D2 Survey: A new, professional, Canadian second division

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 info@rethinkmanagementgroup.com.

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 info@rethinkmanagementgroup.com <mailto:info@rethinkmanagementgroup.com> .  Alternatively, we can be reached by telephone at 415.800.4650.

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23 Responses to D2 Survey: A new, professional, Canadian second division

  1. K says:

    Thanks for posting this. An important topic. I am more expectant of a national league than you – one thing that I think should be considered is opening it up to American teams – the ones that won’t maybe get in MLS yet. Detroit, Buffalo, Minnesota. Heck, maybe even a Kitsap or some other Seattle team.

  2. Colin Elmes says:

    K- pipe dream. Americans dont need us. Natl league. Again K- pipe dream. Who in there right mind would step up to own one of these teams? I wouldn’t. And my partners and I spent $5million on a facility 11 years ago. This would be a money pit

  3. K says:

    Yer also imagining the league was being pumped up as NASL level, I imagine (assumption on my part). It’d be somewhere between USL Pro and NASL. Which is perfectly adequate. Even if it’s equal to USL Pro that’s fine. Detroit, Buffalo….

    CSL existed once, so how exactly is it a pipe dream when it’s already happened in my lifetime?

    Yes, it would be a money pit…probably for a few years. So was MLS….so was, apparently, EPL, and La Liga considering how many teams are in extreme financial stress in those leagues. They make money now, but that goes to paying off previous debts (yes, I realize some people are defo making cash!).

    A National D2 doesn’t need to be glamorous. It needs maybe 2000 fans per game (and decent stadiums such as Swangard – old but suitable – though I doubt Burnaby would get a team), a flight deal for travel, some good sponsors, lower wages and a league salary cap, ability to enter the NCC, and big support from the Can MLS teams.

    I like the idea of a regionalized league, as Gregor suggests, but that’s what we have now. Yes, he has suggested some higher end teams enter, but still no one is really going to support it unless their kid gets called-up to play in it. I really like the idea of Canadian youth teams being entered (much like the US Super 40 or whatever they were called). But he was referring to a regional league.

    Why wouldn’t American teams enter? They don’t need us? They haven’t shown a willingness or ability to afford NASL, let alone MLS. So maybe a team like Detroit is a heck of a lot more interested in being in a league with Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa, Quebec City than they are against Atlanta, Tampa, Puerto Rico, and San Antonio….for example (though i didn’t check flights to-from of course)….These American teams could also pay their players less, I imagine….

    A Canadian league would also have to have not only a youth focus, but also some foreigners to raise the level of play.

    Owners? Can be like what MLS did….start with one or two owners and sell the teams off as others come into the game willing to buy them….

    Colin, TBH, it’s defeatist attitudes that are the worst problem. “Why even bother looking at a league and trying to improve the game – it’ll never happen, so let’s stay exactly the same.” Which is odd, because that’s not you at all. You encourage looking at change critically.

    You’d be interested to know CSA is suggesting the league will be in place by 2014 (which I do think is a pipe dream!….maybe 2015, maybe…..depends on what happens with Ottawa and Hamilton entering NASL, and if other markets step-up). I also think the league may strongly benefit from TFC, Mtl, and VFC reserve teams if that’s possible. (which it is – if they are “different” franchises from the MLS teams….)

    YES – I am hopeful! Canadian fans CAN’T be anything but hopeful….

    • K says:

      YES – we would need wealthy owners willing to “invest”….

    • Gregor says:

      I’m saying it’s unsustainable and that a regional league is the only way it could feasibly work. Yes, the CSL did exist. I played on three teams (Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver). The league had no stability what with a revolving door of franchises/owners once you got beyond Vancouver, North York, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Montreal. There were more players who didn’t get paid than did get paid some years (as happened with me in Calgary). Wealthy owners willing to lose money are rare to start with and get rarer when asked to do so year after year if they don’t see an increase in demand from the ticket buying public. Milan Illich was a very generous man when he owned the 86ers but even he knew when enough was enough.

      I’d be very impressed with any business plan that could make this work with all franchises being financially viable based on a 24 game schedule that drew an average of 2000 fans (at an average of $15 per ticket). That’s $360 000 in revenue. If you added in $50 000 in sponsorship dollars or service exchanges (ie. reduced airfares), you’re looking at $410 000. Pay 18 players an average of $8000 and $144 000 is gone before you’ve rented a stadium or paid any travel expenses. If BCPL coaches can get $16 000, you’re going to struggle to get a decent coach for much less.

