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Canadian Premier League off to solid start after filling void for players and fans 

Hamilton’s Forge FC celebrate winning the inaugural Canadian Premier League championship (Credit: CPL)

  • Seven-team competition is first professional soccer league in Canada since 1992
  • Clubs have averaged 4,300 fans a game but OneSoccer digital ratings not made public
  • Long-term plan to expand to 14-18 teams, with promotion and relegation to second tier

There is a new sense of optimism surrounding men’s soccer in Canada, a country that up until recently has had very little to shout about in the sport since its last World Cup appearance in 1986.

In June 2018, Fifa awarded the 2026 World Cup jointly to Canada, the United States and Mexico, in which Canada will likely host 10 matches in the expanded 48-team tournament. Later that month, Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich announced a deal to sign Canadian prodigy Alphonso Davies, then just 17 years old, from Major League Soccer team Vancouver Whitecaps in a move worth $13m, which could rise to $22m.

Then in October 2019, Davies helped inspired the Canadian national team to a 2-0 victory over the United States in a Concacaf Nations League game in Toronto. It was Canada’s first victory over the cross-border rivals in 34 years.

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, from a long-term perspective, this year witnessed the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League, the country’s first top-tier domestic league since 1992.

The seven-team CPL is billed as “by Canadians for Canadians” to represent its primary aims of providing more professional opportunities for young Canadian players and helping improve player development. Strict roster rules enforce this initiative. Each 23-man squad is limited to signing a maximum of seven foreign nationals, while on match days every team must field a minimum of six Canadian starters. Furthermore, at least three domestic under-21 players must rack up 1,000 cumulative minutes per season.

“At under-15s we had great players but then we kept losing them [to other sports] as there was no guiding light…no pathway. Now the game is starting to explode at the youth level as there is something to shoot for,” CPL commissioner David Clanachan tells SportBusiness.

Inaugural season “a very good start”

The initial seven teams are: Cavalry FC (Calgary), Edmonton FC, Forge FC (Hamilton), HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax), Pacific FC (Victoria), Valour FC (Winnipeg), and York 9 FC (Greater Toronto).

Each season, which lasts from April until November, is split into two segments: a spring season in which each team plays 10 games, followed by a fall season, with each team playing 18 games. Eschewing a US-centric playoff system, the spring and fall champions go head-to-head in a two-legged title match to determine the champions. Forge FC won the inaugural CPL title in November with a 2-0 aggregate victory over Cavalry FC to qualify for the 2020 Concacaf League.

Teams play in venues that currently range between 5,000 and 10,000-seat capacities, with Canadian Football League lines prohibited. The CPL collectively had approximately 420,000 attendees this season, with an average of 4,279 per game. A record crowd of of 17,611 watched the inaugural CPL game, a 1-1 draw between Forge FC and York 9 FC at Tim Hortons Field, although tickets were free.

Earlier this year, Spanish media company Mediapro signed a 10-year broadcast deal with Canadian Soccer Business, a commercial entity made in partnership between the CPL and the Canadian Soccer Association, which covers all Canadian soccer. This includes the CPL; men’s and women’s national team home games, including all youth levels; the Canadian Championship club competition; and League1 Ontario, a regional semi-pro men’s and women’s league. The deal is worth a reported C$20m (€13m/$15m) per season.

CPL commissioner David Clanachan (Credit: CPL)

As part of this partnership, approximately 100 CPL games were aired on Mediapro’s new international streaming service OneSoccer. In a non-exclusive deal, public-service broadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corporation agreed to cover 10 games on its linear platforms and a further 10 digitally. CBC is not thought to be paying a rights fee, nor contributing to production costs. CBC’s 10-game linear coverage had an average reach per game of 422,000, with an average minute audience of 54,000.

Viewing figures for CPL matches on OneSoccer have not yet been made public, nor have the number of subscribers to OneSoccer, which also provides news, interviews and behind-the-scenes content. A subscription to OneSoccer is expected to be included in the season-ticket package at every CPL club in 2020.

Italian sportswear manufacturer Macron is the CPL’s official kit provider, while Nike is its official footwear and equipment supplier. Other commercial partnership deals include Volkswagen, Moosehead Breweries, El Jimador tequila, New Era Cap, Tim Hortons, and WestJet.

Average player salaries have not been made public and neither has the annual salary cap, though it is reported to be approximately C$750,000 ($574,000).  “More than two-thirds of our players are first-time professionals. They are getting a pay check to play soccer which they’ve never had before. That is really important,” says Clanachan.

The start-up league showed just how competitive it is when Cavalry FC defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Canadian Championship, which offers qualification to the Concacaf Champions League.

“It was a very good start and now we have to dial it up and be better next season,” Clanachan says. “This year people were rooting and cheering for us. Next year people will expect better from us. That’s the way we’re approaching it.”

Montagliani’s legacy project

The CPL is a belated successor to the Canadian Soccer League, which was created on the back of Canada’s appearance at the Mexico World Cup in 1986 but folded eight years later following declining attendances and mounting financial problems.

