The Women’s Game is Growing: Can Canada Keep Up? (A Deeper Dive)

I was bleary-eyed when Julia Grosso struck that golden kick. The Minister of Defence, Stephanie Labbe had kept a couple Swedish strikes out of the net and Canada were Olympic Champions for the first time ever. They planned to change the colour of the medal – two consecutive Olympic bronzes – and they did. It seemed like the CanXNT/WNT was riding the crest of women’s international footy.

Jump ahead a few months, and the landscape is changing. It is changing quickly. It is exploding.

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The Euros just took place this summer, and it was something else. Over 87,000 fans snuggled into Wembley Stadium to watch England’s women bring it home. It was more than double the old record before the tourney in England took place. Over 500,000 spectators watched games live at stadia across England. The average crowd was 18,000 per game. Surely there is no turning back now.

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As incredible as that is we only have to look to Canada’s first World Cup hosting gig for comparison. Over 1, 000,000 attended the World Cup in Canada, an average of 26,000 per game. So clearly, Canada is in the mix. The women’s game is growing and Canada has the medals, attendance and hype to show for it.

BC Place Stadium in Vancouver during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (BC Place Stadium)

So that’s it right? Canada is a unquestionably a women’s soccer nation. Except if they are, where is their professional soccer league?

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Ok, so we are newer on the scene than some other soccer nations right? So give us some time. But that’s the problem. If Canada is to be a top soccer nation for women they need a pro league now. Is that asking to much? I don’t think so. In fact, I think Canada has dreamed too small for too long in all things soccer.

Now while incredibly optimistic, I am not incredibly naive. There are several reasons we have to do this now. And I believe there are multiple pathways to get there. Let’s break it all down.

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Why does Canada need professional women’s soccer now? Most importantly they need it now, because they are already way behind. Brazil has had a women’s soccer league since the 1970s. The United States has the NWSL which currently has two things Canadian players dream of: a CBA and a minimum $35,000 USD salary. Mexico has a pro women’s league, and Carmelina Moscato made history by being named Tigres Femenil coach this year. You read that right, we have a Canadian woman coaching pro women’s footy…in Mexico. We have players in the well-established Swedish pro league that has seen players like Marta make their names there. And I haven’t even mentioned Europe’s biggest leagues – France, England, Germany, Spain and Italy. All of these countries have teams fighting over the Champions League title and they feature Canadian stars. Scotland has three fully professional women’s soccer teams, and one – Celtic, features a Canadian star (Clarissa Larisey). All with a population of 5 million. Australia, the Netherlands and Japan also have professional women’s leagues.

Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan of Olympique Lyonnais celebrates with the Canadian flag after her team’s 3-1 victory over FC Barcelona in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final on Saturday at Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy. (Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

If anything seems familiar about these nations it is that they are almost always at the World Cup. Pro soccer matters for women’s development. And yes, we have had brushes with women’s pro soccer. Remember when the CWNT tried to force everyone onto one pro-ish team in Vancouver. No? Oh wait, yeah we are all still trying to pretend all that didn’t happen (Kudos to the VWFC Supporters Groups who walked out). And we need a professional league.

Canada soccer legend Christine Sinclair in action for Vancouver Whitecaps woman’s team (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Why are they able to succeed where we fail? In some countries women’s teams are connected to established men’s teams helping with marketing, familiarity and, of course, money. That is a big advantage. I mean, Barcelona is instantly recognizable. Teams in Portugal with names like Sporting CP and Benfica (home to Canada’s Cloe Lacasse) are also great drawing cards. With Canada only having three MLS teams with large name recognition and eight newer teams in the CPL just starting out, we don’t yet have that massive market appeal.

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Also soccer is “a way of life” in most of these countries. Something more akin to hockey here. So, getting fans to buy-in to the women’s game won’t be the same here as in countries where cities shutdown on gameday.

And speaking of Canadian professional soccer, it may not even be lucrative enough for the men to succeed, so how can we start a women’s league?

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Okay, so you get it. We have some things stacked against us here. So you may rightfully be asking, wasn’t this supposed to be a piece about growing the women’s pro game in Canada? Yes, it is. And yes it will be hard. But it is possible if Canada finally starts acting its place.

S. 1 Ep. 22 – We All Love a Canada Game, My God CPL, and Seriously, Where Is Our Womens League?! FC13 Podcast

It's that time, as the McCrew really start getting into World Cup mode. Come listen as we relish in our win over Qatar, gander at us rejoicing when the CPL creates the perfect ending for a neutral, and follow along as we rant over not having a gosh darn women's league! So buckle up and join us for all you need to know about Canadian soccer. – Be sure to follow us on Twitter @FC13Podcast, and our parent account, @13thManSports for all of your soccer needs! – FC13 Podcast is sponsored by Bet99, enter code 13thManSports1 to get started for all your CPL betting needs. (Never bet what you can't afford to lose)

