The usual suspects have replied with a “no comment”, which is hopeful but still puts this strictly in the realm of the hypothetical. By our modest standards, though, this story is almost solid, and certainly has enough smoke to be taken seriously.
For my part this would almost be the best-case scenario, independence combining with Canada’s oldest rivalry: that with the United States. Fans in this country like seeing the New York Cosmos, coming to grips with the big-ass eagle to the south and, once in a while, winning the fight. Vancouver’s Cascadia Cup matches are must-watch for MLS fans, while the battles between the Montreal Impact and the Rochester Rhinos are sorely missed. A self-contained Canadian division within the North American Soccer League could allow us to control our own soccer destiny while retaining foreign competition.
In the Canadian Football League we have the only entirely Canadian professional sports league that’s worked long-term, with big crowds and higher Canadian TV ratings than the National Football League (more than double the best-watched MLS games). Much recent success has been thanks to TSN embracing the CFL, so if they show a similar attitude to soccer so much the better: TSN has lost national NHL rights starting this year, leaving them looking for content. And the 2016 NASL season, with a club or two in 2015, is a startlingly quick revolution. Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young, according to Rollins the driving force behind this initiative, was part-owner of the Carolina Railhawks from October 2008 until January 2011 when Traffic Sports took over; he saw the second division’s best of times and the worst of times. The CFL will know what they’re getting into.
It’s early days, but almost all Canadian soccer must hope this dream comes true. Even those who think it won’t work will surely welcome the attempt. We could hardly ask for more, and if it does happen I will buy a season ticket to the nearest Canadian division team to me no matter who it is (unless it’s Calgary; then I’ll buy the second-nearest). This division would be the greatest development for Canadian men’s soccer since the old Canadian Soccer League and it is incumbent upon every fan of the domestic game to support it as fully as possible, for only with this sort of serious development have we got any shot of winning another Gold Cup or qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
Most supporter concerns have invoked the image of 5,000-fan NASL crowds in 35,000-seat CFL stadiums. The photo at top left is from FC Edmonton’s last game in Commonwealth Stadium, a Voyageurs Cup match against Vancouver in 2013: only one half of the stadium was open and you can see how packed it was despite an interesting opponent and good traveling Whitecaps support. I’ve seen loads of soccer at Commonwealth and it takes a pretty special crowd to make that building live. This coming Sunday the Eddies host the Ottawa Fury at Commonwealth due to a delay in Clarke Stadium’s new pitch; with the World Cup final earlier in the afternoon expect a sedate night. Yet this shouldn’t be a game-breaker: if anybody knows how to fill up a CFL stadium it’s the CFL teams that do it.
If you’re worried about gridiron football lines on the field then there is good news. Of the four CFL stadiums supposedly looking at new NASL teams, Winnipeg has already hosted a women’s national team game on its field and the soccer lines looked good. The new Hamilton stadium has washable lines and is hosting soccer for the 2015 Pan-American Games, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ new stadium has barely broken ground, and Calgary’s McMahon Stadium just installed new FieldTurf which is the same system used at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. On top of the new washable-line turf at Edmonton’s Clarke Stadium and Ottawa’s Lansdowne Field, that’s five of six stadiums with washable turf immediately and the sixth opening in 2017.
Nor should fans worry about MLS poaching the TV audience. There is little reason for a neutral fan to watch Major League Soccer games in a world when top European leagues and Liga MX are available easily on Canadian television. MLS ratings reflect this. NASL Canada ratings would reflect it too; apart from patriots or diehards who’ll watch Canadian games anyway there’s no TV audience for MLS to cannibalize. It’ll be fans, not neutrals, tuning in all the way in both leagues.
As for where players will come from, there seems to be an idea that the types of Canadians who saw 18,000 minutes a year for the Whitecaps, Impact, and Lynx have vaporized. In fact there are plenty of twenty-somethings like Paul Hamilton who are of undoubted quality but have been elbowed out of the professional game because there were too few opportunities close to home, plenty of academy players who turn 20 and can’t beat that $300,000 a year Chilean in the first team lineup so go get an education, plenty of CIS stars who knock the stuffing out of every opponent they meet but never get a chance to go any further. With a total of
four five professional teams Canada’s soccer world is not markedly more overdrawn than the Americans, with their 16 MLS, eight NASL, and 14 USL Pro teams, invariably with more domestic players than the Canadian clubs, plus a larger overseas contingent. No doubt a Canadian division will have its teething pains but, with a sensible domestic player quota and reasonably ambitious salary structure, they should show NASL-standard on-field quality very quickly.