With no professional league in the country, the United States-based and sanctioned Major League Soccer spotted a gap in the Canadian market and awarded franchises to Toronto (2007), Vancouver (2011), and Montreal (2012) after gaining approval from Concacaf, the governing body of North American and Caribbean soccer.

Other Canadian teams soon joined US-based leagues. FC Edmonton was a member of the now-defunct North American Soccer League while Ottawa Fury FC, a former NASL team, currently plays in the second tier United Soccer League Championship. Toronto FC also has a reserve team in the third-tier USL League One.

However, the successful Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015 indicated that there was enough of an appetite to support the game in the country, with a total attendance of 1,353,506 and average crowds of 26,029 for that tournament. This was further enhanced by the 54,798 attendance for 2016 international friendly between the Canadian men’s team against Mexico in Vancouver.

Looking to provide more professional opportunities for young Canadian players, former Canada Soccer president Victor Montagliani, who was recently re-elected to a second term as Concacaf president, then set about trying to create a top-tier league in Canada.

Cavalry FC fans (Credit: CPL)

Montagliani met with Scott Mitchell, an experienced Canadian sports executive who is CEO of the CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats, to discuss the matter. “The story goes Scott gave Victor all the reasons why it wouldn’t work and Victor replied, ‘OK, well tell me how you could make it work,’ ” Clanachan says.

“Scott replied that the only way [of setting up a top-tier domestic soccer league] would be if every part of Canadian soccer was part of the process, starting at the top with Canada Soccer and going down to the provinces at grassroots level. And it went from there.”

In March 2018, CPL co-founder Mitchell was named the chief executive of Canadian Soccer Business and is the driving force behind the league alongside Clanachan. The CPL, meanwhile, was given a 10-year sanctioning deal with Canada Soccer, with the option of a 10-year extension.

Search for suitable owners and markets

From that starting point. CPL executives traveled across the country to talk to communities and determine levels of local interest. “In Halifax, the supporters there dared me not to give them a team,” recalls Clanachan.

There was widespread demand among potential ownership groups to join the CPL from the outset, but a number of bids fell through due to a lack of suitable stadium options. “The problem we have in this country is we don’t have sports stadiums ready to come off the shelf. It’s a harder thing for us,” Clanachan says.

The CPL, though, succeeded in its aim of gaining local owners with deep pockets. Valour FC and Forge FC are run by the respective owners of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, while FC Edmonton is owned by construction industry businessmen Tom and Dave Fath, who ran the club when it was in the NASL.

Team owners must have an undisclosed minimum net worth to be admitted while the initial expansion fee was C$3m ($2.3m). This compares to $200m for MLS and a reported $10m for the USL Championship. “It’s not in the stratosphere of others out there,” says Clanachan. “When our owners were coming in they were starting a league, they weren’t buying a going concern, they were creating a going concern so there was quite a bit of investment on top of that.”

Tim Hortons Field, the home of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CPL’s Forge FC (Credit: CPL)

Initially, eight teams were due to take part in the CPL’s first season. But at short notice the USL’s Ottawa Fury opted not to take part due to the uncertainty of playing in a new league, leaving the CPL with no time to find a replacement.

Ottawa and CPL executives are still in discussions about potentially teaming up in the future. Concacaf will also play a role in the decision, having initially ruled that it was withdrawing Ottawa’s right to play in the USL in 2019 through its “exceptional circumstances” law before relenting amid the club’s threat to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the matter.

“[The issue] caused a lot of concern but the reality was it’s their prerogative,” Clanachan says. “We’ve had some great conversations with them over the past 12 months. The owners there are good people and they’ve seen what we’ve done and they’ve been very supportive of what we’ve done. I am very confident [they will join the CPL]. I think they like what they see.”

Plans to expand, create women’s league

Going forward, the league is looking to add more teams in 2020 and 2021, though it appears as if the CPL is running out of time to reach eight teams for next year.

In the long term, there is a goal to grow to 14-18 teams and then create a second division, which would include promotion and relegation with the CPL. “That way we can keep fans into it all year long,” Clanachan says.

Likely future markets include Saskatoon, Regina, Moncton, Quebec City, Mississauga, Fraser Valley, and Kitchener-Waterloo.

There are also long-term plans to create a women’s CPL, a process that began in 2018 when league acquired League1 Ontario. “The issue is that we do it right. If we walk in rather than run in, then we’ll do it properly,” Clanachan says.

There is also a dream, albeit a distant one, for Canada’s three MLS teams to join the CPL in the long term but Clanachan admits it is unlikely to happen. “The [Canadian] MLS teams are great but the issue is MLS is a sanctioned American league,” he says.

As he looks to continue to develop the league, Clanachan remains focused on the bigger picture. “It’s not just about developing players,” he says, “it’s about developing young players, it’s about developing coaches, administrators, referees for Canadians. We’re developing a soccer economy in this country.”

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