A Deep Dive On Toronto’s New Pro Women’s Soccer Team
This week saw AFC Toronto City become the third team to be announced for Project 8, the planned professional women’s soccer league hoping to take the country by storm in 2025.
The aiming-for-eight-team league already saw Vancouver and Calgary lock in as founding teams, with Toronto City being the first completely brand new enterprise among them. From the ground up, it’ll be a new venture keen to bring professional women’s soccer to the Toronto area – something known as a ‘must-have market’ for Project 8.
League co-founder Diana Matheson, herself a retired women’s national team player with over 200 caps for Canada, sat down with Northern Tribune to discuss the finder details on a project that still has plenty of runway in front of it.
Without further ado, here’s what you need to know about AFC Toronto City, hogtown’s newest pro sports team:
Some call it the centre of the universe, some call it home, and some call it over-hyped. Whatever it is, Toronto clocks itself in as Canada’s biggest metropolitan city: a veritable melting pot of cultures, demographics, and a space where millions of people go through all walks of life. Beyond that, it’s also a busy entertainment hub: this is where locals and tourists go to spend entertainment dollars and enjoy a day out.
“It’s a sports city, and obviously one of the biggest markets in Canada,” says Matheson of Toronto. “I think for what we want this league to be and where we want to be, Toronto is definitely one of those cities we want to be in from the beginning. Being from Oakville, it’s a little extra special to check the box for this one.”
The ownership group who bought in with AFC Toronto City (more on them shortly) have roots to the community here, and many are connected to the local sports scene through the North Toronto Soccer Club. When Matheson announced her intentions to launch a women’s pro league, they banded together and reached out.
Five months later, here we are.
Where’s The Home Ground?
Home is Toronto, of course, but that’s a large catchment area with highly contrasting levels of density, reachability, and feasibility. Where the club will plant its flag in the city remains unknown for now, with Matheson stating that there are multiple concurrent conversations with various parties for that. Whatever is decided, a formal announcement is expected to come out this year. There’s a lot riding on this decision, so it’s one they’ll want to get right.
Could There Be More Ontario Clubs?
The Toronto region attracted a few groups, and while Toronto City won out from the bunch, we’ve already heard of some interested parties in other areas of the province. Matheson wouldn’t rule out adding another Ontario-based club as one of the league’s eight launch teams, but she says that’d be the limit to begin with. If there’s another ready by the time the league aims to kick off in 2025, a second team in the province is expected to be high on the possibilities list – it’s a no-brainer, says Matheson.
AFC Toronto City, But Not Toronto FC
Given that that Vancouver Whitecaps have come in is as one of the first two clubs announced with Project 8, there has been speculation that Toronto FC and CF Montreal might follow suit. The arrival of AFC Toronto City nixes the TFC idea, though Matheson confirms that the two parties had held discussions.
“We’ve pursued all possible ownership leads, so absolutely we’ve had conversations with MLSE in the past, and the same with CF Montreal from the beginning. All those clubs have known about the project and we’ve had conversation with them as well as other possible ownership groups in Toronto, and at the end of the day it was was AFC Toronto City that will be joining Project 8 in 2025.”
From the sounds of things, it appears the ‘Caps are likely to be only women’s pro team to come from a Major League Soccer organization.
The Ownership Group
While the announcement for the club revealed the inclusion of of Helena Ruken as CEO, Brenda Ha as COO, and Jill Burgin as CMO, Matheson states that there are three more figures comprising the ownership group itself: Mike Ruthard as CFO, Billy Wilson as technical advisor, and Shamez Mangalji as the director of sales and fundraising. The percentage split of their ownership stakes is unknown.
Ruken has held senior roles at the NTSC for seven years now, having assumed the role as Club President in 2020. Ha began her three-year term on the NTSC board in 2021, bringing with her a strong financial banking background and entrepreneurial experience through a successful personal concierge startup, while Jill Burgin’s relation to the venture is largely known.
Meanwhile, Ruthard is a Rotman grad and founder of an investment holdings company with decades of financial experience, fundraiser Shamez Mangalji is a foreign exchange trader, and Wilson brings experience from both Ontario Soccer and Canada Soccer with him, having also held the roles of technical director, women’s head coach, and executive director with the NTSC.
It’s quite a mix of investors with concrete links to capital, while others like Wilson bring something else into the mix. All of them are described as having roots with the NTSC, though AFC Toronto City will mark an independent venture.
“We are a group of passionate advocates for equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Helena had said upon the club’s launch. “We’re excited to rally even more partners, supporters, and our local community to join us on this journey towards kicking off women’s professional soccer in Toronto.”
The executives who currently operate on the board of the North Toronto Soccer Club still have yet to undergo internal conversations about the route they want to go in terms of separating from NTSFC as the launch of AFC Toronto City nears.
As for why the owners didn’t simply port the North Toronto name into their new project? Quite simply, it’s their own decision, and they thought it was the right move to start anew given that there’s no direct affiliation with the NTSC at this point. They’re also aiming to represent Toronto as a whole, so it makes sense that isolating a segment of the city in the name wouldn’t be reflective of what AFC Toronto City really aspires to be.
