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Scandal and Rumour: Is a Canadian League Close to Reality?

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With the NASL's Traffic Sports mired in scandal, the MLS becoming closer to the US Soccer Federation and a lack of Canadians in the MLS, are business leaders and the Canadian Soccer Association ready to form a domestic league?

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of the FIFA corruption scandal that broke last week with the Swiss and the Americans arresting several high ranking members of FIFA and CONCACAF, a tiny announcement came out of Canada. CSN (Canadian Soccer News) is reporting that a Canadian Soccer League, involving 10 cities ‘across the country' has been confirmed.

Tiny? That's huge news. Assuming it's true. Especially since the last attempt at a national league resulted in match-fixing and financial insolvency in only 5 years.

But the point stands, there are a lot of people in the Canadian sports community, corporate Canada and soccer fanbase that are not content with a few teams in the American first and second divisions (MLS and NASL respectively). Those leagues are growing as well - although, their growth is primarily located in the United States.

Many Canadians are skeptical of the MLS, how it treats Canadians as foreign players, and has a relationship with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) that could charitably be described as cozy. Also, the NASL is partly owned by Traffic Sports, the organization at the heart of the FIFA/CONCACAF corruption scandal. [American] teams are also fleeing the NASL at an alarming rate to the MLS, and the MLS dominated lower league, the USL, is aiming to supplant the NASL as the American second division. Needless to say, Canadian soccer in the American leagues are an afterthought at best, and outright imperiled at worst.

Even if the Canadian content in MLS and the NASL were in jeopardy, the fact remains that these teams still exist. With those 5 teams in existence, more than half that Canadian population lives in those 5 cities metro markets. Getting a Canadian league off the ground without support in the five biggest markets would be a deal breaker before the first ball is kicked.

That is the main reason the previous Canadian Soccer League went under. It only appealed to small enclaves of fans, and it had no reach outside of Southern Ontario, where almost all of the teams were based. It was also a Div. 3 league, where only 300 - 500 fans attended each match.

If we are going to make a first class top flight, we need to dream a little bigger.

The CFL Connection

There needs to be a source of revenue, a stable and intelligent ownership group, and more media savvy than now. In Canada, there are only two domestic sports organizations that have all those qualifications; The Canadian Football League (CFL) and la Ligue de hockey junior majeur du Québec (LHJMQ). Lo and behold, the Canadian Soccer News is reporting that there is "some direct CFL involvement" as well as ownership from a different sport. If I were a betting man, I would wager my money on that other sport being minor hockey in Québec -specifically Jacques Tanguay, owner of the Remparts de Québec and president of the Laval Rouge et Or football team - being involved in any future league.

It makes perfect business sense. The CFL has stadiums in all major markets in Canada, as well as established sponsors, over a century of tradition and the respect of the Canadian sporting community. They also have been experimenting with soccer ownership as of late. The Vancouver Whitecaps share their stadium with the BC Lions, and more recently in Ottawa, the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) launched a football team in the CFL at the same time as a soccer team in the NASL, with both teams sharing a colour scheme and a stadium, and both being reasonably successful in their inaugural year.

The article cites '10 Canadian cities' that would be looking for professional soccer teams. Unless something gives in the MLS/NASL markets, the league would have poor market penetration. But with the problems facing Canadian teams in MLS and the financial problems of the NASL evident, a coup d'etat against the MLS or NASL might be exactly what the Canadian soccer league is banking on.

John Pugh, the owner of the Ottawa Fury in the NASL, is a big supporter of Canadian soccer, and while head coach Marc Dos Santos denies it, it is clear that there is a real push to bring in Canadian content with the Ottawa Fury. They have even signed the captain of the Canadian National Team to their roster.

Joining a Canadian league, especially when the NASL is facing tough times and is partly owned by a group at the heart of a corruption scandal, is probably a thought that has crossed OSEG's mind in recent days. Ottawa, I think, would handily jump ship to a Canadian league. It is purely speculation, but Ottawa/Gatineau is a necessary market if a Canadian league is to succeed - and the CFL knows that.

The icing on the cake however would be Jacques Tanguay coming into a partnership with the league. He is a true ‘homme d'affairs' in Québec City, and an honourary colonel to boot. But the real benefit he adds is experience in dealing with Québec's hockey (read: Habs) centric media. Impact fans know the feeling well of having to tune into TVA 2 to see a match because TVA 1 is showing minor league hockey or football. How often is that hockey the Remparts, or the Laval Rouge et Or? Often enough.

Tanguay is a media man, and a sports baron in the market of Québec/Lévis, which has neither professional soccer nor football. It is not unlikely that the CFL and future Canadian soccer league would offer Tanguay a franchise in both leagues in exchange for a share in ownership. Mayor Regis Lebaume has already come out in favour of the idea of pro sports in Québec City, and with political and economic capital already accounted for, the leagues will look favourably upon Québec City as an expansion franchise.

The most important market, however, will be Hamilton. While the city is only half that of the Québec or Ottawa market, it controls access to the South Western Ontario media market - the corridor from Windsor to Kitchener/Waterloo - that is a TV market of 4 million. The Hamilton Tigercats of the CFL have long enjoyed popularity in that corridor, despite being only 45 minutes away from their rivals in the GTA, Toronto. Recently, rumours have been circulating that Hamilton would be seeking an NASL franchise. Those talks are apparently on hold, due to the corruption scandal with Traffic Sports, but the CFL was rumoured to be the principal provider of capital for the project. If the CFL and future Canadian league are indeed partners, I would forsee Hamilton as a future soccer market.

