Fresh off the success of the 2018 World Cup, FIFA’s newest project is beginning to take shape.
The Canadian Premier League, the first fully professional All-Canadian top tier soccer league in history, have announced seven of their planned eight teams, with the eighth team being announced later today.
The FIFA approved (and aided) soccer league will provide Canadian players in the MLS youth academies and in University sports with an opportunity to continue their professional careers in soccer and expects to hit the field in 2019.
According to a recent report from the Hamilton Spectator, the leagues average salary is expected to be around $50 000, a significant number for an upstart league. While that number may pale in comparison to the European salaries, or even the MLS (where the average salary is $117 000), the financial contribution from the Canadian Soccer Association is significant.
Yet there is one major issue that will plague this new league before it even begins.
North American sports have long ago turned from the multi-league model. Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey have all been international leagues for over twenty years, since the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA. Football in North America is still split into two national leagues, but the reasons for that are much more nuanced; the games themselves are actually quite different and the scoring is different.
When MLS began to hit its stride in the mid 00’s, the league began to toy with expanding to Canada. At the time, there was no fully professional Canadian league, and the established soccer “powerhouses” like the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact were already playing in smaller, American leagues like the USL. With the addition of TFC in the 2007 MLS season, the league has never looked back, and now there are three Canadian MLS teams.
Which means that whatever the Canadian Premier League does, and however they structure their league, they will never break into the three biggest markets in Canada. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver all have a professional soccer team already, playing in a bigger league, with more fan-fare.
For the die-hard Canadian soccer fan, this will not be a big deal. But sports rarely cater towards their die-hard fan base. To put it bluntly, the die-hard fan is watching no matter what happens, they do not have to be coerced into tuning in. It is the neutral fan that leagues are after, the new fan that will hopefully bring in new business. And for those neutral soccer fans across the country, it will be an uphill battle trying to recruit them to the Canadian Premier League instead of the MLS.
Some may point to the success of the CFL domestically and hold that up as evidence that this could work. But that example is a little different. For starters, there is no Canadian NFL team, meaning there is no single city which is implicitly routing for the other league. Second, the NFL within Canada greatly outdraws CFL viewership numbers even with no teams. The CFL gets by on its tradition and quirkiness, but there is a reason they stop playing Sunday games come September…they can’t compete with the NFL and they don’t try to.
The Canadian Premier League plans to do just that. Their hands are tied with the reality of Canadian weather, and the season needs to run from May to early fall. There will not be a point in their season where they are not competing with the MLS, and MLS will have the better teams and the better product.
It will be an uphill battle for the upstart league from day one, but the CPL has one major factor on its side: FIFA. FIFA is determined to have this league functioning at the point of the 2026 FIFA world cup and are willing to help it along the way. Assuming the league meets its 2019 goal, it will be in its eighth season when the FIFA world cup comes along. If it lasts that long, it will have successfully built core fan bases in cities like Edmonton, Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton and Ottawa…cities that will never get an MLS team, but have thousands of passionate soccer players nonetheless. And if even a single member of the Canadian Men’s National team in 2026 is playing his club football in the Canadian Premier League, the league will have been a success.
A sad truth about the Canadian men’s National team: the last time they made the FIFA world cup, not every member of the team was playing professional soccer.
This league all but guarantees that will not be the case in 2026.
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Alex Taylor is a graduate of McMaster University, with degrees in Anthropology and History, and a minor in classics. Alex currently attends Sheridan College, where he is working on a Journalism diploma.
Alex is also a novel writer, having written a manuscript, and he is currently working on another (fiction)
Alex Taylor writes more frequently on his website, TheFanLife.net
Alex has also written a published paper while attending McMaster University: an academic journal piece on the depictions of aging in the media.
And avid sports fan, Alex Taylor will be starting a podcast soon (titled thefanlife. It will be on Soundcloud).