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Canadian Premier League faces challenge to shine in MLS' shadow

Sunday 4th June 2017
Establishing a Canadian Premier League is an ambitious piece of nationalism from the Great White North. Unfortunately, sporting history on both sides of the Atlantic suggests it might be a dangerous exercise in vanity.

Canada forcibly affirmed its independence from the United States in the War of 1812. It has continued to do so since, albeit in an exceedingly more polite manner. Over the last seven or eight centuries, most recently with Brexit, Scotland has occasionally considered it prospects for seceding from the United Kingdom, thereby throwing off England's yoke. To this point, though, such thoughts have not been turned into firm action.

Still, in other ways, Canada is to the US what Scotland is to England. The weather is harsher. Both populaces are outnumbered roughly ten to one. Canucks and Scots handle their liquor better. Then there are their respective football competitions. The Canadian Football League and Scottish Premier League once rivaled the National Football League and English Premier League. However, decades-long corporate investment has turned the NFL and EPL into juggernauts now making billions annually whereas the CFL and SPL have faded badly. The two northern competitions barely remain solvent as feeder leagues for their larger southern neighbours.

Ignoring that history, Canada Soccer has announced plans for a Canadian Premier League. For this endeavour to succeed, the new competition must compete with the already entrenched Major League Soccer.
Compare MLS to North America's other major competitions. NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, even NHL franchises are beginning to be sold for more than a billion dollars. Excepting the NHL, each competition can boast a ridiculously lucrative broadcasting deal MLS cannot. It's franchises are far less valuable, too. In that light, MLS can only be considered a minnow swimming in a shark tank.

Mind you, Major League Soccer does have a broadcasting package.  It's just not ridiculous. As well, its expansion franchises are currently selling for $150 million. Interested cities are clambering over one another to pony up. There are currently 22 Major League Soccer clubs, with plans for at least 28. MLS also has three teams, Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps, and 2017's runaway side to date, Toronto FC, all thriving in Canadian cities. The Canadian Premier League, unveiled in May, has only two confirmed cities, Hamilton and Winnipeg, although the CSA has said at least ten others have expressed interest in joining. If MLS is a minnow, then, as it currently stands, the new CPL is plankton.

Coincidentally, the Scottish Premier League features twelve clubs. Of course, its dozen clubs will never be spread across five time zones. As with the nine-team Canadian Football League, logistics will be an issue for the fledgling CPL. Travel costs will be a burden for a competition operating on a minimal budget.

On the other hand, travel costs could very well bring at least one existing club into the league. After failing to establish itself as a rival to MLS, the North American Soccer League underwent a drastic contraction which sees it playing in 2017 with just eight clubs. The NASL's only remaining Canadian side, Edmonton Drillers, are racking up frequent flyer miles like my cousin racks up points on Candy Crush Saga. Their travels even take them off the continent to Puerto Rico. It's very possible the Drillers board may view the CPL as a more viable, cost-effective competition.
Ottawa Fury, a former NASL club, now compete in the United Soccer League, which has fared much better. The USL has established a strong partnership with MLS. USL clubs are either MLS B sides outright, or are affiliated to some degree with a Major League Soccer club. Ottawa's affiliation is with Montreal Impact. Given that relationship includes financial support, Ottawa may be reluctant to join the CPL without Montreal's blessing.

In great part, the CPL was created to further Canadian footballing interests, with MLS seen as being more aligned with the USSF. Despite both Montreal and Ottawa being Canadian cities, economics may trump patriotism when it comes to the new league gaining a club in the nation's capital. While the Impact might be sympathetic to the CPL's situation, it will likely feel pressure from other MLS clubs not to break ranks.

The CPL's two founding clubs, Hamilton and Winnipeg, are each backed by their respective city's CFL franchises. As this bridge between two football forms provides both Tiger Cats and Blue Bombers with new tenants for their stadiums, it's possible the other seven Canadian Football League clubs will also invest in the Canadian Premier League.

While such a development would provide the CPL with a decent foundation and ready-made grounds, it raises an unpleasant aesthetic. CFL seasons extend into November, when Canadian weather can bring heavy snowfalls and hard, frozen ground. Cleats tear up natural turf under those conditions. The frost makes it difficult for grass to recover. Among CFL clubs, only Toronto Argonauts play on natural grass, given they now share MLS side Toronto FC's BMO Field. Every other CFL stadium features artificial turf. Even at BMO Field, the Argo's end zones, which extend beyond the dimensions for an MLS pitch, are synthetic. If the CPL forges a partnership with the CFL rather than MLS, most clubs will play on artificial surfaces. Because man-made turf tends to be less forgiving, injuries will be more prevalent. Supporters, being purist in nature, may question the CPL product's authenticity, as well.

While the CPL wishes to forge its own, distinctly Canadian path, it might wish to consider emulating MLS' emphasis on "soccer-specific" stadia featuring natural grass. It may also consider lobbying MLS owners to form affiliations with CPL sides, or failing that, to agree not to impede CPL development in the name of economic competition. More options for football, in both the US and Canada, can only be good for the game. Let the competition remain between the lines.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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