Three other CFL markets have limited competition from hockey, active CFL stadiums and politicians friendly to approving soccer teams in their cities: Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg. The prairies, fueled by the boom in both potash, oil and gas, and mining are filled with new migrants and immigrants. Among them are soccer fans. Certainly, if the CFL is involved, these markets will need to be considered.

Edmonton remains a problem, as much of the shares in FC Edmonton are held by Traffic Sports. Perhaps the CFL intends to buy the shares from the disgraced company - but that also assumes that leadership in Edmonton is committed to the CFL instead of the NASL. Edmonton is a critical market of nearly a million people, and hanging on to that slice of media pie will be important for any leagues success or failure.

The MLS Market Dynamic

The three most important markets in Canada for professional sporting are Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver. Together, those markets hold 40% of the Canadian population, and an even greater share of its corporate wealth. Not coincidentally, all three markets have existing soccer teams at the division 1 level in the MLS.

One of those teams, Toronto FC, is not going anywhere. Their ownership group, MLSE have invested millions of dollars in securing their place as Canada's contribution to US market dominance. From trying to bring the NFL to Toronto, to securing American dominance of the NHL and NBA on our airwaves, MLSE have consistently shown no interest in a ‘Canadian' league of any sorts. I do not think I would be out of line in speculating that they would have no interest in letting Toronto FC, or even Toronto FC II of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) play in a Canadian league. It just is not in their business interests. TFC was created as an MLS team from thin air, and it will remain one. If Toronto wants a soccer team in the Canadian league, it is going to have to start one from scratch - and go head-to-head with Toronto FC.

But Vancouver and Montréal began as minor soccer teams, not MLS teams. They have both played in a half dozen leagues, and have all their history and championships, in the USL, NASL, PDL, A-League and various other formats in Canada, and North America over more than 2 decades. Moving laterally to a Canadian first division would be just another brick in their extensively covered wall.

Vancouver is already at an advantage. They have a working relationship with the BC Lions, the CFL and BC Place from 5 years of cooperation and sharing with those organizations. The three groups are all also on excellent terms, especially after the CFL made clean-up of the Grey Cup a priority for the Caps' season games.

Montréal is also in a precarious position, and moving to a Canadian league would have advantages that Joey Saputo might find beneficial. After a dismal season in 2014, attendance is faltering in MLS games. It's hard to motivate fans to go see teams from Kansas City, Orlando and Portland play the Impact. Montréalais have no connection to those cities. But they turn out in droves to see the Impact play in the Champions League. In a Canadian league, our nation would still have its single spot in the CCL guaranteed - but we may be awarded another if our league is large enough (and with 10 teams, it would be). The Impact could work to be our Champions League team, like Liverpool in the EPL or Lyon in Ligue 1. With Champions League runs nearly every year, the Impact would be more profitable, and perform better financially as a result.

Both sides cannot send their academies to the Canadian league, as MLS teams cannot be affiliated with any league outside the USL - again, due to the cozy relationship between the USSF, MLS and its newest baby, the USL. The MLS sides would need to move into the league themselves, or not at all.

The 10th Market

Québec, Montréal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver: a fine cross-section of Canadiana if there ever was one. But the articles, and rumours in question mention 10 cities. I am of a mind that the final city will be ... Moncton, New Brunswick. Yes, you heard me. That city is ripe for professional sport.

Sure, Moncton and it's Francophone suburbs Dieppe and Shédiac are only 200,000 people, but they are only 2 hours away by car from nearly every market in the Canadian Maritimes. They are also very bilingual, and a team in Moncton would ensure market penetration in Acadien markets for Québec teams of the CFL and Canadian soccer league, as well as a market for other bilingual teams like Ottawa or Montréal.

Moncton already has a working relationship with Canadian soccer, and is hosting several matches of the FIFA Women's World Cup this summer. They have also hosted Touchdown Atlantic, in conjunction with the CFL and the Hamilton Tigercats, the very groups that are looking to create a domestic soccer league. Moncton also benefits from having the wealthy, and philanthropic, Irving family in its region; who own the LHJMQ team Moncton Wildcats, and have experience in sports marketing and know how to market to the entire Maritime market.

So, what's the deal?

Good question. Rumours involving an NASL division for Canada have been swirling for at least a year, but the FIFA/CONCACAF scandal and its links to Traffic Sports have killed what was left of them. Everyone knows the CFL is interested in new revenue streams, and soccer has always been on their agenda. With the future looking grey for other Canadian professional teams, and fan interest in the sport growing from events like the FIFA Women's World Cup, there has never been a better business climate than now.

One event that could force the CSA to cut a deal with the CFL, and entice the MLS sides to come over would be a FIFA World Cup bid. Canada was rumoured to be mulling a 2026 bid, and one of the conditions is to have a functioning and viable first division league. It is what prompted the United States to create the MLS in the early 90's. It could work here too.

Hopefully, it will all happen sooner than 2026, if it happens at all. We're a world class country, and it's about time we played the world's game on our terms.