Interview with AFC Toronto City’s Helena Ruken
Last week, it was announced that AFC Toronto City will become the third team to join the women’s professional league coming to Canada in 2025. It came as little surprise that the country’s largest city was awarded a place in the league.
Following up from Northern Tribune’s interview with Diana Matheson, we spoke to Toronto City’s CEO Helena Ruken. Here are the relevant parts from the conversation.
I know you are president at North Toronto Nitros, with several board members making the transition to Toronto City. How much involvement will you all have in North Toronto Nitros once the new women’s professional league gets underway and why was the Nitros not the one to join the league instead?
Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, all the founders have shared roots in the North Toronto Nitros plan. We grew out of that community. That’s how we got to know each other there. We don’t currently have an affiliation agreement with North Toronto Nitros. That’s certainly something that we will look into over the next few months.
For right now, we realized we all grew out of that club and we love it. North Toronto, as you know, is one of the leading soccer clubs in the country and a great community club. It’s a not-for-profit organization. We quickly realized we cannot run a professional team as a not-for-profit organization. I actually looked at it, I don’t think that’s been done. I think there’s one in North America, but no, a professional team that is a part of a Canadian sanctioned national league, I think that would be difficult to run as a not-for-profit. I’m a big believer in the non-profit model. We certainly share a lot of values with North Toronto Soccer, but in terms of the business set up, I think they need to be separate entities.
The first two teams in the league – Vancouver Whitecaps and the Calgary Foothills – would be at a similar level to North Toronto Nitros. Of course, the Foothills that played in the USL League Two for quite a long time. And of course, the latter will be playing now in League1 Alberta Summer Series and next year. What makes the situation from Calgary Foothills, so different from the North Toronto Nitros?
My understanding is that it isn’t the League1 Alberta team that the Calgary Foothills will run – it’s already a separate organization from the youth club. I don’t know the details of their setup, but their semi-professional team is already a separate legal entity, a for-profit entity, whereas North Toronto Nitros League1 Ontario side is still very much part of the youth club. It’s a fairly new venture for an Ontario Soccer, to run the semi- pro / amateur team in League1 Ontario. Who knows what that will look like in the future? That’s too early to say. But in Calgary, it’s not the professional team at the end, The organization that signed an agreement with Project 8, to my knowledge, is a for-profit organization that is separate from the Calgary Foothills youth club.
What made you interested to be part of this Toronto City setup?
When I heard Diana Matheson’s announcement back in in December, I thought right away that she would be able to pull this off. I’ve seen her speak before. I know that she has the determination and the integrity to really pull this off and bring a women’s professional league to Canada. I know that there were lots of doubters in the beginning, but there were also people who really believed that, and those are the ones that I connected with.
I’m sure you’ve heard recently that York United – their ownership has been transferred to CPL for the time being. We know from when CPL started, York United (formerly York 9), they’ve struggled to get attendance there altogether, and right now we’ve gotten over 1,000 average over the first two games the season. I’m curious to know what steps will you guys take to ensure that your Toronto City is a success and that, it doesn’t end up falling under that same unfortunate situation as we currently see with York United?
I think we really bring something different here with women’s sports. I think, you probably saw the white paper from Canadian Women at Sports that came out just this past Monday, that the appetite that’s there from corporate Canada, from investors, to really move forward with the women’s game, and most importantly, the fans and the supporters. So that’s what we plan to do.
We really work hard to build our fan base. We want to go out into the communities, across the GTA, we want to draw fans, with the Toronto team. But we want to bring in the fans from across the GTA to really come build something for them that they support, and they get the merchandise. Also give them a really good game day experience.
Just build a group of supporters and fans that support the club. We know that we have to provide top level soccer, as this is a competitive team, and we need to win. We need to provide, a very high level of athletic excellence on field. But we want our supporters to stand behind us no matter what the outcome is on the field.
I know you mentioned of course, that currently there’s no stadium plan just yet. You’re working with certain groups in the city to try and get something there. There have been several potential venues in Toronto already brought forward. I know Lamport Stadium is one that has been mentioned. Is there any specifics to where in Toronto, you might want to plant this team? Whether it’s just like the downtown core, Vaughan or, perhaps more fittingly, North Toronto, is there anywhere in particular your guys aren’t you guys are hoping to set up to base the team?
