similar career path as you?
I think there’s one quote that my, that I hold close to my heart and that’s something that my mom’s told me. Even before I started the sports industry. I’ve lived by this quote:
“Tell me who you work with and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Um, and I think that’s something that I’d like to share with others because, um, the, the only, for me, the one thing that I, when I go into a job is I want to make sure that the culture around me is right.
I’m not going to invest in a company like my time in a company based on the name. I didn’t invest all my effort into MLSE because of its name. I invested my time and energy in this organization because of the culture that is created around them. And I think for me it’s just because the people that I work with, it’s really easy for me to come into a day to day at TFC and work as hard as I do. A big part of that is because I have the people around me who keep me going each day. The support here is outstanding. And I have great support here. So that’s one quote I want to leave all sport professionals with. Do what you love and work where you feel loved.
It’s you telling me who you work with and I’ll tell you who you are. I think that I’m really happy my mom introduced me to that cold for a long time ago cause. That’s constantly in my head! And I believe that now I can proudly tell you I am the Manager of Equipment Operations for the Toronto FC Academy!