A Canadian Premier [Women’s] Soccer League

By Benjamin Massey

July 7th, 2015 · 3 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

For some time the Canadian Soccer Association has semi-openly been trying to start a national soccer league, in cooperation with the Canadian Football League. So far it’s only amounted to rumour and ambition, but Duane Rollins reports that an announcement is virtually imminent[1]. Dark histories and hard-won cynicism keep fans from daring to hope, but if you’re not excited by the prospect you have no soul.

A domestic Canadian league will face monumental obstacles that may be overcome by the right investors. CFL support means access to stadiums and potential media coverage with CTV/TSN, who did a masterful job at the Women’s World Cup. It also (currently) means operators with a bit of cash and experience rather than fly-by-night confidence men. But there are a lot of problems left.

For casual fans, Canada’s three largest cities are monopolized by Major League Soccer, who may not welcome and will certainly not join a Canadian league set up in response to their inadequacies. Edmonton and Ottawa’s NASL teams would not necessarily take part either. As of the beginning of June neither the Ottawa Fury nor FC Edmonton had even been invited to discussions[2], and with Eddies owner Tom Fath invested heavily in the NASL the only reason for him to jump would be patriotic fervour. These two leagues, both playing at a higher level in the medium-term, would compete for fan interest with any Canadian league. Without huge investment or cunning marketing the new organization would be branded super-minor-league by non-fans, below even the American second division. These are risks worth running, for a national Canadian league is an absolute necessity, yet they are risks all the same.

There is, however, a way to ensure that the Canadian national league would not merely be the top league in the country but one of the top leagues in the world. It would fill a niche left open by MLS and NASL, and possibly encourage those leagues to see the newcomer as a partner rather than a competitor. It would not jeopardize the Voyageurs Cup, nor our CONCACAF Champions League success, nor anything else that the five existing professional teams have helped build. It would appeal to fans untouched by Soccer United Marketing and allow die-hard MLS supporters to develop a second allegiance without compromising their first. Furthermore, it would provide direct help to the Canadian national program immediately: rather than wait a decade for academies and opportunities to increase the level of play, we would see players cracking the senior national team at once. It would even lower costs. And it would capitalize on Canada’s strengths, which saw record-breaking crowds for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The magic solution? Make it a women’s league.

Canadians support women’s soccer. We have held three serious women’s competitions in 2002, 2014, and 2015, and enjoyed world-class support at each. Germany is traditionally accounted the world’s strongest women’s soccer nation with several top club teams, but Canada 2015 saw higher average attendances than Germany 2011 throughout the knockout stages[3]. When Canada played England in the quarter-final an average of 3.2 million Canadians watched on television, with an average of 2.3 million throughout the group stage[4]: better than some UEFA Champions League finals. TV viewership was even higher for the 2012 Olympics, where the match against the United States ranked behind only the men’s 100 metres[5].

Would Canadians come out for professional women’s clubs? It’s hard to tell, because there has never been a professional women’s soccer club in Canadian history. This is a strength of a sort, because any league would come untarnished by past failures. It’s also a scathing indictment of how we’ve chased the men’s game altogether too single-mindedly. The fact that the likes of Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod are obliged to go to the United States to make a living should be a national scandal, let alone the diamonds-in-the-rough who have to leave the game early or, if they’re very lucky, pull an Allysha Chapman and find a club overseas.

There is reason to hope. The late Vancouver Whitecaps W-League team, despite being an amateur club and an afterthought to the men’s program, several times achieved attendances that would rank well in the men’s USL[6]. Other W-League teams in Victoria, Quebec City, Toronto, and Ottawa also drew decent numbers for amateur soccer. However, in recent years many of these teams have been shut down in an era of fast-increasing budgets for men’s team and reduced regional women’s competition. The potential for women’s pro soccer exists, but not even an attempt has been made to exploit it.

How about finance? Travel and marketing costs don’t change because you swap men for women, but player payroll plunges. As of 2012, CSA guidelines specified the minimum budget for a fully professional men’s team of $1.5 million with a player payroll of $500,000; the Easton report of that year estimated the actual figures required as $4.2 million with $900,000 on players. Rollins’s report ups the figures to a $3 million budget and a $1 to $1.5 million salary cap. However, a women’s team wouldn’t need to come near this: the NWSL salary cap for 2015 is US$265,000[7]. This doesn’t count the marquee allocated players, but that’s money the Canadian Soccer Association is spending anyway: thirteen players currently sent to the NWSL that could easily be sent to Canada instead.

Canada could pay salaries competitive with the world’s best women’s soccer leagues for less than the cost of keeping pace with USL. You want first-class soccer? The opportunity is in front of us, waiting to be grasped.

