My greatest dream for Canadian soccer is that one of our billionaires falls in love with the Canadian game. He builds stadiums from coast to coast: Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Charlottetown, and St. John’s. Pick your favourite eight, ten, or twelve of those if you prefer; this is a dream. Each of those stadiums are modest in capacity (8,000 seats, say), not too fancy, and probably have artificial turf… but they also have roofs, preferably retractable of course but not necessarily, so we could play first-class soccer in the depths of a prairie winter.
This billionaire then starts up a Canadian league on the MLS model: single entity, salary cap, with a fair minimum salary so even the meanest player can make a living but taking a hit on the top end; only the very best players would make over $100,000. Winter schedule; not for Eurosnobbery reasons but because that would minimize competition with MLS and allow the players to focus on national team duty in the summer (and improving the national team is a major reason this is a dream of mine). A salary cap of, say, a million dollars per team would allow a 25-person roster mostly made up of players around the minimum but with a handful of big earners. If you have an eight-team league playing a balanced schedule of 28 games each plus playoffs, then a profit of $71,428.57 per home game allows you to break even on player expenses, and offering a salary of $100,000 would allow you to lure over some world-class players. This could, quickly, become the best soccer league of its type in the world.
No, really. (I may have neglected to mention: in my dream this is a women’s league.)
The Americans announced their new women’s league today, following up on the failures of WUSA and WPS. There will be eight teams from coast to coast and play is expected to begin this coming spring. After two much-hyped disasters the Americans are making all the right noises about “sustainability”, and it’s easy to see why, for even a modest league that’s a long-term success will cement the United States’s place at the top of the women’s soccer world.
If you’re interested in improving performance, women’s soccer should offer such a great return on investment without going for MLS levels of support. Professionalism, even among near-elite countries, is often the exception rather than the rule. The Canadian women’s national team, which you may recall just won a fucking bronze medal, had two players playing professionally full-time in 2012 (Rhian Wilkinson and Diana Matheson, both in Norway). Every player in our national pool has to do “coaching sessions” or public appearances to make ends meet; time in travel and glad-handing that could be spent training. Unlike some male athletes, when they go to school they have to get degrees they can earn a living with (Matheson has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton, making her Canada’s best-known microeconomist). All of this is a distraction from what should be their full-time job. The less famous players who represent the future of our national team more than the present are even worse off. “Own the Podium” and the like don’t cut it; that program will split $1.27 million between only 24 players over 2012-13
Bringing professional standards to the full Canadian player pool requires money; full-time professionalism, in other words. Money requires fans. But Canadian women’s soccer has plenty of those.
Five January Olympic qualifying games in Vancouver drew an average crowd of 15,306, compared to six men’s World Cup qualifying games in Toronto with an average of 14,223. 7,514 came to watch a friendly in Moncton this past May. Even the 5,427 at BMO Field for a friendly against China in September of last year, while appalling at the time, would have been perfectly reasonable for an NASL game. The average attendance for Canadian women’s games in Canada for the past five years is 12,586 (nine games, three cities, four friendlies). The money for an investment is there. Indeed, today the Canadian Soccer Association announced it will finance the salaries of up to sixteen women’s national team players in the American professional league. The CSA is not known for being either rich or generous, but they’re making an annual salary commitment that will be well into six figures and may push seven because they expect that, if sixteen of their players are playing and training full-time close to home, they’ll get a return on investment.
There are two reasons why investing in women’s soccer should be attractive to Canadian soccer mavens. One is that, as mentioned above, it’s popular. Casual fans love the Canadian women: they win, which is always helpful, and they have a great public profile thanks to winning personalities and public interaction. The second is that it takes so much less money to make a difference, because the money already in the system is relatively small. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian men’s national team you’d be building infrastructure, bringing in expensive foreign coaches, trying to create comprehensive scouting and coaching networks, and maybe scattering a few $50-million soccer-specific stadiums around the country. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian women, a relatively cheap first step could make all the difference.
Forget my billionaire dream above. Why couldn’t we put teams in Victoria (Royal Athletic Park), Vancouver/Burnaby (Swangard Stadium), Edmonton (Clarke Field with FC Edmonton expansion/Foote Field), Toronto (Lamport Stadium), Montreal (Claude-Robillard), and Moncton (Moncton Stadium) and start a six-team professional league tomorrow? Why not? Why couldn’t we? Yes, it would take an investment, but what an investment it would be if Canada’s current and future national players could come home, play full-time, and be close to hand for John Herdman? We wouldn’t need to worry about the strength as, purely by virtue of bringing in the best Canadian players, many good American players, and foreign nationals who want to play fulltime, this would automatically be one of the best women’s leagues in the world.
