A little over 150 years ago, around the time the rules of association football were being drawn up, a team of enthusiastic Irishmen laced up for a game against a side from a charitable institution offering support to immigrants, known as St. George’s Society. However, this match did not take place in Dublin or London, but rather in a young colonial city on the shores of Lake Ontario which just a quarter-century earlier had been christened ‘Toronto.’
From this humble beginning, the nascent sport of football spread rapidly across the land of Canada, finding eager participants as far away as Vancouver on the Pacific coast of British Columbia just a few years later. Despite its notable soccer history, Canada curiously lacks a domestic national league, making it the only country of its stature, population, size and wealth anywhere in the world to go without.
A previous endeavour to create a Canadian league in 1987 was a financial disaster, and folded after just six turbulent seasons. A second attempt looms at manufacturing a professional soccer league out of the elusive ether that encircles Canada’s most popular participatory sport. Whether this effort will be a success that creates a passion for club football in such urban outposts as Regina and Saskatoon, or instead becomes yet another footnote in an ultimately doomed quest for a national league, is occupying the minds of Canadian admirers of the beautiful game.
What we know thus far: the proposed Canadian Premier League is likely to begin in 2018, and will initially involve between six to eight clubs. Most of the prospective club owners are corporations already involved with either Canadian gridiron football (CFL) or ice hockey (NHL or junior leagues). The league’s business plan was due to be released by summer 2016. There has also been an acknowledgement by those building the league that revenue from attendance won’t be enough to sustain the league financially – likely meaning that corporate sponsorship and television revenue would both be necessary to eventually turn a profit.
Although Canada currently lacks a national soccer league, the country’s professional clubs have competed at a high level for at least 45 years. Toronto Falcons and Vancouver Royals fielded sides in the early North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968. They were joined or succeeded by other Canadian teams – such as Toronto Metros, Montreal Olympic, and Calgary Boomers – over the next decade.
The NASL’s demise after the 1984 season, along with Canada’s participation at the 1986 Mexico World Cup, was the ideal epoch to launch the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) in 1987. Sadly, after several seasons of growth, CSL clubs began to fold due to poor attendance and tenuous finances, and the league dissolved after only six years. This short-lived venture marked the only period that Canada had a truly national league of its own.
Following the brief CSL era, Canadian clubs began to gravitate back toward US leagues, which is where they presently remain, more than two decades later. An eight-year flurry of activity between 2007 and 2014 saw Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal join Major League Soccer (MLS), as well as Edmonton and Ottawa enter the US second division. Today, these are Canada’s five professional soccer clubs.
Despite the growth of professional Canadian soccer in recent years, dissatisfaction persists regarding the lack of a national league. Most of Canada’s professional clubs field a low number of Canadian players, partly thanks to MLS allowing Americans to have domestic (rather than foreign) status on Canadian MLS squads. Canadian players aren’t granted the same favour by MLS clubs based in the US – there they are considered foreign players, and have to fight for one of a club’s limited number of international squad places. While this overall scenario is beneficial to Canadian clubs by expanding the talent pool available to them, Canadian players find their opportunities impeded by these MLS restrictions.
The relative plight of the Canadian men’s national team can also be partly blamed on the absence of a national league. Canada’s international line-up often doubles as an esoteric guide to some of the more obscure European lower division football clubs, with the tongue-in-cheek ‘Unattached FC’ often featuring prominently on the squad list. And while the Americans have qualified for the last seven consecutive World Cups, Canada is still pitifully clinging onto memories from its sole trip to the international competition some three decades ago.
— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) April 10, 2017
The proposed Canadian Premier League will need to overcome five significant challenges if it intends to survive and ultimately flourish. The first – and perhaps most significant – challenge is that professional clubs already exist in five of Canada’s six largest metropolitan areas. The three MLS clubs will not entertain moving to the proposed Canadian Premier League – a switch that would essentially be a drop downward – and second division Edmonton has already publicly rejected such a change. While Ottawa might be willing to swap leagues, that would still leave four Canadian clubs playing in prominent US leagues.
