By Darnel Harris
The Canadian Premier League (CPL) launched this spring with seven teams across Canada, and even more questions. With representation from Halifax to Vancouver Island, Canada finally had its own truly professional men’s soccer league, built for Canadians.
However, given the CPL’s focus on smaller markets and the challenges new sports leagues face, there were legitimate questions about the league’s ongoing viability. On the field, would the quality of play be able to measure up to Canada’s Major League Soccer (MLS) teams? Or would they be fodder instead? Most importantly, would fans and the media buy into this uniquely Canadian adventure?
Having covered the Canadian Premier League from York9 FC’s first wet and wild home game against Hamilton’s Forge FC in late May, the League clearly has a bright future. Fans across the country have eagerly bought into this new League – some telling me they had waited several years to do so. Several even planned trips based on their home team’s schedule. The quality of play on the field surprised many commentators, including me. The addition of the CPL teams to the Canadian Championship elevated the competition to must watch status.
Magical nights under the lights came to towns across Canada, as semi-pro, CPL and MLS teams clashed in close encounters. I was there in a packed York Lions Stadium in July as local fans nearly cheered York9 FC to claim a famous victory against eventual Canadian Championship winner Montreal Impact. I cheered when Calgary defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps, nearly making it to the final round. Clearly, quality was not a concern for the Canadian Premier League.
As the Canadian Premier League Finals begin this weekend with Spring and Fall season winner Calgary taking on Hamilton, focus is turning to improving the League in 2020. Increasing fan bases is key, especially for teams like York and Edmonton, who drew less than three thousand fans per game on average.
After Calgary and Hamilton secured their finals match several weeks before the end of the season, there are also questions about how the League’s format could be changed to hold fan and media interest. While the Canadian Premier League is reluctant to add playoffs, doing so could ease the CPL’s burdens. Reducing the regular schedule from twenty-eight to twenty-four games would allow for a three-team playoff over two weeks at the end of equal length Spring and Fall seasons. Given the heavy travel demands of playing across our vast country, this would reduce costs while ensuring meaningful games.
If the CPL does keep its Spring and Fall seasons, involving supporters and handing out actual hardware should be an uncontroversial change. Given the importance of grassroots fans to the League, three fan-centered trophy celebrations a year is a great selling point for the League.
Like any new project, the Canadian Premier League will grow and change in the years to come. Whatever happens though, it will be in response to the needs of Canadians – a fact worth proudly standing on guard for.