So I’m going to skip these much-discussed issues; instead, I will ask aloud four questions of a more long-term nature. The answers won’t change whether Canadian fans should embrace this division (they should), but will affect its viability over the years. They may even change whether it gets off the ground at all.
1. What impact will the USSF have on a Canadian NASL division?
Oh Lord I hope everyone has sorted this question out, because it’s a fatal complication if they haven’t.
Fans of the second division will remember that, in 2010 and 2011, there was a vicious streetfight between United Soccer Leagues, the ownership that eventually became the North American Soccer League, and the United States Soccer Federation over how to sanction a second-division league. The NASL owners had broken off from the USL First Division, despite its name the existing second division in North American soccer. Both USL and the new NASL wanted sanctioning as a second division, while the USSF tried to impose more stringent standards than ever to end decades of chronic instability. At times it looked like there might be no second-division soccer for an entire season, with only last-minute compromises averting disaster.
For the 2010 season the USSF forced both groups into an interim “USSF D-2 Pro League” with USL and NASL conferences (that, for competitive reasons, did not perfectly reflect the ownership divide). A new order was finalized after much debate and heartache following the 2010 season: the USSF would sanction only a league where (among other rules) at least 75% of the teams were American and the primary owner of each team would have a net worth of at least US$20 million. The USL decided not to try and meet these standards and merged their First and Second Divisions into today’s USL Pro, a third division which seldom admits it; the NASL won provisional second division sanctioning in the spring of 2011 and has more-or-less kept to the USSF provisions ever since.
This bare-knuckle brawl looked like it might sink the American second division entirely for a time and opened a breach between the second division and the third that has still not healed. But the USSF stuck to their guns because they believed that high standards were essential for the credibility of the lower divisions. So far events have borne the USSF out: in the last four seasons of the USL First Division eight teams folded, suspended operations, or self-relegated. Since the peace accord, seven more teams have been and gone in four seasons of USL Pro. By comparison in those four years only one NASL team, a USL First Division legend from Puerto Rico, has fallen.
What was, in soccer terms, civil war has concluded in an American second division that is probably more stable and more successful than at any other point in its history. Will the USSF, having won this victory, let a Canadian division run under the CSA’s rules into an American league without holding the Canadian teams to the American standards? We are mere Arctic nobodies, and the USSF may not care, but if six Canadian NASL owners threw in the towel the knock-on effect for American teams would be bad. Let’s hope that the USSF is obliging, and that all parties have figured this out in advance. Today FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury meet the USSF standards, but a CFL-owned Canadian division would smash them to pieces.
Firstly, the sheer volume of Canadian teams would break USSF rules. With confirmed expansions the North American Soccer League will have thirteen teams for the 2015 season, counting Edmonton and Ottawa. This is over the 75% American line with room for one more foreign team. A six-team Canadian division means a 17-team league with only 11 American teams: 64.7% American. The NASL would have to add another four American expansion teams for 2015 to get back to the USSF’s rules: a big ask. The NASL could get a one-year waiver, as they have for earlier issues, but the only real solution would be for the Canadian division to be exempt from USSF requirements entirely.
The USSF requirement for a “primary owner” (someone with at least a 35% stake in the club) with a net worth of US$20 million rules out the CFL’s several “community”-owned teams. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are, next to the Green Bay Packers, probably the most successful fan-owned club in North America: the Roughriders shares are held by ordinary fans who are forbidden to resell the shares for a profit and do not draw a dividend. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a non-profit owned by private shareholders, and the Edmonton Eskimos operate under a similar, though somewhat secretive, model. The Calgary Stampeders are owned by the Calgary Flames, who in turn are owned by a consortium of six men; doubtless well-heeled but none of them necessarily a “primary owner”.
If the CSA calls the shots for a Canadian division this is no problem. These ownership groups have all proven capable of handling much bigger sports teams than any NASL club, they have dead-certain stadium access in facilities ranging in quality from “hopefully getting torn down soon” (even McMahon isn’t as bad as some div-2 facilities over the years) to “brand new and quite good”, and a single-entity format would provide added stability. Community ownership should be no problem to the CSA — it should be no problem to the USSF either, really, provided they have the capital. Anyway, in Canada the community model has treated us well, but this is an American league.
There are other, smaller problem areas. Regina would fall short of USSF population requirements: they require 75% of division 2 teams to play in a metro market of 750,000 people, but the population of metro Regina was 232,090 in 2013. This is not a problem on its own but could be a handcuff for the future if Victoria (357,327), Halifax (408,702), or London (498,623) show interest. And what about domestic player requirements? In the NASL, as in MLS, American players count as domestic on Canadian teams but not vice-versa; the CSA would probably prefer that Americans count as foreign in Canada.
