I don’t claim to be an expert on building a fan base for a fledgling pro soccer side, but I can see some decent pathways.
Try building a community around a local soccer-specific stadium (Halifax can show you how). How about a winning team with a professional culture? Bobby Smyrniotis has built a fan base in Hamilton that shows up in numbers, despite being outside the GTA. This includes some of the most iconic games played in CPL team history; the first-ever game (York was there, remember), CONCACAF, the delayed 2020 CanChamp, Champions League, home finals and even road finals.
You could win something – Pacific has done it once – and as a result, have had some nice crowds to follow. They have also done things outside the league in CanChamp and CONCACAF. Having a team-defining victory over VWFC helped.
You could play somewhere nice. For all the complaints about the oversized stadiums in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Hamilton, there is something to be said about having multiple food options, many washrooms, and short lines for both. Plus, even entering these stadiums feels professional. The crowds may seem small to the naked eye in these behemoths, but the game day experience for fans is big league.
You could have grass. Sitting down to watch a game in Calgary or Halifax is transcendent. There is something indescribable for footy fans to look out over a pitch and see real, green grass. The atmosphere changes. It just feels… better.
You could have a rival. This isn’t always easy. Some rivalries grow from proximity, others from what happens on the pitch. Still, others are created by big games, like playoff matchups, CanChamp knockouts or, even better, CanPL Finals.
S. 2 Ep. 17 – Can Canada Hold Herdman – FC13 Podcast
Maybe having a degree of continuity. Watching Forge hand out 100th-game jerseys with regularity gives fans something to celebrate. A shared feeling of home. Cavalry releasing their “Retain the Core” hype speaks to this too. Teams are creating their origin stories in these early years.
World on build a sturdy sense of who you are. Forge is a ball-dominating, build-up squad that loves to score. Atlético Ottawa is a defend first, take your chances side. HFX is a hope-for-a-dead-ball-opportunity team whose fans are often too busy having fun to notice. Valour, for better or worse, is the beige of the CPL, their fans know they are kind of meh, but they are our meh! Even Cavalry has an identity too. Kicking, diving, playoff failing cheats. And they own it.
Why do I bring all this up (besides gloating about my beloved Forge and kicking the Cavs while they’re down)? Because somehow, against all odds, York has managed to miss out on all of this.
Rather than find a home of their own, they became an afterthought on a university campus, that they now even share with the city’s real footy team – though it’s their young guns. But at least it is in a wonderful location.
Winning as team-building is out the window. In four seasons, there has only been one playoff appearance, and that was only an uninspiring drubbing at the hands of their local “rival”.
Speaking of rivalries, they seemed to have the opportunity to grow one with Forge, (first-ever match, proximity, playoff matchup, etc.) or Atletico (fan banter, close games, the battle for second best in the province, etc.). But unfortunately, those two teams rose to a higher level of football without them, and now Ontario’s prime rivalry doesn’t involve York.
Playing somewhere nice might be on the horizon, but for their first half-decade, they are mired in the least inspiring home patch in the league. They could have at least had grass, sigh. Oh wait, it was grass in that first season, but was ‘upgraded’ to turf, double sigh.
At least as a relatively new facility, it has abundant food options and other facilities. Let’s just say it’s lucky they never fill that place.
I guess that just leaves continuity. And this is actually where York’s biggest failure becomes evident. That’s because, not only are they terrible at continuity, it is by design.
York United isn’t even their real name. They changed it possibly to evade capture for the criminal way they run a soccer team. They were actually originally known as York9. Was that a dumb name? Sure probably. But it was theirs. And they owned it. Think of those Nine Stripes. But they blew up that continuity when it became evident that nine communities of the York Region would likely not coalesce over a team (kind of) in Toronto. So York United was born. And the City of Toronto, nee York, came to love them wholeheartedly because they were now Canada’s biggest city’s preeminent professional footy team. Wait, Toronto already has a team? Dang it!
But at least they kept it simple for the kiddies. While Forge has a loveable dragon, HFX a faithful dog, Cavalry a fiery-Red apocalyptic horse, PFC a comforting McGrimace throwback of a starfish, and Valour a (you guessed it) beige King of the Beasts, what did York go with? A time-travelling cyborg, that they murdered. Of course in a move that furthers their misunderstanding of continuity, they brought him back for an interview, which unsealed the portal to alternate universes unleashing a depressed Forge Yorky.
All of this leads me to my biggest gripe with the York brain trust: player movement. No one has bought into the “this is a seller’s/development league” more than York, and while it is to a large degree, that is not all it is. This is Division 1 Canadian Soccer, top of our pyramid. It is a little disrespectful that they don’t treat it as such.
For example, look at PFC. They have sold players on, but they held on until the team created greater value. After winning a Championship, two of their all-time defenders moved up to TFC for some value, and their all-time best offensive performer was sold on (at an inopportune time) for real bucks. It was the second all-time biggest CPL transfer. That brings us to the biggest, Forge’s Borges. Win a title, sell on the Golden Boot/Young player/POTY awards-winning star for many clams. That’s how you do it.
Now let’s look at York’s Modus Operandi. Sell young players before they get a chance to be truly popular with fans, and way before they hit their heights. Plus they go with no playoff/big game experience. Gimme some examples you say? Ok. Emilio Estevez, Lowell Wright, and Ronan Kratt. Estevez brought in a solid amount, so let’s start selling, right? Wrong! Once your team becomes solely about sales, there is no reason to come out and watch. Lowell Wright was a beast, and only a teenager. A couple more years at York and he goes for real money. And granted, we are not privy to the deals, so maybe they are getting real money already. And I know, what about Abzi? That was a good one, right? The best player on your team cannot leave before the season is over. At least PFC had won something, then sold on their top man.
But whatever money they are getting, is likely less than the big transfer teams, and it comes at a higher cost. York has no identity and is transferring too many players to allow them to build one.
Isaiah Johnston just transferred to MLSNextPro, and they may have a good fee for him. But I’d argue his value to the team is more than money. A skilled player with a high ceiling is a draw, and a bag of cash ain’t.
Maybe some of these moves are inevitable, because other leagues pay bigger, or offer pipelines to MLS first teams. And players want that. That’s fair. Make the best of it.
But look to Cavalry as an example of how to transfer. With Aribim Pepple and Victor Loturi going to England and Scotland respectively, Cavs fans will continue to follow them. Whether through league streaming services, the odd FA Cup game or other less legal options, Cavs fans can stay connected to their former players in a way that MLSNextPro and the like, don’t provide. So what, they aren’t Cavs anymore you say? But that’s the point. It makes your team feel bigger to be able to watch former players being successful elsewhere. This is still community building.
York is not the worst team in the CPL, but they are far from being the best. And the way they are running the club is, in my opinion, too much Football Manager, and not enough real life.
Potential fans want to love this product. Get out of their way and let them, York. Or don’t. Forge and Atlético are waving the banners for Ontario proudly. They can keep it going until the CPL finds your Vancouver FC/FC Edmonton expansion replacement, right?
(Don’t let this happen. Please start being a soccer team and not whatever you are now)
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