Six teams with a salary budget of $1 million each per year. That’s less than the CFL’s salary cap. There’d be travel expenses, of course, but we wouldn’t be asking any owner to lose as much on their women’s team as Tom Fath lost on FC Edmonton in their first year. We’re not swinging for the fences and trying to bring over every Marta or Abby Wambach type (although Christine Sinclair might need a Bobby Hull-style exemption so she could play for the Whitecaps).
WPS and its ilk weren’t able to bring the fans out. That last year their average attendance was just 3,518 (still better than FC Edmonton), although that was for a league everybody knew was dying and previous seasons were better. Would Canadians come for women’s professional soccer? They already do! Did you see BC Place during Olympic qualifying?!
That whole outpouring of support doesn’t need to go to the clubs; half would be more than enough. We’d need NASL numbers for one of the best leagues in the world. The Whitecaps women repeatedly boasted attendances of over 1,000 this summer, and that was a fully amateur sub-playoff team of college students playing a short season at stadiums all around the Lower Mainland. There has never been a fully professional women’s team in Canada, and trying to paint Canada with the US’s brush because WPS was a shambles is the same argument used by those who said Toronto FC could never make it in MLS.
A Canadian national women’s league would have two advantages over the much-ballyhooed “men’s second division”. The first is that the Canadian league wouldn’t be a second division: it would be able to compete with the coming American league, particularly for young, journeyman, and Canadian players, and a North American open cup would make fascinating viewing. It would be one of the best women’s leagues in the world. You wouldn’t have to choose between seeing Hamilton Bumfuck SC in person or Toronto FC on television, because the best soccer would be local.
The second is nationalism. For the men, pride in Canadian soccer is reserved for morons like us; for the women it’s the default. We hear again and again how well the women represented the Maple Leaf in London, how the country had soccer heroes who hailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic and almost everywhere in-between. Canadian women’s soccer belongs to the rank and file, the soccer moms and casual fans who make any professional enterprise work. Moreover, a professional Canadian women’s league would be among the highest levels of it sport. A fan in Moncton would bring his daughter out to see Christine Sinclair and the Whitecaps one weekend, then Sophie Schmidt and the Edmonton Wild Roses would be in town the next, followed by Diana Matheson’s Toronto Blue-and-White or whatever I’m done making up names. A small league could mean that every team had some recognizable Canadian star, to say nothing of some excellent soccer. There’d be a summer break where the best of those players got together and John Herdman went to kick some ass, and their profile would just go up.
Canada meets every fundamental requirement to start a league like this. We have fans in the tens of thousands. We have stadiums which are perfectly suitable, perhaps requiring minor expansion but even in those cases expansion schemes have already been planned and acted upon (Royal Athletic Park was expanded for the U-20 World Cup and of course the fables of expanding Clarke for FC Edmonton have become legend). The game is strong at the grass-roots level. We have elite-level players who could anchor such a league from both an on-field and public relations perspective for years to come. Nothing needs to be built from whole cloth.
Accuse me of optimism if you like. There would be problems: paying for travel, finding qualified coaches, trying to get the support of the professional men’s teams (for if they viewed this women’s league as a threat and tried to crush it we’d have a serious problem). Canadians are not used to coming out for women’s club soccer, but then again they weren’t used to men’s club soccer either once, not so long ago. A few television ads just showing Christine Sinclair ventilating Hope Solo followed by a location and a date would help a lot.
Why not try? Something like this has never been attempted in Canada, even on a small scale; professional women’s soccer in this country has always consisted of either sending players abroad or making them do three-hour drives to earn gas money at community coaching clinics. Rather than the same old proposals for a national men’s league or a U-23 league or rambling about “the CHL model” and trying to wring incremental improvements out of the men’s game so the nation will grow to love it, why not revolutionize the women’s game Canada already loves? The money involved, relative to the boatloads required to get anywhere in the men’s game, is small. Greg Kerfoot could run a few seasons of a six-team league himself if he was in the mood.
Sometimes it seems that as a soccer country we lack ambition. Canadians rant and rave and slave like dogs at trying to go the extra mile for what we have, and countless people smarter and harder-working than I am have gone elbows-deep in proverbial muck to reform the Canadian soccer system. Yet we shy away from revolution. We have never attempted to become a world leader. A Canadian professional women’s league would give us that chance at an uncommonly low price. It would require a willingness to take risks, and that’s a willingness we’ve never shown in soccer. But there’s no better time to start.