Guest Post: Canadian Premier League Will Help Build Small City Identity

Soccer first caught my attention during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Ultimately though, it was learning about the way in which the sport operates in European countries that caused me to begin to dream of a similar system here. With the announcement of the Canadian Premier League last year, I was finally seeing my dream become a reality.

The European Soccer System

Major North American Sports Leagues (NBA, NHL, NFL, etc.) utilize a franchise model. Essentially, to start a team in a major league, someone needs to pay a significant amount of cash (usually in the hundreds of millions of dollars) to purchase rights to operate. The team can be bought or sold by another owner or ownership group (as long as there is league permission), it can be moved if the city proves to be an unprofitable location, or it can function and thrive and grow.

HFX Wanderers FC was officially unveiled on May 25, 2018, as the third team to join the Canadian Premier League.

Alternatively, as an example, consider the English Soccer system. It is much more open, allowing for small communities to hope and dream that their team may someday make it to the top. Franchise fees aren’t really a thing, since any village, town, or region can start a soccer team. Teams rise or fall based on their performance – and while it would take at minimum the better part of two decades for a club to rise from the lowest levels to the top tier (the English Premier League), it is theoretically possible. As teams grow, they are able to attract more money for their games. They are able to invest in new infrastructure, they are able to open academies and training facilities for youth, and they are able to integrate more and more into their communities. Within the English Soccer system there are approximately 140 leagues, 480 divisions, and somewhere in the realm of 7000 clubs.

Obviously the popularity of soccer makes this sort of league structure possible at such a massive scale. That said, the framework could be replicated to a much lesser extent here in Canada. The lack of significant franchise fees, as well as no need to immediately buy-in to the top tier, allows smaller regions to develop slowly. Performing in the top tier is based on merit as opposed to purchasing power, and teams that can’t afford to invest heavily in importing players can instead look to develop local talent. For young kids, seeing a route to a professional league in their hometown could be a significant community benefit, one that really doesn’t exist in most places in Canada.

The Value of Sports Teams

As another point, to begin to understand my position on the Canadian Premier League, you must also be of the mind that professional sports teams are of value to cities and regions. Undoubtedly, sports teams play a role in municipal tourism. Sports teams will obviously attract travelling fans, while also providing an exciting experience for tourists looking for things to do.

Sports are good for more than just tourism though – in many cases, a franchise can revitalize a neighbourhood or an entire city. Consider this article about the impact of sports on Indianapolis, and how a concentrated effort to attract sports teams was literally part of the city’s plan for resurrection.

Tim Hortons Field will be the home to the future Hamilton Canadian Premier League team.

Stadiums themselves have received mixed-reviews regarding their impacts on neighbourhoods. There is certainly increase in neighbourhood attention on gameday – restaurants and pubs around stadiums (specifically soccer stadiums) see a lot more foot-traffic. Soccer teams in particular tend to have “Supporter’s Groups” comprised of numerous fans who meet before games to drink and ultimately march to a match. It’s the soccer equivalent of a tailgate, and most supporters groups have pubs and restaurants of choice. Negatives regarding stadiums have historically been tied to public rowdiness, as well as a tendency for the neighbourhood to clear out when no games are occurring. Opinions vary – although in the UK, where soccer is huge, there has recently been evidence that buyers want to live near the team they support. This makes sense, given the rising tendency of first-time buyers to look for neighbourhoods with amenities.

Perhaps for me though, the biggest benefit that a sports franchise would have on Canadian cities would be attention from Canadians in other cities. Coast to coast, Canadians are familiar with major cities like Toronto or Vancouver. We see their skylines flash across the screen during Hockey Night in Canada. The amount of time since the Leafs won the Stanley Cup is a national punchline. Everyone knows Habs fans are annoying on Facebook. Sports integrate into the national narrative, and into municipal identity. Meanwhile, as an east coaster, I know very little about Oshawa, Ontario – my country’s 14th largest city. Columbus, Ohio though? Oh yeah. AMERICA’S 14th largest city is fighting to keep their MLS franchise, and it has caused me to build a lot of respect for natives of that city. I spent some time reading up on Columbus’ Brewery District when I drew the Blue Jackets in a hockey pool a few years ago. I know they are considered one of the best city’s in the Midwest. I am notably more familiar with Columbus, Ohio, than I am Oshawa, Ontario.

That’s something that sports do. They familiarize viewers with other places. What do we think would be more familiar to Canadians? Seattle’s skyline, or Regina’s? Both are their country’s 19th largest city. Do we think Canadians at large know more about the culture and climate in San Jose, or in Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge? One is America’s 10th largest area, the other is Canada’s. One also has a strong Major League presence, the other does not.

Canadian Future

Knowing I am someone who is fascinated by building communities and investing in “place”, I’m sure it makes sense that I favour the English soccer system over the traditional North American franchise system. When an owner needs to spend millions of dollars before a team kicks off, there needs to be minimal financial risk to justify the investment. Additionally, the leagues have significant say over which cities or regions they are even willing to consider allowing a franchise to exist in, since each new investment needs to be one that can be justified as bettering the group of teams as a whole. It isn’t surprising then, that in the American-centred sports leagues that Canada participates in, there are very few Canadian cities that get to enjoy professional sports. The NHL, and hockey in general, is where Canada is most represented, and we get a total of seven franchises across our country. Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver are our cities that are represented by five Major Leagues (NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, and MLS).

Towns like Burnley and Huddersfield have participated in the English Premier League as recently as this past year.

Canada has 30 cities with over 100,000 people. 60 with over 50,000. Obviously many of these cities could not support the attendance and attention requirements to survive in a league the size of the NHL. Canadian Premier League, however, is intended to be uniquely Canadian. The scale and infrastructure requirements for the CPL will not be anywhere near as strict. Keep in mind how the English system works, as well. There is no reason a small region can’t rally behind a team, content to exist in the 3rd or 4th tier, with the idea of the top tier a distant but not impossible prospect. Towns like Burnley and Huddersfield have participated in the English Premier League as recently as this past year – these teams are hosted in towns with fewer than 80,000 people.

I’d love to see the creation of a league that is intentionally looking to spread into rural areas and smaller cities, and it seems that is what Canada is going to get with the Canadian Premier League. Developing a league with the intent of generating interest and presence in smaller markets may be what many small Canadian cities need to establish a more significant national presence. I for one am excited to follow a league that could give me reason to learn about places like Milton, Ontario and Lethbridge, Alberta.

Brandon Copeland is an entrepreneur, real estate investor, and urban planning enthusiast. Brandon is the director and principal consultant at Urban East, focusing on helping entrepreneurs and small business owners understand real estate and urban issues that impact their business plans and balance sheets. 

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