The CWHL, CanPL, and support for women’s leagues

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations today.

Originally, I wasn’t going to write a lot about women’s soccer here on the blog, even if there have been exciting rumours about CanPL one day (soon) starting a women’s division.

This was in no way because of a lack of interest on my part. I covered AUS and ACAA women’s soccer for four years at the Gazette–I went out to Mainland Commons in October to watch players like Sarah Kraus and Colleen MacDonald play against teams from the Agricultural College in Truro and Crandall College, a tiny Christian community college in New Brunswick.

These were by no means bad games. King’s – MSVU is still one of the better local derbies in Halifax at any level, and gender. Two of the best soccer games I’ve ever seen live were women’s matches: the absolutely insane 2010 national quarter-final between host UPEI and the Montreal Carabins, and the 2010 AUS semi-final between Cape Breton and Dalhousie in which Rieka Santilli played 25 minutes on a very obviously broken leg.

This is what local sports is all about. It’s what I’m most looking forward to about the Canadian Premier League, and, eventually, the Canadian Women’s Premier League.

It’s what the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was all about, too. There are players in that league that I watched playing in AUS a few years back. It’s a disaster to see the league fold.

For athletes who happen to be female, any path to a professional career in sports is pretty bleak. There are barely even any coaching opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of girls play both hockey and soccer in this country, many competitively. Very few of them will play beyond their early twenties.

Teams go bust, leagues cease to exist overnight, owners engage all manner of misdeeds–this is, too often, the environment around professional women’s soccer.

It is, too often, the environment for professional soccer, period. This isn’t to deny the unique problems in the women’s game, but rather to put them in the broader context that causes them.

It’s easy to forget, less than a month away from CanPL’s kick-off, that many of the same hurdles await this new league. When the hype subsides, fans would do well to bear in mind the CWHL–and Women’s Professional Soccer, and the much-maligned Canadian Soccer League, and both iterations of the North American Soccer League–as the league grows.

Professional soccer–professional sports generally–beyond the top few rungs is not a glamourous endeavour. It is also, generally, gate-driven. Look up, say, Wanderers’ striker Luis Alberto Perea. Watch the highlight videos–this is top division soccer in many countries. (If you want the European or Asian equivalent, look up Zachary Sukunda or Chakib Hocine.) Playing to crowds of 3,000 is normal. “Professional” in this sense means, if you’re lucky, a pay-cheque at or near the poverty line. CanPL pay should be livable, but nobody’s set for life in this league.

Too often, leagues have tried to grow too quickly. NASL 1.0 is the most famous example, but even MLS, expressly cautious of repeating that mistake, nearly disappeared in 2001 when Tampa Bay and Miami folded seven years after launch. The list of players in CanPL whose previous clubs have gone bankrupt is a long one.

The CWHL launched in 2007–it made it over 10 years. WPS did about four. CWHL drew well on TV for its final just last week, but actual attendance has been very bad1Pension Plan Puppets has been one of the most consistent outlets in covering CWHL.

It’s more complicated than just a lack of interest. There are people who care about these leagues. “Gate-driven” means more than just “good attendance”. It means revenue–and thus operational expense–is tied to gates. If you’re papering the town for tickets, that big crowd doesn’t help much. What’s happened to CWHL–and what happened to WPS, MLS, and so many other leagues around the world–is that the operational costs far exceeded turnover from ticket sales, particularly full-price single-game tickets. It’s not that people don’t show up: it’s that running a team–particularly in a country like Canada or a sport like hockey–is expensive.

This is always going to be the case for CanPL. Travel alone is a massive expense. Factor in, too, that the league has to pay four referees, as well as other support staff, to travel, too2There is one current FIFA referee in Nova Scotia, for instance–Marie-Soleil Baudoin–and she’ll be away for much of 2019 at the Women’s World Cup. There are currently no national referees (Update: I wrote the original of this before the 2019 list came out.) In general, the CSA is going to have to stretch its resources just to cover all the league’s games, never mind geographical priorities.. Plus you want a decent number of games to entice season-ticket buys–this has been a problem for women’s hockey. Thus, we’ve ended up at a 23-man roster, a salary cap that’s likely under $1-million, and a bunch of journeyman players from the Swedish regional leagues.

