During the indefinite and unpredictable times we live in, we can take some comfort in looking to the future and speculating on what’s potentially to come. The football culture in this country is rapidly developing; the launch of the Canadian Premier League is an astounding feat even the most die-hard supporters of the Beautiful Game were likely sceptical of at first glance.
It’s inaugural season by all accounts exceeded expectations, with impressive quality on the pitch and even more remarkable support off of it. With that in mind, where could the Canadian Premier League be a decade from now? The CPL commissioner remains bullish on the topic of promotion and relegation, ambitious that a football pyramid will emerge within the foreseeable future. Is this a realistic goal? With some rational thought and some quarantine inspired creativity, I got to brainstorming.
Promotion and Relegation
North American sports culture is, for better or for worse, based largely on the premise of success. Not always success on the pitch, but perception of success provided through an elite sports landscape. From the emergence of the MLB in the mid 19th century to the NFL and NHL of the early 20s, North American pro sports culture has been based on the idea your team plays against the best competition on the continent now and always will.
The idea of an inferior “non Div 1” league is not well tested in North America. NCCA college sports in the United States and the CHL franchises of “small town Canada” offers the only alternative and even still these leagues rely heavily on deep emotional attachment to these sports based on nation’s culture.
The reincarnation of the NASL from 2011-2017 and the USL in the United States (and Canada… sort of) is an example of second division football, but success has been largely unstable and these fanbases were always aware of the fact they were committing to an inferior product. There is none of the heartbreak and economic instability attached to being relegated.
The bottom line is, it would be wholly unrealistic and ignorant of North American sports culture to not anticipate significant loss in revenue and fan engagement if a team were to “go under”. A drop in attendance and television ratings is not the end of the world for a franchise however, so long as they are still able to cover expenses such as staff and player wages and, importantly, the cost of travel.
Canada is a vast country of which the cost of travel cannot be underestimated; a safety net will be required to prop up clubs that ply their trade in a second or third division. The solution may lie in another North American sports tradition: the single entity league structure.
In late 2019, Hercules Gomez described the immense stability Major League Soccer enjoys as it pursues expansion through single entity:
“MLS right now they have, because of single entity, the ability where even the teams struggling, won’t struggle, those owners won’t struggle; they have the same pockets as the best team in the league or highest grossing team in the league because their money is pooled… all our losses are all our losses, and all our winnings are all our winnings”
While CPL differs from MLS in that the club contracts are owned by the teams, they currently utilize the same single entity structure; the CSB (Canadian Soccer Business) is to CPL what SUM (Soccer United Marketing) is to MLS. This single entity structure could be expanded to include every single club in the soccer pyramid.
Joining the Canadian soccer pyramid would, as a result, require buying into the CSB. This would be costly no doubt and involve some of the “less football” and “more business” approach SUM forces MLS expansion teams to pursue by bolstering their ownership group to afford lucrative expansion fees, but nonetheless offer a safety net that protects every club from financial ruin due to relegation.
A safety net would prevent the reckless short term spending so many top flight clubs pursue in football pyramids across the world to prevent relegation; too often this is the root cause of financial bankruptcy. It would also allow clubs to keep their heads on their shoulders and not hastily fire coaches or deny young players opportunities because ownership groups are so caught up in the financial jeopardy associated with going under.
The Soccer Pyramid
Clanachan’s comments on promotion and relegation entail a commitment to a second tier, however promotion and relegation with a third tier is less clear. So long as single entity remains the only realistic possibility for a sustainable promotion and relegation based soccer pyramid, it’s unrealistic to view, at least in the short term, any possibility that a Division 3 league is involved in promotion and relegation. A massive boost in soccer culture would be required to provide the financial and fan engagement based support to give Division 3 clubs the resources to buy into CSB. That’s a long way away and would require a hockey level support culture: think 2050 or 2100 not 2030.
Division 1 (CPL)
Onto more speculative and optimistic questions – what clubs could we see comprise the two tiers of Canadian professional football and where do the MLS teams fit in?
As for the latter question, Toronto FC’s ambitions are clear. They will never leave MLS unless they are barred from playing in the US’s top flight by CONCACAF or FIFA. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact’s ownership are more frugal however and, given the trajectory of MLS for an increasingly lucrative 32 team league or North American Super League with LigaMX, selling their MLS franchise rights for some $500-750 million dollars within the decade seems just as or more probable than them remaining in Major League Soccer.
