Canadian soccer gets its professional kicks
by Jonathan Rest
Canada: The world's largest economy without its own professional soccer league. Until last weekend. Jonathan Rest analyses the business case of the Canadian Premier League. Author
2nd May 2019, 09:07

Ryan Telfer. Remember the name for your next sports quiz.

The 26-year-old, York 9 FC midfielder wasted little time writing himself into the history books – three minutes to be precise by scoring the first-ever goal in the Canadian Premier League last weekend.

It was not enough to secure victory, as Forge FC came back to draw 1-1 (Kadell Thomas the goalscorer for the hardened quizzers) in the Ontario derby in front of an impressive 17,611 crowd at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

The result was, essentially, academic. For up until last weekend, Canada was the largest economy in the world without its own professional soccer league. 

The professional Canadian Soccer League was created in 1986, in the aftermath of Canada's participation in that year's World Cup finals, but folded in 1992 under the weight of crippling finances.

The reincarnation has been some five years in the making, and is debuting seven years out from Canada hosting the 2026 Fifa World Cup in partnership with USA and Mexico.

While there may be lingering concerns over the financial viability of the CPL from those that remember its predecessor, this version has the luxury of a 10-year global media rights deal with Spanish media rights agency Mediapro, which also includes national team games, to support its growth.


"Mediapro’s is the largest investment made in the game of soccer ever in the history of this country"

David Clanachan, commissioner, Canadian Premier League  

 

CPL commissioner David Clanachan called the rights deal “a generational change,” adding: “It will change the way soccer is viewed in this country and it’ll change the game in a much quicker way than we’ve ever seen before. Frankly, Mediapro’s is the largest investment made in the game of soccer ever in the history of this country.”

The pockets of Mediapro, owned by Chinese private equity firm Orient Hontai Capital, run deep, but so does the level of expertise.

The agency picked up the CPL contract in February, fighting off the likes of DAZN, the international OTT platform that launched in Canada in 2017, USA-based FloSports and Bell, the Canadian media giant that owns subscription broadcaster TSN, to land the rights.

IMG was also interested in the contract in the early stages when some 80 global organisations responded to the invitation to tender sent out in late August 2018 by ThePostGame, a USA-based digital content agency that was appointed to sell the global media rights to the CPL on behalf of Canadian Soccer Business, the body that represents the commercial interests of the new league and Canada Soccer, the national association.

Mediapro immediately established a Canadian operation, headed up by Oscar Lopez Garcia, followed that up with the launch of over-the-top subscription platform OneSoccer to stream all 98 games, and then acquired Tri-Lite TV, a Canadian production company, to help service its output of the CPL, for which it is producing every match.

Speaking exclusively to Sportcal earlier this year, Oliver Seibert, director of media and new business at Mediapro, said: “We will create a league channel that in the first instance is direct to consumer, so OTT. We will replicate what we have been doing in other markets. We are open to offering this channel to all different types of media distributors and platforms. It could be Amazon, Facebook or linear channels.

“We are already starting these discussions. For the national team matches and some CPL games, there will be some sub-licensing deals. It won’t be exclusive to one media group.”

Mediapro Canada kept its promise, announcing a free-to-air deal with CBC for Canada's public-service broadcaster to show 20 live CPL matches this season, 10 of which will be televised – the season-opener included - with the other 10 games available via free live streaming coverage.

That willingness to broaden the exposure of the league was key in the original negotiations, according to Scott Mitchell, chief executive of CSB.

He told Sportcal: “The big differentiator with Mediapro was their transparency with us. They need us to help them understand the domestic market. They are a newcomer to Canada, but they are willing to partner with any number of media partners domestically to grow the game. This is not about exclusivity.”

Sponsors have also been quick to support the CPL.

All seven inaugural CPL teams - HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax), Valour FC (Winnipeg), Cavalry FC (Calgary), FC Edmonton and Pacific FC (Vancouver Island) being the others – are wearing Macron kit, after the Italy-based sportswear brand landed a long-term centralised apparel deal in September, mirroring what Major League Soccer has done with Adidas. 

The seven inaugural CPL teams show-off their Macron-manufactured kits



CSB has also brought in Opta, as the official data partner of the league, Nike, as the ball supplier, and Volkswagen as an official partner, as well as shirt sponsor of some of the teams.

Meanwhile, thirsts can be quenched through a deal with CSB Moosehead Breweries, Canada’s oldest independent brewery.

The CPL believes there will eventually be international interest in players coming to the league, but for now the emphasis is on developing domestic talent and providing a career for them in Canada after college.

Indeed, back in 2014 the CSA said: “Our national team coaches do not have the benefit of selecting players who regularly compete in an elite level domestic league. The world’s top national teams draw from their domestic leagues. The development of a home-grown system in which our best players can compete is of paramount importance.”

To that extent, each of the seven founding CPL teams must field a minimum of six Canadian starters per game and more than half of the players in each squad must be Canadian. Three of those must be under the age of 21 and play at least 1,000 combined minutes per season.

If young Canadians are given top-flight opportunities, that will benefit the Canadian men’s side, presently ranked 78th in the world, in itself a significant improvement from the 122nd position they found themselves in back in 2014 when the CSA identified the need for a new professional league.

Can CPL clubs produce top talent like Canadian soccer's current golden boy, Alphonso Davies?

Building the talent pool – currently headlined by 18-year-old Alphonso Davies, who plies his trade with German giants Bayern Munich – should serve Canada well come 2026.

By which time, the CPL hopes to be operating an established, 24-team league.

Sportcal