If you played soccer in the late 80’s or watched the old CSL, there would be a few names you would associate with that era. I had the privilege to play with several of the players that are now considered among the very best this country has produced. Dale Mitchell, John Catliff, Carl Valentine and Domenic Mobilio are generally the first four to spring to mind as they had long, successful careers spanning that era. Jim Easton though, by many, is considered the best pure technical player Canada has produced. His career was shortened considerably by injuries but this is a player that spent several months training in Brazil with a professional team when he was still a teenager and had an article in the Brazilian soccer media there say he was good enough to play for any team there “and name his price.”
Now Jim’s armed with an MA and MBA and has been retained by the CSA to look into the feasibility of a new, domestic league that would serve as a second division to the MLS and help develop young Canadian players to bolster the ranks of the national team.
To that end his group, ReThink Management, have circulated a survey. I filled it out yesterday and with his permission, have put up the questions and my answers below. Jim wanted me to point out that this exercise ” is to stimulate debate and see what kind of ideas (good, bad or ugly) bubble up. We are currently running a contest on our own site http://rethinkmanagementgroup.com/in_league trying to tap into the ideas of people who sometimes don’t have a voice.”
He added that you are welcome to forward your views to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is the survey (questions in bold, my replies italicized)….
Dear Follower of Canadian Soccer,
Re: Study into the feasibility of a Canadian Division II Professional Football League
We have been asked by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) to independently explore the viability of a new men’s professional division II league in Canada. Both conventional wisdom and casual empiricism would suggest a strong competitive domestic league is an important determinant of success in world football. Of the six nations who competed in the Hexagonal stage for the right to represent CONCACAF at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, all but one operated a professional men’s league. We are eager to hear views on the viability of a Canadian division II league from a wide range of people from both inside and outside of the North America football industry and shall very much welcome your thoughts and insights. We want people to feel comfortable in providing feedback without restriction; however, we would kindly ask respondents to keep their comments concise and directed, and refrain from using the exercise as a vehicle for criticizing the CSA. We would like your permission to use your responses and if any direct quotes from this study are incorporated into the final report, the contributor will be appropriately acknowledged. Specifically, we would appreciate hearing your thoughts on the following overarching questions:
1. Is a domestic division II league a vital component to the development of young Canadian footballers and coaches, or is it enough that professional opportunities are made by mandating a quota system for professional teams already operating in Canada?
Quotas just ensure mediocrity and a national D2 league would be a huge financial commitment that has been proven to be unsustainable in the past. I don’t think enough people will buy enough tickets to sustain a D2 league and that the money that is invested in this league could be better spent if the end goal of the league is to develop a sufficient pool of players to make our national team competitive.
The three Canadian teams in the MLS are going to be heavily resistant to a quota system as it affects their ability to compete unless these are token spots reserved for players on the squad that are never likely to see much playing time.
Give the MLS teams longer, at least five years, to see if the enthusiasm they have initially created in the Canadian soccer public translates to a youth development program that fosters Canadian talent in the game to the degree that Canadian players are playing, on merit, regularly on the Canadian franchises (and the American ones).
2. Is the sole purpose of a professional football club to develop players for its own first team, or does it also share in the responsibility of developing players for the country’s national program?
By definition, a professional football club’s purpose is to win. While there are some clubs that get tied up in national and regional politics and become a badge for particular ethnic groups to rally behind, in the end, if they don’t win, that support dwindles, finances dwindle and they risk insolvency.
It’s more the case in other countries that there is an antagonistic relationship between the professional clubs and the domestic FA.
3. If a new league were to be established in Canada, what do you think would be the best administrative and legal framework structure to ensure the league had the best opportunity to succeed, (e.g. national versus regional; single entity versus club owned; closed fixed-membership versus promotion/relegation) and what would be an optimal number of teams?
Again, I don’t think it’s sustainable but if it were to be established…
Regional. Club owned with promotion/relegation (if there’s actually enough teams for more than one division regionally, which is doubtful). For example, a spring/summer league in the Lower Mainland/Island could comprise: Whitecaps Residency, UBC, SFU, Victoria Highlanders, VMSL All Star team, CSA U17 and/or U20 teams and a few more that I can’t think of.
Regional league champions could then compete in a Cup competition to crown a national champion.
4. What other leagues, football or otherwise, should Canada look to as possible archetypes to model its own league and why?
Don’t know other such leagues well enough to comment.
5. What do you see as being the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of division II football succeeding in Canada, and what steps can be taken to mitigate these barriers to success?
Money. It’s an expensive country to run a league. Travel is expensive, clubs rarely own a suitable facility to play and train in so they need to lease, players need a livable wage if they’re going to be expected to play and train at the expense of other paid work. Then getting the general public to buy tickets for a second tier league in what is generally not the most popular game in town is very challenging.
Even second tier hockey teams like the AHL Abbotsford Heat are discovering that they are not guaranteed a large ticket buying fan base.
6. Implicit in the goal of developing a new division II league is the need to engender a commercial base of local committed supporters. What socio-demographic group should a new league focus its marketing efforts and resources on and what strategies and actions could a new entity take to broaden its appeal?
There are enough people that actually follow and support the game on TV now that it seems best to go after those already converted. If persuaded to come to three or more games they are more likely to stick as fans than the casual family that is not invested in the game and is just looking for something different to do as a family.
Look to get those that are fans of the game and make them fans of the team. Trying to convince non-fans to like the game and then like the team seems a long, frustrating and expense pursuit.
7. What role, if any, should the CSA play in the founding and ongoing operations of a new division II league?
None. Unless they want to embed U17 or U20 teams in the league as per above. I just don’t see national governing bodies interfering in what need to be independently run franchises being something that can work.
8. Beyond the establishment of a new division II league, what other steps or actions could be taken to help Canada’s national team program become more successful?
Be prepared to battle hockey at the younger ages for the best athletes. Hockey is more demanding of younger athletes to commit to their sport exclusively. They don’t get all of them but they go after the best athletes, many of whom are potentially very good soccer players, and get them to choose hockey over soccer at a young age.
Do everything possible to qualify for a World Cup because that is the single biggest thing that can be done to change the mindset of a very large portion of the population here and motivate them to support the game far, far more than they do in terms of playing and buying tickets for ventures like this. So I say be ruthless in WC qualifying matches. Alter pitch sizes to suit our team. Play teams from warm weather countries in cold, distant places. Play strong technical teams on shitty fields. Indulge in petty gamesmanship to ensure draws don’t become losses and wins don’t become ties. We are that country that needs to stoop to these things short term.
The deadline we have been given is a tight one and we would be grateful if you could share your views on these questions and any other observations you might have by email by November 25, 2011 to email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> . Alternatively, we can be reached by telephone at 415.800.4650.