2. Will FC Edmonton be odd man out with the CFL owners?
FC Edmonton, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is owned by Tom and Dave Fath, Edmonton contracting magnates. The Faths are not associated with the Edmonton Eskimos, which in the event of a CFL-dominated Canadian division would put them in a unique and awkward position. Unlike the old A-League Aviators FC Edmonton has had no public trouble with the Eskimos; the Eddies have enjoyed the use of both Commonwealth Stadium and the indoor Commonwealth Fieldhouse when necessary, as well as becoming the dominant tenant at Clarke Stadium, an important Eskimos training ground. But, though relations might be good, they’re still competitors for the same summer entertainment dollars, and if the Faths become the lone independent wolves in a CFL division the situation could get awkward (the other existing Canadian NASL team, the Ottawa Fury, is owned by Jeff Hunt of the CFL’s Ottawa RedBlacks).
You might think an alliance with the Eskimos would be mutually beneficial, but Edmonton fans are still bitter over how, in 1999, the Eskimos bought the AAA baseball Edmonton Trappers only to sell them off to Round Rock, Texas in 2003 as part of a general exodus of AAA baseball from Canada. If a Canadian division fails it’s too easy to picture an Eskimos-dominated FC Edmonton going the same way, while the Faths were able to stick it alone in 2011 and 2012. In any case the Faths, who have put big money into FC Edmonton and the local soccer community, deserve a real reward for their dedication rather than having the Eskimos shoved into their offices.
The good news is that the NASL, which has managed to avoid a revolving door of ownership so far, don’t seem likely to do anything shady with the Eddies. As I said, to an outward eye the relationship between FC Edmonton and the Eskimos is good, which matters. Moreover, unlike Winnipeg, Ottawa, Hamilton, and soon Saskatchewan, the Eskimos don’t need to fill a brand new stadium. Commonwealth Stadium is owned by the city; not only is there no margin for the Eskimos in taking over FC Edmonton but it may limit the CFL team if they did. If FC Edmonton and the Eskimos can establish an attitude of genial, independent co-operation, we will have the best of both worlds. Likewise, if the Eskimos want to buy and the Faths want to sell, congratulations to the happy couple. The only bad result would be, immediately or down the line, some sort of CFL squeeze play against the recalcitrant Eddies. It’s probably a long shot, but Trappers fans are still chafing.
3. What about potential expansion to non-CFL cities or under non-CFL owners?
So let’s say that the Eddies get along fine with the CFL and everybody is happy, the Canadian division is doing well, all the teams are making money (or at least not losing too much of it), and success is in the air. Over in Victoria, Highlanders owner Alex Campbell decides he wants a piece of this action, picks up the phone, and tries to get Victoria its first fully professional soccer team since the Vistas folded in 1990.
Outsiders may be surprised how realistic this is. Victoria attracts good crowds for USL PDL, has good ownership, passionate supporters, little summer sports competition beyond a merry-go-round of insolvent semi-pro baseball teams, and getting to Whitecaps games on the ferry is enough of a hassle that it’s clearly its own market. Two stadiums, venerable Royal Athletic Park downtown and Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, would be acceptable for professional soccer with some work and, in the case of Royal Athletic Park, a new stand. The Highlanders have been first in line for “teams that should promote from PDL to professional” almost since they first kicked off, but they’ve had to wait while the Ottawa Fury of all teams parleyed 300-man crowds into NASL action thanks to a new stadium and a rich owner. A professional Highlanders team is one of the not-so-secret wish for Canadian supporters from coast to coast.
But in our hopeful future there are six owners in the Canadian division and five own CFL teams. Campbell has no skin in the CFL and can’t possibly buy in: you can just about imagine an NASL side at a spruced-up RAP or Centennial but try to put a CFL game there and the mind rebels. So would the CFL owners accept someone outside their community for the sake of their soccer operation even if it doesn’t help their main business? Where would their priorities lie?
What if some brave multi-millionaire in, say, Surrey, sensing an under-served market in Metro Vancouver, decides to get into the soccer business and damn the consequences of competing with the Whitecaps? If he could get a stadium it might work. Will David Braley protest an infringement on BC Lions territory (the Leos even train in Surrey)? Will whoever owns the Argonauts in five years object if the Toronto Lynx decide they’ve had enough of USL PDL and want into NASL Canada? What if, as seems possible, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment buys the Argonauts and becomes an influential voice against competition with their Toronto FC? The Saskatchewan Roughriders have viewed the whole province as their sacred inheritance for generations; what if somebody wants to put a soccer team in fast-growing Saskatoon?
