Hot Takes for Canada

By Benjamin Massey · May 17th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Premier League, like Harry Potter, takes up a lot of intellectual bandwidth for something that’s mostly imagination.

It has now been formally announced, along with Canadian Football League-affiliated ownership groups in Hamilton and Winnipeg. The name, hereto a title of convenience, appears official. They have a website and a Twitter account. In addition to at least one full-time employee, Canadian soccer business guru Paul Beirne, they have contracted out for some public and media relations. Judging from the respectful tone of the international press coverage, that’s working well.

We remain a hundred miles from even imagining the first game, but six months ago we were a thousand. Forget the “interested parties,” Canadian soccer’s powers-that-be, and some serious businessmen who know sports, have stopped winking and nudging and stepped forward, on the record, to say “here we are and here is what we are doing.” It shows confidence. Confidence that may prove misplaced, but after years of an announcement being “imminent” nobody’s being rash.

This story has gone on for so long that it’s hard to remind ourselves it’s still early. Until ten lovely millionaires have ten lovely teams in ten lovely stadia, CanPL skeptics will have every chance to sneer. The three MLS franchises, whose existence indefinitely gives the lie to the CanPL’s “first division” marketing, will “certainly stay” in their American league[1]. NASL diehard FC Edmonton is known to be uninterested and the USL’s Ottawa Fury have, as always, been inscrutable to the point of banality[2].

MLS, NASL, USL, order them how you like. On launch day, Canada’s “first division” may be the fourth-best league in the country. This is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, and with apologies to Sir Winston it’s not the end of the beginning either.

If you are sufficiently hardcore to read Maple Leaf Forever!, this doesn’t matter as such. Sure we want the CanPL to be the top league in the universe, but it would be our favourite if it was Marty Nash and Rick Titus playing futsal on a tennis court. The status quo, however, is not ideal, so we try to improve the outlook by pushing our own CanPL pet projects and agitating for our dreams. We need more Canadian players, or oppose MLS-style single entity, or want promotion and relegation. I still say it should be a women’s league, though I confess that looks unlikely to happen.

Yet, from announcements so far, even that mad pipe dream isn’t literally impossible. The sum total of what we know about the CanPL is Winnipeg and Hamilton. Halifax has on-the-record interest, Regina’s CFL stadium is hosting a New York Cosmos – Valencia friendly[3] this summer that looks inexplicable except as a test of the market, Ottawa is Ottawa, and rumours are everywhere, but that’s all we know.

No doubt Winnipeg and Hamilton ownerships have an idea how they want to operate, with certain assurances that they can stay in business. Equally certainly, they have areas in which they’d compromise to lure new ownership (or, let us hope, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto). But some elements of the league structure are clearly up for discussion.

Paul Beirne appeared on Soccer Today! with Duane Rollins and Kevin Laramee, and told us much the same thing[4]. As part of a friendly and wide-ranging conversation he riffed, off-the-cuff, about what he’d like to see from his league perhaps decades down the line. No doubt he’s put a lot of thought into his visions, but he left doors open, and equally undoubtedly nothing has been set in stone.

Now is the time for fans to be heard. The success of the CanPL will depend disproportionately on Canadian diehards who, above and beyond buying tickets and merch, will lend each team the passionate and marketing-friendly support that has driven MLS’s attendance explosion. We know that the league staff pays attention to fan scuttlebutt. Indeed, its very conception responds to the fandom’s urgent need.

Our ideas and dreams may not be listened to. Indeed, since many of us would support a CanPL almost unconditionally, we have a lousy bargaining position. But we can still encourage the powers that be to make the best league they can. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are not soccer people. Hamilton’s Bob Young knows the game, owned the Carolina Railhawks for half an hour, and has presumably had a reason to spend years laying the foundations of this league. Every other Canadian owner will be new to the game almost by definition. Are we ever going to have a better opportunity?

