Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Déjà vue all over again on the CSA's ongoing national league fantasy

In the late 1990s, with the emergence of MLS south of the border and given the widespread belief at the time that it would not expand its operations into Canada, the CSA commissioned KPMG to carry out a study on how Canada could start its own national league. The conclusions of KPMG's report outlined why the conditions were not in place for a national league to work financially and recommended against pursuing one. The CSA chose to ignore this advice and what followed was a prolonged saga referred to as the Canadian United Soccer League, a plan for an eight team single entity league, which ultimately had to be discarded when sponsors and broadcasters failed to show the required level of interest and the owners of the existing USL franchises made it clear that they were not interested in participating.

With yesterday's announcement of a one year moratorium on the sanctioning of new Canadian based D2 and PDL franchises and the setting up of an ad hoc committee to study the formation of a separate Canadian D2 level pro league, it's very much a case of what Yogi Berra once described as "déjà  vue all over again". Have the people in charge at the CSA really learned nothing from what happened a decade ago with the CUSL blueprint or with earlier failed attempts at national leagues like the original coast to coast Canadian Soccer League of the late 80s and early 90s and the even shorter-lived Canadian Professional Soccer League of the mid-80s? The latest fantasy scenario appears to revolve around combining reserve teams of the three MLS franchises with the would be NASL investors from Edmonton, Hamilton and Ottawa, and finding two additional teams to put together a league of eight, despite the fact that all of these groups, when interviewed on the subject, consistently express a strong preference for participation in USSF sanctioned leagues. Two key questions come to mind:

Who would actually pay to watch reserve teams play? Crowds for TFC's MLS reserve team games and for those of TFC Academy in the CSL have typically been in the dozens rather than the hundreds or the thousands even with the TFC name attached to it. This isn't unusual. Soccer fans around the world are usually only interested in watching their club's first team play. In many ways it is the presence of MLS teams in the three major metropolitan area that should have placed the final nail in the coffin of talk of a national league. If sponsors and broadcasters were reluctant to get involved with a D1 Canadian league a decade ago, why are they suddenly going to be interested in a second tier league containing three MLS reserve teams? If there is no advantage to be gained from having a separate standalone Canadian structure from a media or sponsorship standpoint why fence things in at the border given all the failures with national leagues in the past? 

Where are the other five teams going to come from? It's all very well talking about interest in Edmonton, Hamilton and Ottawa but what people seem to lose sight of is that it is interest in the NASL that is being expressed, which wouldn't necessarily translate into interest in investing in a Canadian league if the people risking a sizable portion of their personal net worth see it as an unattractive investment. USL pro level teams are reputed to have had a 75% failure rate over the last 15 years or so. What makes the CSA think that it would be any different in a Canadian context, especially when two of these failures have been in Edmonton and Calgary? D2 level minor league soccer can find a way to survive in a North American context because of the large number of metropolitan areas that are available in the United States with populations of over 1 million people. This makes it possible to put the numbers together for a viable league even with a success rate of only 25%. In a Canadian context, with the three largest markets already taken by MLS and media markets of over 1 million people few and far between failure in even just a couple of the larger cities could spell doom for the entire project. Hence the reluctance of investors to get involved with a Canadian national league concept rather than the NASL's continental approach. Even if they do a good job in their own city it could all ultimately be for nothing if the deck of cards caves in because of problems elsewhere.

This one year moratorium is a prime example of the pitfalls of having our national association run by the empire building and perk seeking amateurs from the provincial associations. It appears to be a very sly attempt to scuttle the NASL's D2 level sanctioning bid because the Minnesota franchise is rumoured to be funded by an Ottawa group who plan to fill the void left in a Canadian context by the departing Impact in 2012. If as seems likely that group now reconsiders their involvement, the NASL bid will fall short of the USSF's requirements because only seven teams will be left with all four of the remaining American teams based in a single timezone. In other words, we now have the bizarre spectacle of having a national association that appears to be intent on sabotaging rather than assisting the growth of pro soccer in Canada based on multimillion investments by would be private investors. A scale of investment, which the CSA would clearly not be able to make to get its own plans off the ground.

The reform that badly needs to take place is for the CSA to be controlled primarily by the full-time professional clubs and to be staffed by professional people with a background in sports administration at that sort of level. In other countries, somebody like Paul Beirne, the business manager of TFC, would be a prime candidate to eventually head up the national association, rather than people like Jim Fleming, Colin Linford and Dominic Maestracci. As things stand at the moment, however, there is zero chance of that ever happening.

Nov 21st Edit: perhaps worth pointing out that Brian Quarsted of Inside Minnesota Soccer posted a blog entry questioning Ben Rycroft's claim about the Ottawa group funding the NSC Minnesota Stars for the 2011 season.


  1. Absolutely not on "be controlled primarily by the full-time professional clubs" as the members of the NSO where the majority of the fees come from are amateurs.

    CSA as any National Sports Organization (NSO) can not be "be controlled primarily by the full-time professional clubs" as NSO are for amateur sports. The reason behind that is NSO's are from the pre-pro Olympics. Also in Canada NSO's receive and their players (via AAP) millions each year in taxpayers from Sports Canada.

    The big issue with the CSA is the PSO's being on the board versus business people who know how to connect sponsorship money into the NSO. More importantly how to provide governance to a professional staff who have sports admin backgrounds.