      Personally, I don’t think many markets in such a league would even pull 1000 fans at $10/tickets to be honest. I hate to be negative on this but I do know that when there’s no money left, the first ones to go without are generally the players.

      • K says:

        Not arguing your concerns – just being hopeful! Probably need more than $50,000 in sponsors.

        Another form of revenue would be exhibition games v. the MLS teams (have a form of profit share at the larger stadium for example). After all, it’d be in the MLS teams’ best interests to have this league as it would raise awareness for them too….(and likely develop some players for them).

        Another potential form of revenue is the ability to sell players. Even selling someone for $10,000 would go a long way at such a level.

        I have no argument against a regional league – but keep in mind it would be D3 and thus about the level of the current (Ontario) CSL…which isn’t the goal here. Based on the ReThink questions….

        I’m just saying, if FCE can go a year without a league at all, then do as well as they did on the field (I don’t know about their off field) plus Hamilton and Ottawa wanting to join the same league….maybe just maybe 5 more teams could be found (Victoria???, Calgary, Winnipeg???, Quebec City, and whoever/Sask/Maritimes/London, etc etc)…..#hopeful.

        I grew-up watching those 86er CSL teams and that’s what encouraged me to keep playing when everyone else I knew was on to baseball and hockey – I still have my Carl Valentine trading card for example….

      • Colin Elmes says:

        K- you are such a dreamer man. I met with Jim Easton on this last week and I dont believe that it can be pulled off.

        I would offer a wager here but you still owe me the $20 for predicting the Magnuson Ford Mariners low try out numbers…….

        Speaking of HPL. Merger rumours on TTP re Magnuson and Central City Breakers.

      • K says:

        CE – 1) Yes, I don’t mind being called a dreamer re: this topic! Don’t mind it at all! 2) If memory serves I agreed with your wager and thus it wasn’t a wager at all – I live up to my bets, 3) I am not on a board for either club so I have nothing to give ya re: those rumours. First I’ve heard of it.

      • Colin Elmes says:

        a revisionist memory!

        Keep dreaming. Better still, go raise some money so you can be involved in one of these franchises. I am certain the investors will appreciate the help

      • Bruce says:

        I don’t live and breath this stuff like some of you, but it seems that any new Canadian league structure would have to be highly regionalized and I’m not sure what tier it would truly exist at. BCHL or WHL model perhaps; I think having no age restriction would lessen the general interest. It would be great to see a U(something) semi-pro league. As far as players getting paid is concerned, I just don’t see the revenue for it.

        I can’t really speak for the marketing side of things, but Canadians are generally very poor supporters of local lower tier or amateur sports teams. Of all Canadians, people in the lower mainland are about the worst in this area. I don’t think it’s complete apathy (some), but there are simply too many other things to do with our time. I like to think people in BC prefer to “do” rather than watch. Add in that local rivalries don’t really exist to the extent they do in the U.S. and in Europe (maybe the heart of the problem); it’s hard to get passionate about Vancouver destroying those #$%@$& from Richmond or Kelowna :o). The other question is, how much of the local soccer market have the Whitecaps tied up? The Whitecaps are still very accessible for families.

        If someone can swing it, then great. Honestly, I’d take the family when we’re not at the beach, at a Whitecaps game, on a mountain, or at one of my kids events.

      • K says:

        Revisionist? Go re-read the email!….

      • Colin Elmes says:

        Revisionist on our bet

  4. Richard says:

    Gregor, couldn’t have said it better myself.

  5. K says:

    Something that touches on the Canadian D2 and vaguely agrees with Gregor – regionalized.

    What this all comes down to is the desperate need for the Canadian Second Division viability study to bear fruit, specifically how the league would be formatted (ie what cities, how many teams etc…) and most importantly who would invest in it. My opinion on the first question is the league would need to most certainly be regionalized with the playoffs or championships working similarly to how the NCAA basketball tournament is organized. However the second question is much more vital to this getting off the ground, it will take a very wealthy, brave and knowledgeable individual or group investment to pull it off but the one aspect that we all can agree on is this is needed for the game to flourish in Canada.


    The only issue I have with a regionalized league is we wont’ get enough owners and doubtful nearly enough “proper” players to make it a good league, thus making it doomed to fail. In a nationwide league but with fewer teams you just might be able to find someone or a few people to fund fewer teams but they’d be of a higher standard/marketability. Ie, more likely to get fans out to Calgary v. Victoria than you are Kelowna v. Red Deer….

