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Tuesday 20 December 2011

First Person View - Spare a Thought for D2

    This is now slightly old news, but the CSA has contracted a company to evaluate the possibility of a nationwide professional league to function as a domestic division II. This is an especially pertinent examination given the USSF’s mandate that the NASL will cap the number of foreign teams in its ranks – at 25% I believe - thus limiting Canadian participation in the league and stifling the potential growth of soccer markets outside those already established.

    Rethink Management Group led by former national team member James Easton have been commissioned to perform a viability study for the CSA. Many other good people are involved in the project, spanning the soccer world from former players to members of the media, all working together to investigate the history - its successes and failures, the demographics and the possible finances of the project.

    They’ve even reached out to the general populace for input on what we think would work and what we would like to see as a league structure.

    Needless to say it’s an interesting time for Canadian soccer. The Victoria Highlanders have announced they will become a member-owned initiative of sorts, the success of FC Edmonton with their Canadian content, and Montreal stepping up to become the third Canadian MLS club, joining Vancouver and Toronto.

    I am by no means an expert on the various structures in place, nor on the history of the game here, but regardless of those shortcomings here are some varied thoughts to consider. What I’ve envisioned here is a remake of the entire structure – ambitious and flawed, most likely – but a departure point for further discussion at least.

    Reiterating how naïve much of the following ramble is, and that as a collection of ideas as opposed to a cohesive vision it will at times be contradictory, I will proceed in a more assertive and positive tone.

Club Ownership & Funding

    Ownership groups must be rich and patient; less interested in making a profit than in enriching their community. Whether the controlling interest is from the private sector or an arm of the provincial soccer association, the structure must include links to all youth clubs in a given area to extend the reach from this top level down to a youngster’s first kick.

    Funding must be completely from sponsorship; turning a profit will be quite difficult for some time. What is needed is a dual system that functions both from the top-down and the bottom-up - whereby the youth structure supports a professional expression, while that professional aspect also contributes to the growth at the grassroots level - a cyclic, symbiotic relationship, if you will.

    Some of the monies collected from the pay-to-play wings of local scenes could be funneled upward, but only in exchange for free tickets to matches and clinics from the players, as well as to maintain the facilities to be used by the entire community.

    Each provincial association will contribute a similar amount of their profits - by percentage at least, lest there be too much quarrelling - to a central pool, where it is either distributed evenly or based on the individual needs of a club – say club X has more travel than club Y, then they would get more money to function.

League Structure

    To limit the costs per team regional play would be best, with each division’s champion meeting in end of season cup competition much like the CHL and its Memorial Cup. However, the problem that creates is in limiting the cost per team the amount of overall investment is increased. There would need to be some six to ten teams per region, as opposed to say sixteen to twenty nationwide; truly a double-edged sword.

    Without concerns for finance, I would prefer the establishment of five regions – BC, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic; more teams means more training opportunities and more comprehensive fan exposure – each playing a balanced schedule within their region, before the top team moves on to a championship tournament.  A host team fills out the ranks for a six-team draw, resulting in three ties, where the winners move on to a top-three round robin, while the losers battle for placement in a bottom-three round robin in a week long football festival.

    It would have to be a centralized construction, with individual management groups given free reign within the constraints of the system. The risk of failure needs to be minimized and controlled; MLS’ strict financial guidelines have proved a pathway for growth in the last few seasons, though of course whether a smaller-scale operation would work is not guaranteed.

    It would need to be heavily salary capped/semi-amateur system; integrate scholarships, room & board situations, or jobs with related outfits to increase player benefits, while minimizing expenses. Though very outdated, systems involving teams run by institutions – such as government arms or corporate entities – have proven valuable stepping stones to establishing leagues in Eastern Europe and Asia, though again that success is measured.

    There is a necessity to look beyond the standard ownership models for the time being until the league can stand on its own feet. Sports in North America is often a cross of capitalist and socialist ventures, so embrace it, whether that means having rich financial backers, member-owned initiatives, some merger of the two, or any possibility in between those two extremes.

    The keyword will be local: Local rivalries, local players, local community, and local fan-base. That is why I would go regional with a championship tournament, as there is more chance of spawning interest if it’s Guelph vs. Kitchener, as opposed to Hamilton vs. Burnaby.

    There must be some way to harness the collective power of ethnic communities without resorting to the exclusionary naming practices of the past. The strength of those ties in each community must be motivated and encouraged to become involved with the local club.