What’s Next For AFC Toronto City
There’s a load of laneway before AFC Toronto City is expected to launch alongside the upcoming professional women’s league in 2025, and that gives the team some much-needed prep time. Still, the group aims to have its branding launched while our calendars still say 2023, with the club keen to start nurturing its community roots in that time.
Oh, and you can call it ‘Toronto City’ for short.
How To Succeed In Toronto’s Sports Market
While Toronto is home to a mouth-watering amount of consumers, there’s arguably more competition for entertainment dollars in Toronto than anywhere else (just ask York United). That’s something which Project 8 is highly cognizant of.
“There’s a model here for this thing to work, period. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be working on it full steam ahead,” says Matheson. “We know sports in general is a tough market: losses in early years are expected, and there has to be a certain level of investment in the product to get it to where it needs to be in terms of infrastructure, players, talent, and building the things, but that’s true for any business.”
There’s no bones about it: Toronto is a big market and they’ve got to get it right. Part of that is delivering the on-field product: playing entertainming soccer that represents the city well. The other side is turning it into a sporting event and making a fun game day experience before, during, and after a match, where fans can go with friends and have a beer, or bring their families for a wholesome day out.
“The more investment we can put out front from our owners and from our sponsors, the quicker we can get this league up to where it needs to be, which is one of the very top women’s leagues in the world.”
It’s in that demographic where Matheson believes a professional women’s league has an advantage – while there’s obvious crossover between men’s and women’s soccer fans, the space in which Project 8 seeks to occupy has, on average, slightly more women, slightly more diversity, and a higher percentage of LGBQT representation, too. They’re launching in a city that seems starved for pro women’s sporting teams, and they’re betting Toronto City can fill that void.
Project 8: The Business Plan
There’s a lot of things that the league itself, and not just the club, has to get right both cut and keep its slice of the market in 2025, and making that kind of a splash takes serious cash. In tandem with Toronto City’s announcement came the news that Doordash had signed on as the league’s fourth founding partner, joining CIBC, Air Canada, and Canadian Tire.
The league is seeking out a maximum of eight founding league partners to start with, and the launch clubs will also able to add their own local and front-of-jersey sponsors to drive their own revenue streams.
“The model we’ve built is off of the the UEFA model they run for Europa League,” explains Matheson. That also means that there won’t be any CSA-CSB type deal diverting cash from the national team, something which Canada’s men’s league draws funds through as a subsidiary of the CSB.
It’s also worth noting that Project 8 is a temporary name, with the league office expected to reveal a permanent name later this year.
Given that a Canadian national team icon like Diana Matheson is helping launch the league, it should come as no surprise that there are concrete, non-negotiable plans to have a player’s association right from the beginning.
“I can’t build a league without a player’s voice,” says Matheson. “So whoever the commissioner is will have to be on board with that.”
That commissioner, by the way, won’t be sought out until 2024, when more foundational groundwork is laid down.
Where Next For Project 8?
Matheson had revealed that the league had received concrete interest in two-thirds of the market they wanted to be in. After launching with two teams out west split between British Columbia Alberta, moving eastwards was a logical next step. Toronto’s in now, and there’s more leads eastwards – though she’s calling out for investors in the Prairies, too. For now, she’s still keeping the bigger location conversations under wraps.
“We’re pretty comfortable with the active groups we have, but I won’t dig in too far because I feel like there’s a bit of speculation.”
Shooting For The Stars
When Matheson hung up her boots, she knew she wanted to stay involved in the game. The puzzle pieces for Project 8 started to fit together as she went for her executive MBA and started with her UEFA lessons: as she progressed through both programs, she applied what she was learning to the Canadian soccer landscape.
She looked at the market, and thought of different options: could it be paired with the Canadian Premier League, could it start small and grow, or could it arrive with a splash and flourish?
“The thing that came through really clearly to me was that in Canada we have a very unique opportunity to build a women’s professional soccer league, for women and by women, at a time where there’s corporate sponsorship, and a strong business case for investing in women’s pro franchises. So the opportunity is here to do and shoot for the stars, because I know those of us that have been in the women’s soccer space know the potential this game has, because it’s really just getting started. That’s the route we really took.”
It’s no secret that the Canadian Premier League was, behind the scenes, trying to shift building blocks to make a pro women’s league of its own a possibility. It’s one of the things Matheson had looked at, but she felt it was time to take things into her own hands. She’d look at other models that revolve around men’s leagues as a backbone, or leagues that have much more domestic history and proven stability to build off of, and felt the path she’s forging with Project 8 was the right one.
“Honestly, I think that the landscapes going to be better for it,” says Matheson. “Having two strong leagues grow independently, bringing more dollars into the soccer landscape, period. I think the more investment that comes into soccer in Canada into the game is better for everyone. We saw that with the national teams, right? The women crushed it for a decade. Now the men are doing well, and it’s brought a new level of excitement to the game. I think it’s going to be similar on the pro side. I think adding the women into will raise the awareness of soccer across Canada.”
Header Image Photo Credit: Gerald Friedrich