As it stands the CPL has clubs in Victoria, Edmonton, Greater Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, York, Ottawa, and Halifax. Eight teams in total. Clanachan has said the CPL will expand to 14-16, likely 16, by the time Canada co-hosts the World Cup in 2026. Assuming eight more markets join the CPL by 2026, and that none of those clubs will be the MLS markets, I’d assume the following markets (from West to East) will be chosen based on market size, soccer history, and the frequency of rumours over the past year of interested groups in those markets:
9. Fraser Valley, BC (Langley)
10. Saskatoon, SK
11. London< ON
12. Tri-Cities< ON
13. Toronto (City Centre), ON
14. Montréal (Laval), QC
15. Québec City, QC
16. St John’s, NL
Fraser Valley, Montréal (Laval), Québec City, and Saskatchewan have unsurprisingly dominated the rumours of future clubs. They are the largest untapped markets and have displayed the most ownership interest. The first three markets all have exemplary market sizes, and Quebec City’s 800k metro population desperately needs a pro sports team since the departure of the Nordiques to Denver. Saskatoon is in my opinion a much more sensible choice than Regina despite the infrastructure in the Queen City. The population is larger, a club wouldn’t compete with the CFL for a fanbase, a smaller modular stadium is much better than a half empty CFL stadium, and the city’s most recent sports endeavour, a professional Lacrosse team, had an average attendance of 14,639 and 13,459 in it’s first two seasons. There is no reason to think a CPL team wouldn’t have just as much success or more through Canadian rivalries.
The Tri-Cities (Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and Cambridge), London, and St John’s are all Halifax-esque small town markets with metro populations of approx. 520k, 520k, and 200k and no pro sports competition; the CPL would be the biggest show in town.
With a soccer history and the largest city centre population, Kitchener-Waterloo would likely play host to a Tri-Cities club (Grand River Union?). I’m of the opinion St John’s deserves to be in the conversation much more than a New Brunswick market based on population; no business investor is actually going through with a market of 80,000 in Moncton or Saint John when you need a minimum of 5,000 average attendance. St John’s too has the perfect 10,000 seater open-air stadium; King George V Stadium. If that stadium sounds familiar to you it’s the host venue for the sold out match against Honduras in 1999 that qualified the national side for the 2000 Gold Cup which Canada won. St John’s would likely be a later expansion candidate (15 or 16), but I don’t see expansion in Atlantic Canada anywhere else until Division 2.
London is the most replaceable pick; it might well be beat by Mississauga or Durham, but the Western Ontario market has so much potential it deserves the benefit of the doubt. A downtown Toronto CPL team (Toronto International?) seems inevitable once the CPL is more well-established, hopefully at a renovated Varsity Stadium in the downtown core. If the Whitecaps and Impact were to join, the top flight could expand to 18 teams in line with numerous European leagues and Mexico’s LigaMX, or allocate two existing spots to the second division and remain at 16.
The most probable scenario is that each division would comprise of 16 not 18 teams. While the question about whether the Whitecaps and Impact will cash out of SUM and join the Canadian Premier League is debate I’ll leave for another day, it’s very much in the interests of both parties. If they were to, it would leave only 14 markets open to fill up the rest of a second division as two from CPL would move down. Of those 14 markets, I’ve not considered markets of 100,000 or less, because business investors are unlikely to either; there is no comparison to Europe and the cost of travel in this country is drastically higher. While this process might extend beyond 2030, I’d expect the following 14 markets, from West to East, to comprise a second division, as opposed to others, at some point:
1. Victoria (Downtown), BC
2. East Van/Burnaby, BC
3. Surrey, BC
4. Kelowna, BC
5. Calgary (Downtown), AB
6. Regina, SK
7. Thunder Bay, ON
8. Windsor, ON
9. Mississauga, ON
10. Toronto FC II, ON
11. Durham, ON
12. Niagara, ON
13. Trois Rivières/Sherbrooke, QC
14. Moncton/Saint John, NB
On AFTN’s own interview with Paul Beirne, the ex-CPL President was enthusiastic in his optimism for the ability of two clubs to operate in the same market and form local rivalries (Calgary North vs Calgary South for example). Clanachan too has voiced his intent to form the Tier 2 out of smaller markets:
“I want to look at some of the smaller markets to start a second vision. You don’t need to have a city of a million or 500,000 people. There are some great second-division team locations in Canada.”
