Meet your new professional soccer league, Canada

TVO.org talks to chairman and commissioner David Clanachan about the brand-new Canadian Premier League — and raising the sport’s profile nationwide
By Claude Sharma - Published on April 26, 2019

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This Saturday, Hamilton’s Forge FC will face off against York Region’s York9. Those teams may be unfamiliar to you — that’s because they’re part of the brand-new Canadian Premier League, which aims to raise the profile of the beautiful game nationwide.

The league, which also includes teams from Vancouver Island, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Halifax, will feature will feature a 28-game regular season and hold competitions in both spring and fall: the winners will compete for the CPL Championship in October. Thanks to partnerships with CBC Sports, OneSoccer, and MediaPro, every match will be available through a variety of platforms.

The CPL isn’t affiliated with Major League Soccer, which has three Canadian clubs — but it will be home to some former players. And, unlike the MLS, the new league will have mandated Canadian representation: more than half of each team’s roster of between 20 and 23 players must be citizens of the country, and there can be no more than seven international players. (York9, for example, has signed 19 Canadians and two foreign players.)

In the inaugural 2019-20 season, 70 per cent of the league's players will be Canadian; about 47 per cent of that group will hail from Ontario. And the CPL will keep its eye on upcoming homegrown talent through a unique partnership with U Sports, the governing body of university athletics in Canada, holding one multi-round draft per season of graduating seniors. (Non-seniors could also be signed to developmental contracts but would lose eligibility to play soccer at the university level.) Six players from U Sports have already signed with the CPL this year.

TVO.org spoke to CPL chairman and commissioner David Clanachan about expectations, expansion, and what the new league will mean for soccer in Canada.


As the former president and chief operating officer of Tim Hortons Canada, where you worked for more than three decades, why did you decide to take on this role?
I was born in Scotland, just outside of Glasgow, before we immigrated to Windsor. So I've played the game, followed the game, still play the game to this day. I actually laughed and said I worked 35 years to learn all about business so I could apply all of those skills to one of my greatest passions in life, which is sports. I had so much exposure to sports sponsorship and partnerships through the years because Tim Hortons obviously does a tremendous amount of work with not just professional leagues, but all the way down to small children

What are your expectations for year one?
I'd like to see our fans and supporters be very entertained. I'd like to see great play on the field. I'd like to see the Canadian Premiere League establish a style of play for Canada that people will point to and say, “That's how Canadians play.” Obviously, you want it to be fair and tough, but you know, they will recognize the style. My expectation going into this year is, I'll deal with the year as it goes, but I don't go into this thinking that we should be losing money.

What is the biggest challenge the league will face in its first season?
The biggest challenge is always going to be about educating. There's a portion of Canadians that know the game well, and it's growing — it's growing very fast. A lot of that comes from the women's game growing every year. It comes from what's happening in the country here through immigration. But there's still a nucleus of people in Canada who don't follow the game every day. You can't force-feed this; it has to be something that they really enjoy. Sometimes, it’s the fact that it's entertaining. Sometimes, it's different. Sometimes, the fact that, here's a game that they actually play in 90 minutes — you don't have to go and be a spectator and be trapped for three hours because of commercials and timeouts and breaks and all that. It's about allowing people to fall in love with it and seeing the passion that's out there regardless of what type of spectator or supporter you are.

What will the CPL offer that the MLS can’t?

Coast to coast, teams in all the provinces, hopefully, eventually teams in all the provinces. Lots of Canadian local talent and lots of Canadian talent in general.

It’s a game that has been developed in our taglines “For Canadians by Canadians,” and that’s at the heart of it all. Listen, the MLS has done a great job in the big three cities. There is a reason why folks in Halifax are so behind the HFX Wanderers. Here is a team in Halifax that, in their first year, is trending toward…not trending — they are there. Over 50 per cent of their stadium is sold right now to season-ticket holders and corporate box holders. Over 50 per cent! There’s a lot of professional teams that would love to have that. We’ve been really clear about building this from the community up.

And that’s the difference: we are building this not necessarily to compete, but we are offering something that is much more localized for Canadians.

Do you view the MLS as competition? 
They're playing the same game, but I don’t necessarily see them as competition. Like I said, they play in an American league. There are some different rules in that league then there are here: they have playoffs; they don't have promotion/ relegation. They line up very differently than we do. We’ve been very clear. I'm very complimentary of what they've done for the game soccer in this country, and they've done yeoman's work, and they deserve credit for that. But at the same time, we need to be able to get this game to the point where many, many, many more Canadians are playing at the professional level and to get it into all corners of this country, where we can get behind this game because truly it’s a global game.

What does a player’s salary look like?
I don't really talk about it. We have a salary cap. I've been honest about that. Our players are compensated much the same as they are in a lot of the other leagues around the world. I will tell you that we're not in the English Premier League or some of the big leagues — we’re not at that level. But the reality is, we're in good shape with where the rest of the world is. And that's to be expected, especially in a brand-new league. Right? 

Why not share this information?
Because if it comes up, it becomes a point of debate: to some degree, you’ll never be right. It's going to be too much or too little. It's not something that needs to be done. We need to focus on what is happening on the pitch. We’re also not out there to try to bring in mercenaries, is what I like to refer to them as. You don’t want to have all of these foreign players coming over, finishing their careers, and signing for big money.

Bring in somebody at the end of their career thinking that that's going to be somebody who wows Canadians and brings Canadians along in the sport — we don't philosophically believe that that could be the case. We actually believe that you're better off to have homegrown talent or potentially young players, foreign players, that want to be part of Canada — that's the one people and fans, spectators and supporters, are going to fall in love with. Somebody who wants to finish one last year in their careers, they are not going to be around long enough.

Any plans for expansion?
Here's a longer-term goal. By 2026, when the World Cup comes to North America, we would like to be between 14 to 16 teams, which tells me that we're at probably at the max for where you could be in the premier league. Fourteen to 16 would be nice — at that point in time, we are then set for a second division, and a second division allows us to bring the next push, the next big change to the game, which is promotion/relegation.

What about a women’s league?
It's not too far down the road, but it is one of the top three questions that I get asked all the time. And I’ve been tongue in cheek — I say, “Let me get the men's game going first, and then we'll turn our eyes to it.”

What will this league mean, especially for the Canadians who will be part of it?
There's finally a pathway that connects all the way to the professional level [in Canada]. It also means that many more Canadians will hopefully have an opportunity to be able to play for their country. If you talked to John Herdman, who is the men's national-team coach, he has high hopes that the league will continue to develop Canadian players because of the rules we put in place. There'll be lots of choice for them. They will be able to earn a living in a professional game; they’ll be able to play for their country. And the other thing that happens, too, is it's not just for players. There's a bit of a soccer economy or industry that's being formed. So now people who are refereeing benefit, people who are administrators who work in the administrative jobs, and then the clubs — those jobs start to show up. Everything that touches the game starts to excel because you have more opportunities.


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