It is pretty damned millennial to say “we need more bloggers with opinions, more hot takes and drum-banging.” But we sort of do. Canadian soccer is an incestuous little family, with the feuds and fornications of the most obscure mountain compound. Our league deserves to be launched not just with message board posts arguing whether the Blizzard should be brought back, but well-thought-through debates on what world we want to live in. It might not make any difference. But then again, it might. This is the only chance we will ever get.

(notes and comments…)

A Canadian Pro/Rel Manifesto

By Benjamin Massey · September 21st, 2016 · 5 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Reports of a coming Canadian Premier League have not died. The usual reporters, Duane Rollins and Anthony Totera, continue to tease us with target dates and rumoured plans. Peripheral feelers and exploratory movements have reached even the least connected members of the soccer community. The Canadian Soccer Association has still not made any announcement, but the winking and nudging and “just you waits” are only intensifying. There’s smoke, and while that does not necessarily indicate fire, somebody is trying to start one.

As far as a fan can tell, nothing is set in stone. So perhaps the time is right for us to say what sort of league we want. The true Canadian fan has been desperate for something, anything he could call his own, and we still are, and would support our domestic league even if it was Major League Soccer with a maple leaf tattooed on its face. However, just because our standards may be low and our expectations not much higher does not mean that we don’t have ambitions. A Canadian soccer league would, to a great extent, be an end in itself, but it would also be a means to other ends, and we should try to promote those while plans can still be changed.

One of those ends is making Canada, as surely as it is a hockey country, a soccer country. Eight teams in eight major metropolitan centres would be great for those in the hearts of big cities, but would still leave the majority of our landmass and a large chunk of our population with teams you could only call “their own” in very generous terms. What makes us a hockey nation is not seven NHL franchises but the hundreds of senior, major junior, and junior “A” teams, based in cities as large as Toronto and podunk towns of a thousand people, that bring the sport to the masses. Even the semi-rural family, the suburb-dweller, the oil patch kid, doesn’t have far to go if he wants to watch quality hockey. Much of the country enjoys the same access to curling, or Canadian football, and if you ever wonder why those sports command so much attention despite seeming so passé in the big city, think about that.

Alone, a Canadian Premier League alone could never imitate that. Only one thing could: promotion and relegation.

Simply saying those three words in North America provokes an instantaneous, tribal response. Many demand it with the fervour of the fundamentalist. Others decry it as foreign, impractical, a cancer that could never exist and we’re better off without. North America has franchises bound to leagues. Owners would never accept it. How could you get investors if that investment might go up in smoke with one bad year? It’s mad, it’s terrible, it could and should never happen.

That’s wrong. Promotion and relegation does not need to be an immediate and extreme load on the country’s back. Here is my view, addressed to the prospective owner, of what it could be.

Protecting your investment

Nobody is saying that you should get relegated tomorrow. We’re not insane. You, the founding franchiser, are going to plow a lot of money into getting this league started. Even in the best case the league’s very survival will be in doubt for several years. If at least one team doesn’t fold outright it’ll be a miracle. A malleable structure sending some $20-million-a-year subsidizer to League1 Ontario for 2019 is a terrible idea and everyone knows it. Even if we were that extreme, the infrastructure and lower divisions do not exist. The Victoria Vistas get relegated from the CanPL; where the heck are they gonna play?

We don’t need promotion and relegation in year one, or year three, or year five. We need a clear roadmap of how we’re going to get there. You can only accept promotion and relegation after fifteen seasons, provided the Premier League has sixteen teams and there are semi-pro leagues in every province? That sounds amazing! But write it down and work towards it.

