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Three years in, the CPL is serious business

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The league is approaching a double-digit number of teams, and the community vision of its ownership groups is emerging as an essential component to its potential success.

Forge took MLS side CF Montreal to penalties in the 2021 Canadian Championship semifinal.
(Sean Pollock/Waking the Red)

THORNHILL, Canada—Enraged, I stood up in the middle of the York Lions Stadium stand and bellowed out, “This joke is a league!” I promptly sat down. Embarrassed for a moment, I quickly broke into a long, self-deprecating laugh at my own mistake.

When I get excited, I sometimes get tongue-tied: it happens to the best of us, right? And few things in life excite me more than feeling that my team on the field is getting the short end of the referee’s stick. But I’d like to think that the intensity of my inverted outburst reveals that the words I intended are categorically untrue. My passion expresses, in microcosm, something we have now come to see; the Canadian Premier League is for real.

It is a serious competition that deserves the regional and global attention it is only just beginning to garner. It survived its heavy rocket launch, it survived an ownership with varying levels of commitment, and the clincher for me, on the cusp of the 2021 Final: it survived a global pandemic that just might have done it in.

I’ll admit, I had my doubts when the league was first announced. Not so much about players or fans, but with ownership and management. We had tried this before, but that initial spark fizzled out. Owners may have blown their budget, but those budgets were too small to begin with. South of the border, the NASL was on its way out just as the CPL was starting up. (Thankfully, Edmonton and Ottawa—especially their fans—had the foresight to adapt.) I was concerned that CPL owners would follow their CPSL and NASL counterparts by investing pennies in the hopes of making nickels, drawn in by the fantasy that these teams could exist for owners to make a quick buck on merch and tickets. The joke would be on us while they laughed all the way to the bank. It’s something we even see in some junior and minor hockey teams: if it happens in the sport with the deepest cultural roots in our country, it could happen here in the Global Game. The difference being that a hockey team’s existence is unassailable; in football, this “quick buck joke” turns out to be a recipe for implosion.

Thankfully, there are so many signs pointing in the other direction. Not only is the CPL surviving, but the potential for thriving success is beginning to emerge: a thrilling and highly competitive on-field product, teams that have taken root in their communities, and most tellingly, the announcement earlier in November of a ninth team—and counting.

This announcement of a Vancouver-based team owned by SixFive Sports sharpens the focus on the type of commitment we need from an ownership group, the approach that we need for this league and for the game in our country to succeed over the next few decades. The fact that the Vancouver group is the same that owns neighbouring Pacific FC may have raised some eyebrows, but only because our memory needs to be a little longer than it is. As a few folks on Twitter helpfully reminded us:

Say what you want about MLS (of course, Waking the Red is primarily devoted to an MLS team), but you have to agree that it’s in an immensely strong position. Gourlie hits the nail exactly on the head with that last sentence. Anschutz, the Hunts, and later MLSE, drove the league to its height because they “stayed the course despite losing a ton of money.” They went into it knowing that there would be nothing quick about the profit-making capacity of a North American soccer team. They understood that in the early going, their investment in a team would look more like “philanthropy” than commerce, that the largely “soft” returns would make the most profound long-term impact. They hoped the “hard” returns would follow down the line, and we see the rewards of their patience: pushing on thirty teams (and demanding an exorbitant expansion fee), filling massive NFL stadiums with roaring fans, its emergence as a player on the global transfer market, and nary a whiff of concern that it would survive the pandemic.

S & E Atlantic, the Winnipeg Football Club community group, SixFive, Bob Young and others have demonstrated that same serious, long-term vision. They’ve created a weekly community event for folks to gather around. They’ve embarked on the patient, slow cultural shift of getting hockey and gridiron fans personally committed to this new sport. Perhaps most important, they’ve given the nation’s youth a team of local heroes to aspire to, and facilities and infrastructure where they can improve their physical, psychological and social development. “Soft” returns, by the way, are what all levels of governments look for when deciding on the awarding of grants and the allocation of public funds.

No, I’m not calling for the Voyageurs Cup or the Canadian Championship to be renamed the “Carlo Baldassarra Greenpark Trophy.” (That would be nonsense, and I hope Mr. Baldassarra agrees.) And all that goodwill I’ve described will evaporate if players across the board are not receiving liveable wages: that is a spectre of the CPSL’s failure, as teams hemorrhage local talent in search of viable careers. True, making money is always the point of a business and a businessperson. But this is a business in which the “product” is a human physical, mental and emotional activity (a sport), and the “consumers” are actual communities engaged in a cultural activity (watching a sport together), most of them still very new to this product.

So making money for the owner can never simply be the point, the only point, or the team will fail. I’ll keep this on repeat, to the point that it becomes obvious: there has to be significant community, infrastructure and branding investment before a team starts to break even—even before the team hits the field. Stadiums in Halifax and Victoria, and renovations at York University and Spruce Meadows. A giant “V” that greets you as you clear customs at the Winnipeg airport. Lots of money thrown into marketing and facilities that owners know they won’t get back in merch or ticket sales right now, if ever. Teams and owners that lack this vision and investment will be remembered as sad jokes in our rear-view mirror, the facepalms of years past. But the CPL and its teams are no joke: three years in, we can already tell just how real they are.