Canadian Premier League faces uphill battle for relevancy and respect

James Sharman and Craig Forrest discuss the launch of the Canadian Premier League.

Jim Brennan has heard it all before, and he’s tired of listening to the negativity about Canadian soccer.

The former Canadian international defender, who spent the bulk of his playing days abroad in England before finishing his career in MLS with Toronto FC, has seen various Canadian leagues and teams fold for a variety of reasons over the years.

Canada hasn’t had a domestic league to call its own since the Canadian Soccer League folded in 1992 – until now. Saturday marks a new era for soccer in Canada when the Canadian Premier League kicks off its inaugural season with a matinee match between Forge FC and York 9 FC and Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.

These are exciting times for Brennan, who is the coach of York 9 FC, one of seven sides in the upstart CPL. Only a few short years ago, Brennan could not have dreamed of taking charge of a club competing in an all-Canadian league, with teams from coast to coast. Today, that dream is a reality.

It’s a time for great optimism, but a healthy dose of skepticism isn’t entirely out of order when you consider pro soccer’s past failures in this country. Though, it should be said, the CPL is on far firmer financial ground (with high-profile owners such as Bob Young on board, a 10-year broadcast deal in place, and a notable sponsor in Volkswagen) than previous Canadian leagues that floundered.

Still, it’s only natural that questions be asked about the long-term viability of the CPL. Brennan doesn’t see it that way, though.

“I’m not interested in the doubters and people who are saying this isn’t going to work. I want people to support this league, and support the players, and support everybody involved because they can see the long-term vision and what everybody is collectively trying to do, which is to build this game in this country and create opportunities for Canadian players and coaches. That’s who I’m interested in, not the doubting critics,” Brennan told Sportsnet.

Setting aside Brennan’s passionate belief that the CPL will succeed, there’s no denying the league faces some uphill battles in the months and years ahead. Foremost among those fights will be the one to gain relevancy and respect within the larger sporting landscape, and gain a strong foothold in Canada, like other sports already enjoy.

The Canadian sports market is incredibly crowded, what with the presence of the NHL, CFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. Major League Soccer has been in Canada since 2007 and boasts three teams, but even today, coverage of MLS is confined to the back pages of the sports section of the daily newspapers (if it appears in the newspaper at all), and garners little mention on nightly network TV shows, or on the vast number of all-sports radio stations across the nation. The daily exploits of the country’s seven NHL teams, the Raptors and Blue Jays (and to a lesser extent the CFL) dominate the media coverage.

All of this raises the obvious point: If MLS has had such a hard time breaking through into the mainstream, what chance does the CPL have? It’s a question with which commissioner David Clanachan has wrestled.

“You know what keeps me awake at night? It’s that: How do we cut through all the chatter about other sports leagues? I believe soccer is at a point in Canada where fans, the people who consume the media are going to demand more and more of it. It always comes back to who is the customer, and I think that’s going to help us,” Clanachan told Sportsnet.

Another battle the CPL faces is how it will emerge from the shadows of MLS. The CPL was born out of a need to develop Canadian players, many of whom wouldn’t have the same opportunities in MLS. But while the CPL has the most noble of causes, comparisons with MLS, whether fair or not, are inevitable. You have to think the CPL will lose those comparisons in terms of the standard of play, at least at first.

Although billed as Canada’s topflight, the CPL is essentially a tier below MLS and will largely feature youngsters who couldn’t make it in MLS, Canadian veterans in the twilight of their careers, and journeymen international players.

This raises another series of pertinent questions: Will hardcore MLS fans support a league that doesn’t feature high-priced Designated Players and international fans?

Will Canadian soccer fans, who have regular access to weekly matches from Europe’s top leagues and the UEFA Champions League, invest their time and money in a new league that largely features players they don’t know?

How will the CPL expand its fanbase beyond soccer diehards? Will selling itself as “a league for Canadians by Canadians” be enough for the CPL to pull in casual soccer fans when the level of play is not of the highest standard?

Clanachan believes so, stating, “Canadians are patient and understand it’s going to take time for the CPL to grow to a certain level, but as long as they see progress, that’s what they want.”

Not to belabour the point too much, and with all due respect to Clanachan’s optimism, it remains to be seen.

This isn’t to suggest the CPL is doomed to fail. On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe it will succeed. At the moment, there is great pride and hope within the Canadian soccer community, and that’s only fitting. It’s taken years to get to this point, and the launch of the CPL is a major achievement. Saturday will be a landmark day for soccer in this country, one that should be celebrated and heartily enjoyed.

But once the euphoria of the opening weekend wears off, the real work begins for the Canadian Premier League. The battle for relevancy and respect will be a long, hard slog.

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