In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be relegated at all. You’re spending a lot of money and you want your investment to be protected. Okay. There are ways to promote and relegate teams other than “three up, three down” every year. Both the Argentine Premier Division and Mexico’s Liga MX, the best and most successful soccer league in North America, use a “coefficient” system that relegates teams for sustained incompetence rather than one bad season. The first year of the system could be promotion only: bringing in four less-developed teams to fight your established squads for three relegation places would give you an automatic advantage. Minimum stadium standards, like those used by almost every league in the world, will make sure you don’t get knocked out by some podunk outfit playing Thursday afternoons at a city park. For greater security, institute a playoff between the teams in the Premier League’s relegation places and the lower divisions’ promotion places, so we make sure that only the deserving get to the big time.

Remember, no promotion/relegation advocate has a problem with your team staying in the top division indefinitely. It’s about adding a competitive element to the bottom of the table, and clubs being free to rise as far as their talent and resources can take them. Any promotion/relegation system has to be fair, but “fair” applies to you, the owner, as well.

Making that investment work

Nothing about pro/rel prevents financial responsibility. American opponents regularly assert that promotion and relegation is a naturally reckless system but they are conflating the all-round money madness of European and South American soccer with one element of its system. Teams in no danger of relegation can spend like lunatics and suffer for it; ask the late-’90s NHL. Of course, a team that gets relegated takes a financial hit every time, there’s no way around that, but the measures you may already be taking for fiscal stability can work here.

By all accounts the Canadian Premier League will pursue revenue sharing and cost certainty in the form of a salary cap anyway. Making this work with promotion and relegation is as easy as wanting to. If a cap team in the CanPL gets relegated to the PLSQ, it’s perfectly reasonable for the rules to “grandfather” the newly-arrived club into the PLSQ’s lower salary structure. Work out the details, that’s all they are. The PLSQ team that gets promoted in their place will want to spend more and keep their new position, but a salary cap will keep them from pulling a Gretna. Cost certainty and pro/rel can, in fact should, walk hand in hand.

The other side to relegation is that it frees you from undercapitalized, uncompetitive teams facing either new ownership or bankruptcy. The North American Soccer League spent two years keeping the Atlanta Silverbacks afloat on a shoestring for pride’s sake. Atlanta was a decent market with a good history and a solid soccer-specific stadium, but with MLS coming they couldn’t find a buyer willing to commit to an NASL level of expenditure. The Silverbacks should really have been allowed to fall to their natural level, and without promotion and relegation that becomes a whim of ownership rather than a Darwinian evolution (see San Antonio). It cost the more solid NASL owners both prestige and hard cash.

In Europe, when a team goes bankrupt or misses payments, it is automatically deducted so many points that relegation is almost inevitable. In a franchise system these teams would be near-certain bankrupts but with the lower costs and lesser pressure of a lower division, they can sometimes keep mostly afloat long enough to reorganize into a healthier model as Portsmouth is currently doing. That club is owned by a supporters’ trust that could never possibly have raised the required capital if Pompey was at the basement of a franchise-based Premier League, with all the expenditure and paper-only “value” that implies; the team would have just died. Obviously teams do go bankrupt in a pro/rel system, it’s not a panacea, but it is another way to handle the trouble one broke owner can put your league in.

Remember, more soccer is good for you. You want every sort of fan you can get, of course, but the sort who makes you the most money is the season-tickets-every-year new-kit-every-two merchandise-buying beer-swilling sponsor-supporting diehard. They come back year after year, plow way more of their disposable income than would be considered responsible into your pocket, and feel personally involved in the success of your company. Many of them feel so deeply about your corporate success that they will stand up and sing songs about how terrific your company is; they are literally paying you to use them in your marketing. Subject to pretty modest precautions like making sure the loud ones get their own section and preventing them punching babies or burning the stadium down, they bring other fans in the door. This is a good deal for you.

These fans also don’t come from nowhere. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “I am going to lose my mind for soccer,” or hockey, or football, or ringette, or any other sport. That sort of fanaticism is something that builds with exposure to the sport. It is why, for so long, soccer supporters were such a niche in the United States and suddenly were everywhere: a certain critical mass had to develop, and then things took off.

