Commissioner says CPL headed in the right direction, with more teams coming
Five seasons in, the Canadian Premier League is coming off a year that saw greater parity in the standings, an expanded playoff format and a championship game filled with highlight-reel goals.
"On the field it was the most competitive season we've ever had," said CPL commissioner Mark Noonan. "Goals were up, discipline was down."
And with the new playoff format, which saw five of the league's eight franchises involved, "every game counted at the end of the season," he added.
All five playoff games were decided by one goal with Forge FC winning the championship for the fourth time, defeating regular-season leader Cavalry FC 2-1 after extra time Oct. 28 before an announced crowd of 13,925 at Tim Hortons Field.
Attendance was up almost 20 per cent — averaging around 4,000 — with increases in merchandise, food and beverage sales an sponsorship, Noonan said.
"Our teams are getting better at what they do off the field," he said.
CPL development remains a long game, however.
"There's not an area on the field or off the field that we're not working on," Noonan said.
Noonan says the CPL owners are "probably $125 million in the hole" from developing "an ecosystem for soccer in Canada that didn't exist."
That includes expanding the lower-tier League1 framework from 40 teams in 2019 to 162 and creating a women's interprovincial championship.
While Noonan expects his league to continue to have operating losses, the hope is franchise value will go up as it expands "and we get better at what we do in terms of selling sponsorship and selling tickets and media and all those sort of things that make the business go."
"But we're still a startup … in our sixth year with two years of pandemic. You have to invest and you have to feed a startup to get it to the point where it's healthy."
Expansion is an immediate goal.
"I'm feeling pretty good that we'll have two new clubs in 2025 … Announcements to come," said Noonan, adding the league currently has 15 interested groups under non-disclosure agreements, including several in Quebec.
Groups in Saskatchewan, Kelowna, B.C., the Maritimes and Greater Toronto Area are also interested. The league also wants to return to Edmonton.
While venues remain an issue, Noonan says he believes Vancouver FC's and Halifax's modular facilities are a potential model for new franchises to follow.
"You don't need a half-a-billion-dollar stadium like they're building in the U.S. right now," he said.
At some point, as numbers grow, the league will adopt East and West divisions to ease travel, he added.
The league still faces challenges when it comes to the bottom line.
"It's getting a little better but we're a long way away from clubs making money," said Noonan. "Which is expected as part of a young league. The sale of York (United FC) increased the asset value because that was the highest sale that we've had of a franchise."
Noonan points to Major League Soccer.
"I think if you average all the (MLS) teams together, they still lose money today. But their last franchise (San Diego) went for half-a-billion dollars and they have billion-dollar valuations."
York United, the league's Toronto-based franchise, changed hands twice in 2023.
Canadian Soccer Business, whose ownership mirrors that of the Canadian Premier League, purchased the team from the Baldassarra family in April. The franchise was then sold to Game Plan Sports Group, led by Mexican brothers Eduardo, Ricardo and Miguel Pasquel.
"We needed the right owner," said Noonan. "We bet on ourselves by taking that franchise back from the original owners. They admitted it wasn't working and we certainly saw that it wasn't working.
"This is a great (new ownership) group. They have deep-seated experience and passion for the sport. They're well-financed. They're making a commitment to move to the market and be here."
Noonan also believes the league will benefit from the new ownership group's ties with major Mexican companies and Liga MX.
"Having that connection in Mexico opens up a lot of doors for us," he said.
Vancouver FC debuted this season, finishing seventh overall with a 8-15-5 record.
"They got better as the year went on, on and off the field. They probably started earlier than they wanted to because of the situation in Edmonton," said Noonan, referencing FC Edmonton which folded in November 2022 after a season being run by the league.
"We're optimistic," he said of the new franchise.
Vancouver also was home to T.J. Tahid, who at 16 years 16 days became the league’s youngest-ever signing. Tahid joined the team under the league's exceptional young player rule, which allows teams to field two exceptional under-18 Canadian players whose salaries do not count against the cap
Tahid went on to make 20 appearances for Vancouver with three goals, becoming the league's CPL’s youngest goal-scorer on June 2 against Pacific FC.
The forward from Maple Ridge, B.C., was part of the Canadian team at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in November in Indonesia. As was Kevaughn Tavernier, a 17-year-old forward from Brampton, Ont., who signed with Forge under the same rule.
CPL players also moved up the soccer ladder. Former Cavalry FC wingback Mo Farsi, named the CPL's Best CanadianU-21 Player in 2000, won the MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew.
On the labour front, the CPL "voluntarily recognized" the Professional Footballers Association of Canada as the players' bargaining agent in December 2022 and has started the process of collective bargaining.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 27, 2023.