Does the NASL control expansion? In that case an important aspect of our soccer future would still be in American hands, however benevolent. Does the Canadian division control its own expansion? In that case it is effectively controlled by the CFL and may come second to the big business. Does the Canadian Soccer Association control expansion? That would give us important flexibility, but it would also leave an important business matter to a party with no cash on the table. A negative answer to this question would be no reason not to give this project less than full-throated support, but they are questions worth asking and having answered before the Calgary Mustangs and Winnipeg Blue Fighters kick off.
4. Where can we go from there?
Let’s be optimists. Let’s assume that this NASL Canada experiment is a total success. TV ratings are decent, attendances are pushing five digits, all the teams are healthy, a few outsiders have bought in, we’re up to say eight teams. It’s the year 2022, there’s just been another World Cup which Canada damned near qualified for, and a 35-year-old Ben Massey is still writing this shitty blog and asking the world what we have to do next?
I picked the year 2022 for a few reasons: first the World Cup (experts agree that 2022 is the soonest Canada could realistically have a qualifying team), and second because if this Canadian division does kick off in 2016, in the summer of 2022 it’ll be entering its seventh season. The original Canadian Soccer League lasted six. It’ll be a bellwether moment for those who laboured, endlessly, for a Canadian professional league and who never lost hope.
So the Canadian division is alive and well. What’s the end game?
Do we remain part of the NASL? If it’s worked so well for us why not? But if Canadian soccer grows in strength relative to our American rivals this relationship could sour. The NASL, unlike MLS, has had a Canadian influence since day one but the centre of its weight will always, inevitably, be in the United States. American fans may start muttering “why are we propping up the Canadian program?” Even if they don’t, independence is its own reward… but so is stability, so is a large base of friendly teams on which to draw support, and the best of Canada and the best of the United States scrapping over the Soccer Bowl every year is just so much fun.
There will probably be three Canadian MLS teams, plus affiliates in American leagues like the coming Whitecaps USL Pro entry, still outside our domestic pyramid. By 2022 that pyramid should include good semi-pro soccer from coast-to-coast, combined with our existing solid amateur leagues; if we have our professional division thriving the MLS teams would be a glaring absence. Probably the three biggest and best teams in the country, still going their own way. If the Canadian division 1A is a success then unifying the Canadian professional teams, on some terms, must be a long-term goal, but with the glamour of Major League Soccer and the restrictions of MLS single-entity ownership is that even imaginable?
The question of youth training will have to be faced. Not every CFL team with a soccer interest will decide to develop their own players in the manner of FC Edmonton, but hopefully some will, and then we enter the murky waters of youth territories. The Vancouver Whitecaps already get grief for poaching TFC Academy alumni like Russell Teibert or other Ontario boys like Bryce Alderson, while the Whitecaps probably wish they had one of their former youths, Hanson Boakai, back from Edmonton. Now add six more professional teams fighting over the same pie. Will it be a free market, will there be a territory system, will certain standards be mandatory or will each individual club wing it according to their inclination and resources, and how will this relate to the community clubs and private academies that already fill the country and don’t always get along with their professional brethren?
And, of course, you’ll have zealots like me looking thoughtfully on this beautiful landscape and saying things like “do you know what we need? Promotion and relegation” or “we’re losing ground in the women’s game, where is the Canadian W-League?” Could any of these things happen? The owners of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trying to pack a 35,000-seat stadium with soccer fans may not look fondly at a money-losing women’s diversion, and they definitely wouldn’t like their team relegated to the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Wheat League (average attendance 36 moms). Is it worth trying to lay the groundwork for these grand goals now, while the structure is still malleable, or is the risk of losing the Canadian division altogether too great to be worthwhile?
And let’s be clear!
Even if the answers to all four of those questions are negative, we would still have a huge advance in Canadian soccer. A six-team Canadian NASL division that exists by USSF sufferance, insists on a CFL monopoly in its ownership, and has no long-term plans for anything beyond putting bums in seats in CFL stadiums fourteen weekends a year? That would still be fantastic news, because at worst it would be a massive increase on what we have, and at best such a division would be the nucleus around which something magnificent, broad, and sustainable would grow.
But, if this division takes off, Canada has an incredible opportunity for a short-cut to the professional soccer respectability that has quite literally eluded us since Confederation. Such moments come less than a mere “once per lifetime” and should not be squandered. The Americans got their break in 1993, with soccer-mad billionaires and a World Cup combining to create Major League Soccer, and whatever else you might say about MLS it’s clearly been good for them. We should, if anything, be even more ambitious, from the CSA through the CFL to every one of the fans been waiting for a chance like this all their lives.