Sure, you and your fellow franchisers might be able to get domestic soccer that critical mass almost singlehanded, but wouldn’t you rather other people helped pay for it? A healthier lower division, such as is promoted by the competitiveness of promotion and relegation, is in your interest. In principle you might lose a meaningful number of fans to local, lower-division rivals, but in practice this hardly seems to happen. You only need look at the rise and fall of attendances as teams go up and down the divisions to see this: many fans want to see their local side, many fans want to see the best, and sometimes those two groups overlap. Sports fandom is not zero-sum. League1 Ontario fans still go to Toronto FC games, and at every level, atmosphere attracts atmosphere.

And if a new first-division team appears in your city, within walking distance of your stadium? Around the world those games are the most intensely-fought and lucrative of all. If you can’t make money off passionate clashes between neighbours and rivals, what are you even doing in this business?

More soccer is also good for you on the field. One of the best-established ways to train a young player is to send him on loan so he can get experience playing meaningful games at a level that suits him. At risk of stating the obvious, this requires a team to borrow him from you. Except in rare cases it’ll be a lower-division team for the also-obvious reason that if he was good enough for the first division the kid would be playing for you in it. There needs to be multiple options; you don’t want to be stuck because your only choice doesn’t need help at that position. Preferably the team will also be nearby, in case you need the kid back, and run by staff you know and trust. Heck, you probably even need successful teams at multiple levels, to accommodate players at different stages of development. That’s a long list of requirements and it takes a very healthy lower-division pyramid to accommodate them all. The United States does not have that. Bring in promotion and relegation, give lower-division teams that boost, and Canada could.

That’s an unquantifiable benefit, of course. But another reason you should want healthy lower divisions is that, if it turns out that kid isn’t good enough for you after all, you can sell him to that lower-division team that liked him so much last time. Right now, unless you’re Miami FC, there’s not much point in the NASL paying cash on the barrel for an MLS reject: the MLSer will just be released in two months anyway and they can get him for free. If that NASL team was angling for promotion, or for that matter if an MLS team was battling relegation, matters might look a little different, and you make money.

Finally, ask yourself what would promotion and relegation cost you? So long as you stay up – and as we said a few paragraphs ago, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – very little. In ten or fifteen years or whatever, when the league reaches the point of stability where promotion and relegation are introduced, you will lose out on sweet franchise fees with every expansion. On the other hand, if you’re able to charge new investors big money then pretty-much-by-definition your business will be in good financial shape, and you will also be able to command a premium for the franchise fees in the years before promotion and relegation. “Buy in now or start from the bottom” is a decent pitch. Besides, franchise fees are a finite resource. Eventually your league will get as big as it can. They’re a crutch, not a structural revenue source.

Other than that, it’s hard to see how it’ll cost you a dime. A rival gets relegated? Given the probability that the new league will be spread across this huge country, it’s much more likely that new geographic rivals will appear. Travel costs are going to be a bastard whether you’re going from Toronto to Edmonton or Toronto to Sherwood Park. Minimum facility standards, common around the world, will save you from road games where friends and family pay a buck each to watch your $5-million roster. You may want to introduce parachute payments for relegated teams, and modest stadium subsidies for teams being promoted would be a good idea, but weren’t we just talking about revenue sharing? This is the same thing by other means, the rich giving a certain proportion of their revenue to benefit the poor for the benefit of all. The total amount of money you pay out doesn’t need to change.

And if it goes wrong?

Of course, there’s every chance that you hire the wrong guy, he signs the wrong players, blows through your money like a politician in election week, and in spite of all protections you get relegated. I’m sorry. There’s also every chance that you sell all your capital to buy Bre-X stock and wind up fishing for change on Granville and Nelson. We can give you a sporting chance, we can shield you from ordinary bad luck, so that one comes down to “don’t make stupid decisions.” If you can’t handle that as a condition, maybe capitalism isn’t for you.