In what has already been an, err… interesting week in Canadian soccer, footy fans here were given more news to chew on. In a press conference in downtown Toronto Wednesday, the Canadian Premier League unveiled its first ever commissioner, former Tim Hortons President and COO David Clanachan. But seemingly the biggest news to emerge was announcing spring 2019 as the kickoff for the inaugural season.
The crystallization of a start date is no doubt an exciting milestone for Canadian football fans eager to see an all-Canadian professional league. Having a concrete timeframe to see on your calendar makes it feel real, and not just a concept that lives on our Twitter feeds (#CanPL tattoos anyone?). Having a commissioner in place also helps drive home the league’s imminent arrival.
The real exciting stuff, however, came after the news conference. Clanachan did the obligatory media rounds, revealing some and getting into more depth about the league’s plan and vision. What was said in those interviews has many excited and warrants equal discussion amongst Canadian footy fans as #GafferGate2018.
In a series of interviews after the official announcement, Clanachan revealed the league was aiming for an eight to ten team league. It was also confirmed the league would not be using a playoff system, instead using the table system used nearly everywhere else in the world.
Kurt Larson of the Toronto Sun reports the CPL is backed by an impressive $500 million, ten year investment from the league founders. In an interview on TSN Hamilton 1150, Clanachan cited the ownership parties’ “resources…patience and their passion for the game as soccer” as something that drew him to the position. In the same interview, Clanachan confirmed that though the league would start with eight to ten teams, he was actively vetting “12-15 community-based teams” from across the country. Clanachan confirmed fans can expect new club announcements to begin next month.
Woven between the series of additional details discussed yesterday, a highly impressive picture begins to emerge. As I see it, Paul Beirne, and now David Clanachan, have set out to create more than just a sports league. They seek to build an entire footballing structure all geared toward further elevating soccer’s status within the Canadian sporting mosaic. In an interview with Steven Sandor of The 11, Clanachan summed up their vision: “this league is about developing a professional soccer industry in Canada. Players. Coaches. Administrators.”
What does this mean? First off, it will mean roster minimums for Canadians on CPL teams, ensuring opportunity for the development of Canadian professionals. The league will eschew the franchise-ownership model used by MLS, and instead opt for a “club-based style” built “from the ground up.”
Promotion and relegation? Eventually
Clanachan also confirmed the CPL’s ultimate ambition to have a multi-tiered footballing pyramid, employing a system of promotion and relegation. In the Sandor interview, Clanachan said the following:
“I would like to imagine where we have a Premier League, a second division and a third division. I’d say, plus or minus, we’d look at about 16 teams in the Premier League. One table. Then, if other communities want to get involved, you would look at promotion and relegation. I am a fan of the promotion-relegation system. It’s the system that works around the world.”
The sheer ambition of such a statement is impressive. Having an openly stated goal of eventual promotion and relegation in a country with a history of failed professional football takes some guts. And it’s this precise type of vision that should have Canadian football fans over the moon.
The Sandor interview contains another tasty detail: the CPL is pushing for it to have a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League and have its teams compete in the Canadian Championship. As Sandor explains in his article, Canada currently has one spot, awarded to the winner of the Voyageurs Cup, in the Champions League. It has, however, been pushing for a second spot, and Clanachan expects having a full-fledged domestic league will help. If this happens, it will go a long way in pushing and legitimizing the CPL toward become an elite league as envisioned by Beirne and Clanachan.
Underwriting all of this is a language indicating a grassroots, community-oriented philosophy to growing the professional game in Canada. A big part of this appears to be the work the league is doing in cultivating relationships with the various CPL supporter groups that have popped up across the country.
Clanachan goes as far as to say that the decision to vet many of the aforementioned 12-15 potential teams was driven by the supporter organizations emerging in those cities. I think this is critical: the CPL is going to need to have supporters groups not just onside, but actively involved in the development of clubs and teams. By doing this, the league can leverage the genuine, organic fan culture as a draw for the casual sports fan in and of itself, especially early on when the quality may not be as great.
It’s still a risky business
Obviously, it’s still early days, and while the language has been very positive, there are many risks, and no guarantees. The past failures of pro soccer in this country loom large, as does Canada’s considerable geography.
Another question is a TV deal for the CPL. As reported in the Larson article, Clanachan doesn’t rule out starting the season without a deal. Perhaps this is acceptable for a season, but to be taken seriously as an elite, national league, a Canadian broadcast deal is a must.
This is good news
It’s also worth noting that not all of this information is necessarily new. Beirne has expressed fragments of this vision publicly. But to have your new commissioner, delivering these messages very intentionally and cohesively on his first round of media interviews underscores the long-term vision driving the creation and implementation of the league. Whether it’s successful or not remains to be seen, but just hearing Beirne, and now Clanachan, articulate their intent and vision for the nascent CPL has me thrilled.
In the last week, there’s been a lot of talk about the Zambrano, Herdman, the internal politics of the CSA and the (potentially damaged) future of Canadian soccer. Are these important conversations to have? Absolutely. But the news isn’t all doom and gloom. I think after Wednesday’s news, Canadian football fans have serious reason to be optimistic about the future of the sport.