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It’s a gamble, a shrewdly thought-out one.
Diana Matheson and Christine Sinclair spilled out on social media and CBC Monday night, the faces on the announcement of a women’s professional soccer league in Canada.
For now, just two of the proposed eight teams have been confirmed for the league, which aims to begin play in 2025, and two title sponsors announced in CIBC and Air Canada.
The league still lacks a name, six more cities and/or investment groups, a broadcast deal and a ratification from the country’s governing body in soccer in the Canadian Soccer Association.
But working in its favour: An Olympic gold medal; the surge of awareness of soccer in Canada, thanks to the men’s qualification for the World Cup in Qatar; the next World Cup, featuring the women’s teams, in Australia next year; the next Summer Games in Paris 2024; and then the 2026 World Cup here in North America. Soccer will be ever-present for the next five years.
“Nothing great ever came from things being easy. We’re aware of challenges, and that’s OK. We are ready to face those head on,” said former Canadian international Stephanie Labbé, who has been working behind the scenes with Matheson since last year.
“People are craving women’s professional sports in this country right now. If we tried to do this five years ago, I don’t think we would have been able to achieve the success that I think we will.
“Now is the right time; women’s sports has never been a better investment than it is right now. Timing is everything, and I truly believe that we’re doing this at the right time.”
Announcing a league — a nameless league — without concrete agreements for 75 per cent of the member teams could be considered, well, a bit premature. It took many by surprise, including the CSA, which has yet to issue a statement, and possibly the league organizers themselves, if Tuesday’s “can you hear me now?” Zoom was anything to go by.
But fortune favours the bold. Matheson said she hopes the CSA will ratify the league by 2024, and wants the league to stretch from the Maritimes to the West Coast. She mentioned Saskatoon, Winnipeg, at least one team in Ontario, Quebec City and/or Montreal, as well as Halifax.
“We were at a point where we felt it was the right time to engage a wider audience, both to drive attention to this in terms of the players who are making decisions for their careers, where they’re going to university, where they’re going to continue playing or drop out of sport, pursue a professional contract abroad,” said Matheson, the third most capped player in women’s team history before she retired last year.
“Players are making those decisions now, and we want them to know that this is coming. Also in terms of driving visibility, that this league is happening. We’ve secured two markets and we’re going to spend the next six months finding the right ownership groups for the other six markets.
“So we wanted to get the news out there that we’re looking, especially for women, in ownership and and finding those right investors to build this league the right way and share the values and vision that we do.”
For now, Calgary Foothills and the Whitecaps — where Labbé was hired to be the general manager of women’s soccer in October — are the only two teams. There are about 110 Canadian women playing professionally around the world, and Matheson and Co. are hoping to lure at least 50 per cent of them back home.
A team is expected to cost between $8-$10 million, with salaries competitive with the US $35,000 minimum made by National Women’s Soccer League players. NWSL teams, which cost less than US $200,000 a decade a go, are now worth considerably more. The Washington Spirit were bought for US $35 million this year, and Sinclair’s Portland Thorns were just put up for sale for the same amount by owner Merritt Paulson.
Each team will be allowed to sign a Canadian national team player to a Designated Player contract which, much like the Major League Soccer model from which it was derived, would allow an unlimited salary.
That would hopefully lure some of the big-name Canadian internationals back home to play.
“The other strength for us is we can bring Canadians back to Canada and players’ ability to monetize their brand. (Being in) Canada is so different than playing abroad,” said Matheson. “Like the the players that won a (Olympic) gold medal. They won the gold medal and a week later they were back in their clubs in Europe.
“You don’t have the opportunity to sign with brands, earn sponsorship dollars, do speeches, run camps, all these things that can drive your personal brand. So we want to really leverage that with Canadian players.”
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