Canada could latch onto the MLS teams and their existing wealth and footprint. In the case of TFC and their ownership MLSE, those pockets are deep. It wouldn’t take much to splash the cash on a women’s side and then throw it into the NWSL in the US and ride their success like TFC did with the MLS. (And they might even televise it because it would be owned by one of the media juggernauts – Sporstnet/TSN. Sorry my CPL blackout-anger bubbled up a little there). A couple north of the border squads could help the Canadian game grow. But it is limiting. One Canadian team means 20-ish pro soccer jobs. One head coaching position. One Canadian training staff, etc. And if the early NWSL responses are to be believed, this isn’t a quick fix for the next expansion round. They have admitted cross-border issues are beyond their planning and capabilities right now with the different travel, taxes and laws involved.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 29: Canada’s Vanessa Gilles #4 of Angel City FC celebrates scoring a goal in the first half against the North Carolina Courage at Banc of California Stadium on April 29, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty 

Not to worry, the CPL has a pathway. Original commissioner David Clanachan was not shy about talking about, possibly thinking about, one day discussing – a women’s league. But you know, baby steps. Well his replacement Mark Noonan has made no secret of the fact that he sees value in women’s pro soccer, and cited the big crowds in England at the Euros and the fact that NWSL team in Kansas City is building a soccer specific stadium downtown for the women. He also mentioned the record crowd expected in San Diego when the Wave play Angel FC in front of 32,000 expected fans later this month. Noonan has stated that he sees women’s soccer as a business opportunity, even if that is still down the road. That is a refreshing change from the usual idea of women’s teams as a drag on the existing men’s teams.

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And another positive is the success of League 1 Canada women’s footy. While not quite pro yet, it could be an ideal jumping off point for some early squads in a Women’s CPL. And since the CPL/CSB already own that league, it is already starting in a way. This would be better, because unlike a single expansion team in an American league, a Canadian League would immediately create more Canadian jobs. Even a six-team start would mean six head coaching vacancies, over 100 pro player positions, and so much more. But how excited would young up-and-coming Canadian pros be to join a league with no players association or CBA, in the midst of a dispute with their CanXNT legends over national team player rights and fees, when right across the border is a league with a CBA and higher minimum pay than the CPL currently pays its men?

I know – ugh Kevin, “you are killing me. Isn’t there anything Canada can do now, that will work right away? We are falling behind the world, remember?” Yes I remember. And I think there is a solution. It’s none of the above. Its the road less travelled. It is so outside the box I don’t know what it is…yet.

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Canada has so much going for it. We have a successful Women’s World Cup under our belt. We have a G-8 economy that is top ten in the world. We have billionaire investors who are women and may want to leave a legacy, from the Seagrams to the Saputos to the Westons. We have successful Canadian pro women coaches, board members, executives and physios. We have a former CanWNT player, Olympic medalist and soon to be Executive MBA graduate from the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University ready to gather the momentum towards a Canadian women’s league. Her name is Diana Matheson.

Canada midfielder Brittany Timko tackles midfieleder Diana Matheson in celebration after Matheson scored the bronze medal-winning goal against France at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

We have sponsors looking to get into the sport now as it continues its growth ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup and a Men’s World Cup home tournament in 2026. We have smaller kit manufacturers looking to get a foot in the door who will enhance marketing with more than lazy templates. And weirdly, we have an example of how international investment can work right here at home. A Chelsea/Arsenal/West Ham satellite team in London, ON? PSG in Paris, ON? Think bigger. How about Saskatchewan Monchengladbach? Yes! The point is, Europe already sees as as a feeder for big time talent. Why not go the Atletico Ottawa route?

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So what could this outside the box league be? Well anything. What about a short season, 12 games book-ended by two single-site tournaments, one east – one west? It would help save on travel. Or how about initially playing in provincial/regional divisions and saving national travel until the playoffs? Like the old AL/NL in MLB? Maybe even a Canadian Championship Tournament. Why limit the new look league to what they are doing in Europe or USA already?

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Sure I am an optimist, but I know what the usual stumbling blocks are. Who will invest? Where will we find more fans when we are already struggling to fill CPL seats in some markets? How far back will women’s soccer fall if/when this fails? Shoot, I don’t know but I’ve tried to answer some of these big questions. And some very smart women will have better answers to these questions and others. But the big issue I will address is the “what if it fails?”

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So what if it does? By my count at least three Canadian (or semi-Canadian) men’s pro leagues have failed here in the past (NASL – two versions, USL at least for Ottawa, and the CSL). Yet the men’s pro system in Canada has never looked more robust. Three MLS sides making their mark, the CPL along with the CSB growing year-on-year during a pandemic. So why worry about the first attempt failing for the women? Surely it has a better chance of flourishing on the heels of a Canadian World Cup that was amazing, and a Golden Olympic Generation, both within the last decade – than fruitlessly debating when would be better – while the soccer world passes us by.

If not now, when?

Jump on this bandwagon. It will be a bumpy ride. But it will be fun.


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