The Canadian Premier League would either have to leave these cities out of its plan, or create second clubs in these cities that would compete for attendance and attention. Given that ice hockey is Canada’s most popular spectator sport, and no Canadian city has more than one top-flight ice hockey club, it would be optimistic to expect Canadian Premier League sides to coexist with MLS teams in the same cities. On the other hand, if the Premier League was to decide not to put clubs in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, it would risk decreased sponsorship revenue.
A second challenge is whether it can generate sufficient interest from prospective fans and the news media. One of the greatest contributors to the quick demise of the Canadian Soccer League was dismal attendance in several cities. Can it garner regular media attention – even if some of the country’s largest cities are left out of the league?
A third challenge is whether the league can generate significant revenue from a television deal. For the sake of comparison, MLS did not receive rights fees during its initial three-year television deal. Although that was back in the 1990s when the sport was much less popular on this side of the pond, is it realistic for the Canadian Premier League to expect to fare better during its early seasons?
A fourth challenge is travel costs. Canada is massive in size. For comparison, the distance between Victoria and Halifax (two previous CSL clubs) is only slightly less than the journey between Dublin and Tehran. The price of repeatedly flying across such a large country was a challenge during the previous Canadian Soccer League, and eventually caused the creation of an uneven league schedule.
And finally, a fifth challenge is whether the league and its member clubs can secure enough corporate sponsorship to cover expenditures. With much fewer corporations based in Canada than the US, would the country’s private sector be willing to contribute to a Canadian soccer re-launch?
With these challenges in mind, will the proposed Canadian Premier League be able to achieve its vision? One considerable advantage already mentioned is that soccer is Canada’s most popular sport for participation. The gap between the popularity of playing soccer and watching soccer is still significant, but what was once a chasm has shrunk considerably over the past two decades, thanks to an abundance of European football on Canadian television and an increase in the number of professional Canadian clubs. It’s also worth noting that Canadians bought the 11th highest number of tickets for the 2014 World Cup – more than any other non-participating country. The sport of soccer undoubtedly has a sizable following in Canada.
Another advantage that the Canadian Premier League will enjoy is the numerous new stadia recently constructed across the country. These stadiums were admittedly built primarily with gridiron football (CFL) in mind and will have much larger capacities than soccer clubs require, possibly diminishing match atmosphere. However, playing in pristine, modern venues will be a notable improvement over some of the incredibly modest grounds employed by the former Canadian Soccer League.
Given that the forthcoming Canadian Premier League and its member teams will be concocted artificially rather than stem from pre-existing clubs, prospective fans will lack any historical or visceral attachment to these new creations. It is vital that the unveiling of the league and its member clubs is well orchestrated to maximise interest from the onset. Unfortunately, the release and presentation of league information has been sloppy at best so far: dribs and drabs have inadvertently been made public in recent months, and a planning permission presentation to Hamilton City Council quietly unveiled key aspects of the league in one of the most non-triumphant methods imaginable.
Perhaps more importantly, does the league have a sound business plan and the appetite to endure losses for the first few seasons? The MLS is a lesson that creating a top-down soccer league adorned with newly assembled clubs is a project that will take many years before reaching maturation, stability and profitability.
What is certain is that few if any players will get rich from toiling in the upcoming Canadian Premier League. It will be a modest venture, especially at the beginning. But its mere existence will be a welcome relief for Canadian soccer players who are currently offered scant domestic opportunities to play professionally.
Within the next few years, fans of the Canadian men’s national team may no longer have to acquire an encyclopaedic knowledgeable of obscure clubs in the Finnish second division and the fourth tier of German football to know where their squad members earn a living. But whether that will still be the case two decades from now is a reasonable concern for even the most optimistic of Canadian soccer supporters.
Devon Rowcliffe is a football writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Visit www.devonrowcliffe.work
Main image: Douglas Portz