Yes, it’s a gamble, an idealistic dream that will succeed only with luck, dedication, and patience. That’s no less true of a men’s league. It’s true of everything worth doing that might improve our position in the viciously competitive soccer world. Women have a unique opportunity here, for the female game is still taken seriously only by a minority of soccer powers and Canada retains an important position. That advantage will not last; is already diminishing. Let us exploit it while we may.

[1] — Rollins, Duane. “Canadian league update — oh, and Floro talks Gold Cup, sort of.” The 24th Minute, July 7, 2015. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://www.canadiansoccernews.com/index.php?/page/articles.html/_/24th-minute/canadian-league-update-oh-and-floro-talks-gold-cup-sort-of-r5340.

[2] — Sandor, Steven. “FC Edmonton: No contact at all with Canadian professional league backers.” The11.ca, June 1, 2015. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://the11.ca/2015/06/01/fc-edmonton-no-contact-at-all-with-canadian-professional-league-backers/.

[3] — There was no round of 16 in Germany 2011. In the quarter-finals Germany averaged 25,666.25 fans per game compared to Canada’s 30,710.25. In the semi-finals Germany averaged 35,474.5; Canada 41,321.5. The third-place game saw Germany get 25,516 and Canada a relatively low 21,483. In the final, Germany saw 48,817 fans and Canada a raucous 53,341. Both years saw the host team eliminated in the quarter-final. (Comparing total attendance is unfair on Germany, because Canada 2015 featured more games. Comparing per-game attendance is unfair on Canada, because more of those games involved unappealing minnows.)

[4] — Bell Media PR. “FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP CANADA 2015™ Wraps Up with Record Audience Numbers on CTV, TSN, and RDS.” BellMedia.ca, July 6, 2015. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://www.bellmedia.ca/pr/press/fifa-womens-world-cup-canada-2015-wraps-up-with-record-audience-numbers-on-ctv-tsn-and-rds/.

[5] — Dowbiggin, Bruce. “Ratings show Canadians can’t get enough Olympics.” The Globe and Mail, August 15, 2012. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/ratings-show-canadians-cant-get-enough-olympics/article4482204/.

[6] — Tomasch, Kenn. “Attendance Project: W-League.” Kenn.com. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?page_id=4700. Some, but not all, of those Whitecaps attendances were boosted by playing double-headers with the men’s team, but they could still routinely break 1,000 fans playing on their own.

[7] — Kassouf, Jeff. “Chasing the dream.” NBC SportsWorld, April 13, 2015. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://sportsworld.nbcsports.com/nwsl-players-chasing-the-dream/.

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3 responses to “A Canadian Premier [Women’s] Soccer League”

  1. Seathanaich says:

    Sorry, the W-League team in Victoria did NOT draw well. It drew flies and a few relatives, but no paying customers. It was a money pit which ultimately paid a large part in Alex Campbell’s decision to fold the entire club.

    An entire women’s league is a pipe dream. Let’s start a men’s league first in Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, London, Hamilton, Quebec, and/or Halifax, and get Edmonton and Ottawa to join it. That’s feasible in 2015 in a way it wasn’t pre-2010.

    The CSA should create an NWSL team in either Vancouver or Toronto, and grow from there.

  2. It’s a solid argument, with a feel-good factor, and you didn’t even dig deeply into the implications for the future of Canadian women’s soccer by having a domestic pathway to professional careers for young women to work toward. So all good. But…

    What, do you think, are the implications of launching a women’s pro league for the launching of a men’s pro league? My thoughts go immediately to this question (which I truly don’t know the answer to): to what extent would the financial support necessary for a pro women’s league overlap and take away from that required for a pro men’s league? I ask because we need one (we all agree on that, right?).

    I’m sure there are some economies of scale, or resource overlap, for a financial backer (or group) running two pro squads. Some facilities, staff, and resources could easily work for or be used by both squads without substantially increased costs. And your point re: lower salaries required for a women’s league helps (disheartening as that is).

    Does one league preclude the other, from a financial standpoint? Could a pro women’s league actually help in the creation of a pro men’s league? Would a pro men’s league, established first, actually drain the financial pool available and consign a pro women’s league to perpetual fantasy?

    And the final question, and potentially the most humbling: have these questions already been studied and answered in a report I haven’t yet found, heard of, or read?

    • Benjamin Massey says:

      Certainly, a men’s league is a must.

      I doubt there are resources, either financial or personal, to launch both a men’s league and a women’s league at once. But one can easily act as the nucleus to another. Once you have established organizations and a certain amount of know-how, and once you’ve proven to the public that you’re serious and capable of staying in business, expansion becomes far easier.

      Traditionally, men’s leagues have expanded with women’s programs. I see no reason we couldn’t reverse it.

      I don’t know of any such report. The famous Easton Report was concerned exclusively with men’s soccer.