We really need to get this right. I know it’s an incredibly important piece, and there’s lots of speculation about it. I can’t I can’t give you any more specifics at this time, but you know we have several irons in the fire and we will work to get the best possible venue. We do need a really good facility to to do that. Lamport would need a lot of renovation. It’s also very heavily used by the community, but if the city offers us that, absolutely. There are lots of other really good options that we that we are considering.
I know you also mentioned last night, the expansion fee was $1 million. What specifically does that $1 million go to?
The purchase is to the right to the franchise fee. So that one million was that we purchase as an ownership of the league as well. Diana Matheson can give more details on that, but we will own a 10% of the entity that the league is.
With the announcement of AFC Toronto City out of the way, what is the time-frame going to look like as to what happens next for the club?
We will work over the summer and into the fall to develop our identity, our logo, our crest, things like that. We want to get the community involved in that to see what they want. And, of course, you know, infrastructure, we need to continue to work on that. For that, it will be ongoing until we launch to get everything set up and ready. Because this will be a professional team, so we need top notch facilities. We also need to provide the players with with a great experience, and the fans, so that people stand behind us.
So that one is very important. And then investors and sponsors. We will work on that over the next year, that’s for 2023. 2024 we’ll look to continue to build and go into the details for setting up our business, and I’m having conversations with players, scouting, and setting up the scouting network and everything like that.
Recently, the Canadian Premier League announced a pilot project where CPL clubs can send players down to a feeder team to get more playing time, especially under 23 players. Regarding the women’s professional league, but has that been talked about? Has there been talks about the potential of having a feeder team, where you can send your some of the players under 23 players so my players often the senior team down to a League 1 Canada team, for example?
Not in detail yet. You know, League1 Ontario Women’s Premier would be the obvious feeder league to the fully professional team. However, whether we have one feeder team only or if we have all of them (in L1O), that has not been decided at this point.
How much of this Toronto City team can we expect to see coming from League1 Ontario, or possibly even North Toronto SC?
We will look at the players who currently play abroad that do want to come back. It is so important that we have great facilities, and that we compensate them appropriately. And then how many of the team will be from those who are currently playing semi-pro in Ontario? I guess they’ll have to try out, they will have to see if they can make it.
At the initial launch, I recall Matheson saying that they are likely going to have an east and west division of four teams each. Yet, that is all we know so far regarding format. Has there been you any talks as to a potential format will be for the league, at least in the first year?
That will be a point of discussion. You know, Matheson has ideas for that. It will be decided by the league, but also by team owners as well. What we think works best, collectively: do we have conference play? Or do we have just round robin? That will be up for discussion among Project 8 and the team owners.
There has been talk about the CPL and their persepctive on this league. Things like why they haven’t started the league, for instance, is a popular question. Between yourself, Matheson, your workmates at Toronto City, how much have how much talks have there been with the CPL. Has there been any information passed along between both parties, insight on the CPL’s experience in starting a league?
I think Matheson has spoken to CPL. I think there are some markets where people are looking to set up together with CPL teams, but too early to say. Here in Toronto, to my knowledge, no CPL owners came forward to set up a women’s team to launch in two years.
I think we can do this well as a separate entity. We will certainly reach out and see where and if we can work together. I’m always open to working with other people.
CONCACAF had it was a statement last week, making preparations for having a continental women’s club competition in the very near future. From my understanding, but no further details yet on this. Has that also been discussed, among others yourself, with Calgary Foothills, the Whitecaps, Matheson and everyone else, and as to how, as if this goes off the table?
Yeah, absolutely. So far only as an exciting option. But yes, absolutely. I do foresee the women’s Champions League coming into play across the continent. And I think it will just add to the excitement, and I think that will be awesome.
From your experience, what do you feel will be the most important parts in making sure not just in Toronto City, but the women’s professional league in Canada as a whole will be successful?
My family and I go to TFC games, and we see the men play regularly. To be able to see women play will be will be wonderful. It will create a lot of opportunities there, especially for them and all the young soccer players and sports fans in general, to see women play. I think what that will be so important. I think that’s, what will make this league and our team successful. I think we will really be able to impact the communities that way, providing pathways not just for players, but also, for young girls to see. Yeah, they can do this, there are women who play professionally here at home, and they get to see that and interact with that. And I think that will be really cool.