The problem for women’s leagues is that, because they don’t have existing structure (read: Swedish regional leagues) or, in most cases, the history, it becomes very hard to pay the top women what their skills suggest they’re worth.

The easiest mistake to make is comparing women’s soccer to men’s soccer. By any test, Christine Sinclair is a top striker, with the innate sense of timing and space that separates the best at that position from the rest. Strikers, in soccer, get paid. Sinclair gets paid by the CSA to play for the Portland Thorns. She gets, relative to most female players in the world, a good deal and an allocated spot to one of the best, most stable teams in NWSL.

The problem comes in expanding that, even to a point where the national association doesn’t have to pay a club to get its top players regular training and game action. Here, European women’s teams have done better, often partnering with long-storied mega-clubs like Olympique Lyon, Arsenal, or VĂ¥lerenga. Many of these are actually sports clubs–VĂ¥lerenga, for instance, is at least as well-known in hockey as it is in soccer. FC Barcelona is a huge basketball team.

Despite the partnerships, many of these women’s teams still play to fairly small crowds and pay fairly modest wages as a result, though the trend is good3One of the exceptions, thus far, has been Mexico, which is drawing massive crowds for its biggest games, because turns out Tigres and Club America fans don’t get along real well regardless of the players’ gender. One can debate the benefits of this, but give it 10 years and our women’s national team is going to have to qualify for World Cups through Estadio Azteca, and we know how that ends.. Barring something like the WNBA, in which the NBA fronts the losses for a women’s league, it’s the only sustainable model. Too often, as in the CWHL, women’s teams rely on angel investors to front operating costs. It turns the league into a charitable endeavour, and this is bad for sport and bad for sustainability even if it buys some (temporary) good PR. Too often, that charity disappears when the going gets tight.

Most leagues lose money to begin with. CanPL is likely looking at a roughly ten-year runway, given the MediaPro deal. The critical thing then becomes what take-off looks like. It’s nice to dream, but if we manage to get through that ten-year deal without a team folding and with average crowds around, say, 5-7,000, I’d call that a massive success. Pacific and Wanderers will be capped for some time at crowds of several thousand, max. I’d guess that’ll be roughly what other clubs draw, too–despite the small stadium, Wanderers have led most of the season-ticket charts thus far. Maybe the salary cap goes up a bit, but we’re still not going to be recruiting any big names.

If CanPL wants to create a women’s league at some point in the future, it must be absolutely certain that the same stability exists. CanPL teams are not Olympique Lyon or Arsenal. None can front huge losses, and so any women’s league must–for the sake of sustainability but also for development–be built within itself. If that means crowds of a thousand and a mix of full-time/part-time salaries, at least at first, then a stable league may be worth that4League 1 Ontario, which CanPL now owns, has a women’s semi-pro division. That provides a good infrastructure base, but also presents the challenge: people have come to CanPL above men’s L1O because it’s perceived as a higher-level, national league. That hasn’t typically happened for women’s leagues..

There is unquestionably an appetite for women’s soccer in Canada, just as there is unquestionably an appetite for top-flight men’s football. We’re unique in that our women’s national team is better supported than our men’s, and we just hosted the best-attended Women’s World Cup ever. This is all very promising.

If and when we launch a women’s top flight, we still need to apply every caution that has been applied to CanPL so far. On top of that, some time this year, a CanPL club is going to draw less than 2,000 people, and it is going to hurt. There will be naysayers, insults; doom will be prophesied. This is what women’s soccer leagues have to put up with and then some.

It can be done. There is tremendous sexism to overcome, much of it ingrained in the culture around sports in general. But it’s not just that, and we do a disservice to the women’s game and to the athletes on the field when we reduce it to just a concept or even the cold reality it is. We expect too much, too quickly of women’s leagues, just as we have, at times, expected too much of CanPL (multi-million salary caps, 25,000 people a game, Diego Forlan). It’s hard not to, when the taste is so new and we’ve been without for so long. There are Canadian soccer fans who have been waiting for April 27th for thirty years. There are women’s soccer fans who have been waiting longer, and will go on waiting, at least for now.

When it comes, and it will, do yourself a favour and go out to a match. Your $20 pays someone’s salary, and you’ll get a match worth many times that. At heart, the best sports teams are local businesses–they go as far as fans will take them. It’s when we forget that that we end up with teams traveling from China and no league to watch next week.

About Dylan Matthias 244 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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