Starting in British Columbia, we’ll likely see another Island team based either in downtown Victoria at Royal Athletic Park (baffling Pacific didn’t pay the city whatever they wanted for that ideal CPL venue) or maybe Nanaimo, for that true intercity island rivalry. We can also expect a club, hopefully in the form of the TSS Rovers, to claim Swangard Stadium and occupy the East Van/Burnaby market. Another club in Surrey is possible down the road as the Fraser Valley CPL club will likely be based in Langley. A team to represent the Okanagan based in Kelowna at the Apple Bowl is another good shout; the market has a metro population of approximately 200k and is a tourist hotspot during the summer months.
Moving to the Prairies and Northern Ontario, another club in Calgary and the other Saskatchewan city (in this case Regina) are the only real viable shouts. Spruce Meadows is significantly far enough from Calgary proper that if the CPL becomes popular then it’s only a matter of time before another group forms a club either downtown or north of the Bow River. Saskatchewan is crazy loyal to it’s teams, and is so often unfairly left out of the conversation for pro sports. The relatively reasonable start-up costs to joining the CSB should mean we can expect two Saskatchewan clubs at some point. Thunder Bay, although not as close to Winnipeg as a certain AFTN author initially thought, has a history of soccer in the PDL side Thunder Bay Chill and the stadium infrastructure, lack of any pro sports competition, and reasonable metro population of 120k to fit the bill for a Tier 2 side.
In Ontario, Windsor appears a quality fit for a Tier 2 side. The city doesn’t have any pro sports competition, an available 3,000 seater stadium (could be renovated), and a metro population of 330k. Mississauga has been in the conversation for an expansion Tier 1 side but lacked the investors. Nonetheless, the Toronto suburb has a population that rivals Canada’s biggest cities, active supporters groups (shoutout to Sauga City SC), and no Div 1 pro sports competition. A club there seems inevitable in Div 2 if they don’t beat somewhere like London to a Div 1 spot.
The inclusion of Toronto FC II may annoy some, especially after Bill Manning’s competition driven but utterly rude comments on the league, but it’s common practice around the world to include B teams in a football pyramid so long as they can never reach the top flight. It’s only a matter of time before TFC can’t place youth teams in the USL Pyramid and they have the money to buy into CSB. Very wealthy investors were rumoured to be looking to build a modular stadium in Durham/Brampton to join CPL soon, but if those plans don’t come to fruition a Tier 2 side in the Eastern GTA seems likely. Last of all, Niagara-St Catherine’s seems like the logical last spot. The region has a metro population of 400k, no pro sports competition, and is a tourist hotspot every summer. It also can’t hurt there’s 1 million people right across the river whose only sports hope has rested on the Bills and Sabres. A lack of stadium infrastructure is a problem, but as is the case with all cities with this problem, the speed, low cost, and success at which the HFX Wanderers erected a modular stadium in the downtown core mitigates this issue.
Moving to Québec, Trois Rivières and Sherbrooke are the only viable options outside another suburb Montréal team, but the French-Canadian metropolis is a contested sports market already with the Habs, Alouettes, and potentially a MLB return. Trois Rivières and Sherbrooke have similar populations (140k vs 170k) and each have two stadium facilities available in one baseball stadium and one multi-purpose university stadium. Trois Rivières has a soccer history over Sherbrooke in the Trois Rivières Attak (previously managed by current Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos), but also have pro-sports competition in a baseball team. I don’t know enough about either city to elaborate more: both seem appropriate and it’s really a matter of where investors go.
Last but not least in Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick should finally get a soccer club to call it’s own. Moncton has a great venue in the 10,000 seater Stade Moncton, but there’s a lot more financial backing in Saint John, home of the league beer sponsor Moosehead Brewing. Both are small markets, but Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton all are within 2 hours of each other and might be able to draw fans from all three cities. Significant corporate backing would be necessary, but branding that represents the whole of the province and the flexibility to play the occasional game in the non-host city could be successful.
Although likely far away, we can dare to dream. There’s a lot more quality Canadian pro sports markets who would take professional footy in with open arms than one might think, and a single-entity model that extends the CSB to both 1st and 2nd divisions might provide a model for economically sustainable promotion and relegation.
The inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League has given us a lot of optimism, and the future success of both our Div 1 league and the national side will continue to grow the game in this country. As we can look forward to what I’m sure will be an extremely entertaining and successful 2026 World Cup on Canadian shores, it’s not too crazy to imagine a fledging, multi-division Canadian football pyramid in a decades time. Let’s hope it looks a little something like what I’ve outlined above.
Until then and as always, Alles les Rouges.