    All the professional clubs – especially those in MLS – should field teams in the competition. It would increase the legitimacy of the competition to have some link to the top tier, and would provide extra matches for a combination of reserve and academy players.  There would be no promotion or relegation – with MLS at least; there could be a third division below in the future though. The standard MLS reserve and academy leagues do not give enough on-field time for fringe professionals and academy players ready to move up. With thirty-man rosters there will always be players who need extra matches to further their conditioning and development.

Grounds and Community Integration

    One of the main obstacles to the beginning of such a league is the sizeable investment required to build suitable grounds. My idea is to not just have single purpose stadiums but also Olympic training complexes, homes for other sports, and even extend down to community use - a sort of community athletic base from which all benefit.

    Include in the complex various fields, gyms, pools, rinks, and courts, to establish a healthier heartbeat for a nation in need of some improved facilities. It would require massive investment, but the last Olympics demonstrated how serious we take our sport, and how deeply we desire excellence in it. Imagine what twenty high quality training centres spread across the nation could do for sport in this country. A long-term investment in Canada, not only in the professional ranks, but also to address the general fitness of the nation, would be sparked by such an outlay of money focused on building the community.

    I do not know if the European model of a sporting club is necessary, but something whereby the facilities are able to be funded not just through the pockets of a rich owner but with government money earmarked for sport, would be a boost to a nascent soccer league, while also promoting other less hearty ventures such as rugby, track and field, swimming, etc..

    It is important to keep in mind that should we ever desire to host a World Cup, not only will we need proper large stadiums, but also a serious number of high quality training facilities to accommodate the participants, this investment would be a step in that direction.

    Perhaps a partnership with the university system would be advantageous as well. There would be a natural pathway for players from the CIS to continue playing, the potential to further the education of young players, and it would provide yet another way to connect to the community. The student body could potentially bring some of the rowdier football culture to the youth and local crowds. Plus the institutional grounds could prove a worthy location of these international quality training centres, whether built anew, or upgraded from existing structures.

    Not only would such developments be beneficial to a Division II men’s system, but could also provide for a concurrent women’s league, and provide training opportunities to athletes in various other fields.

Travel and Accommodation

    The costs associated with these two factors are in my opinion the main obstacle to a successful league. If at all possible sponsorship deals should be arranged with both travel and accommodation providers so as to decrease the impact of the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of the sheer size of this massive country of ours.    

    If travel costs could be completely negated by partnerships with airlines, train and bus companies, the league would really give itself a chance at success.

    With the Olympic/university route, either a hotel on site – for use by both visiting athletes and opposition teams – or the use of residence-style lodging could lower the excessive costs of accommodations.

    Universities already have residences on campus that could prove suitable if available, while their staffing and management could be folded into the Hotel and Food Administration courses already offered by many institutions.

Media Coverage

    The coverage of the league must be of the highest quality possible; all matches streamed online or at least highlight packs made available, to ensure that the action can be followed.

    Engage local news outlets – print, radio, television – for matches, interviews, player backgrounds, etc. while also giving a chance for aspiring journalists and broadcasters to cut their teeth in a professional setting.

    The coverage of the game could also be part of the educational wing of the venture, pairing with local journalism and broadcasting institutions as a means of minimizing production costs, while establishing a high quality and quantity of output.

    Sounds ridiculous and impossible? That may well be so, but that is what this process is about, sharing ideas, examining the possibilities to help get our country where it should be.

    A unified national league, whether regionalized or extending the breadth of the country will not only give young players a place to hone their skills, but will bring the game to the people.

    Top-tier clubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and a handful of other clubs spread about is not enough. The national team, for their own purposes, may not be able to bring the game to every city, but building from the local to the national is a goal worth pursuing.  

    The viability of a league will depend on its ability to formulate ties with the country’s youth structures, as well as with educational institutions, local industry, and all levels of government. Basically, this would be a project in need of massive support, but with the potential for huge reward in time.

    Increased community togetherness, educational experience, improved national fitness, international recognition and readiness for large events could all be the result of a massive overhaul of both the soccer structure and general sporting landscape of this country.

    Whether this is the right time to undertake such a massive project is really the crux of the issue. The tricky bit is whether to attempt to force something that has developed over many years in other countries or to be more patient and see what the future holds.

    The berthing pains of establishing an entirely new structure may well be too much to bear, but steps should be taken to make a more complete pyramid, linking the youth to the professional.

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