  6. Colin Elmes says:

    Old CSL, as you use an example, happened when there was no USL PDL, Super 20. Too many destinations now, many well entrenched.

    Was just in Montreal- spoke with some people deeply embedded in system back east. All saying same thing, pipe dream. sorry pal

    • K says:

      Guess we better give up then…because QC has always been the most inclusionist/nationalistic of the provinces….

      • Colin Elmes says:

        it was a national championship silly. soccer people from all over country

      • K says:

        Partial.Foot.in.Mouth. 🙂

        My sarcasm holds – “we might as well not bother.” On that note we all might as well give up developing any players at all and turn it totally rec because without building toward SOMETHING why bother? End sarcasm.

        TBH, I don’t really care if we get a Canadian D2 and whether it’s nationwide or regional, semi-pro or not. I don’t care if we put 12 teams in one American league or another spread out over the 3 big ones – NASL, USL Pro, and MLS. So long as we are getting up near or over 12 professional teams in Canada I don’t care where they play! And yes, those 12 professional teams need a network of LINKED u23 (ideally u20 in my opinion) teams throughout the country….my heart wants a Canadian league with 12 teams and no American teams. But if a Canadian league has American teams so be it. But my mind says “get us 12 or so fully pro teams in whatever league will take them!” (at this point).

        CSA claims by 2014 we’ll have a league. I don’t buy that for a second, but sure do “dream” of it!

  7. Gregor says:

    The CSL was really what a nation-wide 2nd division would look like now. The 86es were the flagship franchise and even with attendance that probably quadrupled the league average some seasons, they could not make it work financially. Many owners tried and many passed it on to others.

    I think we need to empower and trust the MLS franchises to drive top flight player development for the next few years. If the CSA wants to get involved, their time and money would be best spent subsidizing the three domestic MLS franchises to get them to invest in satellite academies that cover the next logical areas where there’s a critical mass of players. It’s arguable where those areas are but clearly Calgary or Edmonton should be one, a second should be somewhere else in southern Ontario where it’s maybe too far to expect people to get to Toronto for regular training (London or Ottawa) and maybe a base somewhere in the Maritimes. Hitting six areas across the country with the resources of three truly professional organizations is, in my mind, a more realistic and sustainable endeavour than a nation wide second division that would be much more costly.

    Just as I’ve argued that BCPL needs three years of operation before it can be fairly judged as being successful or not, I think you need to give the Whitecaps and Montreal Impact a few years to establish their vision of a top flight academy before rushing to other options that will maybe draw players away from what they’re trying to do. As for Toronto FC, I don’t know much about their academy but they have a new regime (Ajax scented) in place and hopefully they have success with their Academy plans in the coming years.

    • K says:

      I hear ya completely and have no real objection. However, what league would these satellite acadmies play in?

      If we had 3 MLS plus FCE, Hamilton, Ottawa in NASL and 3-4-5 satellite academies from the MLS teams playing somewhere meaningful I’d take it in a heartbeat.

      Word is Mr. Campbell from HFC thinks entering USL Pro is the more favourable option than a Canadian league. He, I guess, has stated this in an interview. I could get the link if you are particularly interested. Like I said, wherever we have professional teams I don’t care – just get them so our kids have something tangible to shoot for. And if they get beyond that (Europe, SA, Mexico, MLS, Japan) then great!

      Yes, a Canadian league would have a flagship franchise with most having middling crowds, especially initially.

  8. frank woods says:

    interesting comments….i played in the CSL for 2 years and some cities supported it but the Calgary/Edmonton’s did not at the time….however football has grown in Alberta since the late 80’s early 90’s so hopefully there would be more interest and financial support now…whether a D2 league in Canada is sustainable is debatable but if we have a go at it the league must be regionalized because travel costs killed the CSL…we must do something though…we have to have something that players can aim for..not many Canadian players on the Whitecaps..so all you guys that run academy’s and put on clinics why do we not produce quality players capable of playing at the MLS level which is average at best?…when we had no academy’s/turf/technical directors we produced at least half the national team from BC…the Whitecaps of the NASL had many Canadian National players on the team and many BC players were playing in a league that was far higher standard than the current MLS….we produced players in droves as we played in a non-structured environment….I played with Jim Easton and am a friend of his…he was a great technical player..most of the former national coaches are of the opinion that Victor Kodelja was Canada’s best technical player and i would have to agree…he played in NASL for years….lower mainland product…learned the game by just playing…like everyone back then….things have changed and i know that….we do need some type of domestic league fellas to raise the standard of play…

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