TORONTO – It suddenly turned very real for the Canadian Premier League this week.
The new professional soccer league officially kicks off on April 27 when Forge FC host York 9 FC at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field in the league’s inaugural match, marking the beginning of a new era for the sport in this country.
Sanctioned as Canada’s first division, the CPL features seven teams from coast to coast, boasts high-profile owners such as Canadian businessman Bob Young (who also owns the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats), and is designed to develop Canadian players and give them a chance they otherwise might not receive.
The slow and deliberate drip of news releases from the CPL since the start of 2019 has included announcements about title sponsors, broadcast partnerships, player signings and match schedule details.
This week, though, marked a turning point for the CPL with the unveiling of the home and away kits (soccer parlance for uniforms) during a gala event held in Toronto’s Moss Park neighbourhood.
A cross between a fashion show, an art gallery opening and a nightclub rave, Thursday’s event featured players from every CPL team treading down the catwalk as they showed off their uniforms before a crowd of invited guests and dignitaries, while DJs mixed music that blared over the sound system.
On the mezzanine of the majestic venue, an old converted church featuring 19th-century stained glass windows that extend from the original hardwood floors to the 60-feet cathedral ceilings, were mannequins with all of the kits on display, giving fans in attendance a chance to see them up close.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I find events like these to be superfluous and little more than “dog and pony” shows. Thursday’s outing by the CPL was no exception. While a stunning spectacle given the gorgeous hall that staged it, the CPL event tried too hard to come across as some sort of Milan Fashion Week replica, and fell well short of achieving “couture cool” within the Canadian sports landscape.
That being said, and it can’t be stressed enough, this was an important milestone for soccer in Canada. The unveiling of all seven team uniforms drove home the point that the CPL, lest there be any lingering doubts, is very real and coming soon to a stadium near you.
It’s one thing to announce commercial partnerships, unveil team logos and release a schedule. Those are all necessary parts of the process of launching a new pro sports league. The problem is that fans can’t physically touch any those things. In many ways, they are simply abstract ideas – they don’t exist in any real sense.
A uniform is much different. You can hold it, touch it. It’s real.
A uniform is a club’s ultimate symbol, the one thing by which every team can be instantly identified.
Real Madrid have forever been known as los blancos due to their legendary, all-white kits. Celtic is just as famous for its green and white hooped jerseys as they are for winning Scottish league titles. Casual sports fans who don’t know much about soccer know, at the very least, that the Italian national team is known as the Azzurri based on their understated blue jerseys.
Tommy Wheeldon Jr., coach of the CPL’s Cavalry FC, believes soccer fans in Calgary will be impressed with the club’s sharp, slash red jersey that is reminiscent of Peru’s national team kit.
“This gives our fans something to identify with, something they can wear and let them feel they are a part of the club,” Wheeldon told Sportsnet after the fashion show portion of Thursday’s event.
A uniform is also the main thread of fabric – both in literal and symbolic terms – of the club’s culture, the one thing that binds supporter and team closer together than anything else.
It provides supporters with a platform to announce themselves, and offers others a window into who they are as a person. By wearing a Liverpool jersey, fans are letting the rest of the world that they are “a Red.”
CPL fans didn’t have that opportunity before Thursday. Now they do with the launch of the league just over three weeks away.
Scott Mitchell, a high-ranking CPL official and one of the founding fathers of the league, fully understood the magnitude of the jersey ceremony.
“This brings it all home. This was one of the last steps to take, so it’s a sign that the league is coming your way. This is very real now,” Mitchell told Sportsnet.