Eight Big Things We Learned At The CPL’s State Of The League Address
With the 2023 CPL Final less than 24 hours away and the spotlight shining bright, Canadian Premier League Commissioner Mark Noonan ran a state of the league address this morning that proved to be very, very interesting.
On the cusp of his first full season at the helm, the league boss was happy to reflect on a year of record-breaking attendance numbers but was also pragmatic in the realities of running a five-year-old league. Touching on subjects like expansion, expenses, and market reach, here’s the eight biggest things reveal by Mark Noonan today:
Locked-In Expansion Teams: ‘At Least’ Two for 2025, And Two More In 2026
First on the docket: the number of teams will remain locked to eight in 2024. After that, however, it’s going up…a lot.
Noonan didn’t shy away from an ambitious growth metric, stating that the league would have ‘at least’ two more clubs set to play in 2025, with a couple more following for 2026.
The league has never had two expansion teams feature in one season before: Atletico Ottawa joined in 2020, while 2023 saw FC Edmonton fold ahead of the season with Vancouver FC arriving. Five years in, they’re only one team up from where they started overall – but apparently that log jam is set to burst come 2025, and the momentum won’t stop there.
The League Is In Talks With 15 Ownership Groups
While the paperwork is far from finished, finalized, or even started, there appears to be a lot of interest in Canada’s top flight from coast-to-coast, and Noonan wasn’t afraid to put a number on those groups.
“We have 15 different groups under NDA right now who are interested in investing in the league,” he said. “They’re in various stages of diligence and they’re across all the usual markets that you imagine we would expand into.”
“We’re not going to expand until we have all the conditions to be successful. We’ve learned our lessons and we’ve seen other leagues that have learned their lessons. If we don’t have the right facility, the right owners, we don’t have a community that wants us, we don’t have supporters, we don’t have local sponsorships, if we don’t have those conditions, we’re not going to expand. Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had more interest. I think that based on the momentum that we’re building, now is the time to invest in this league.”
There Are Some Specific Locations Of Interest
“I think we all recognize we’ve got a big hole in Quebec,” says Noonan, echoing his predecessor in David Clanachan. “That entire province and the French-speaking part of Canada. If you had a perfect world, we would get there sooner rather than later.”
The commissioner also revealed that the league needs to expand westwards, particularly given the geographic real estate that part of the country encompasses. As he puts it, they ‘need to start filling the gaps’. That’s a move that makes a lot of sense, particularly if they want to nurture new budding rivalries and ensure clubs have more balanced travel schedules.
…now is probably a good time to flash back to the fact that we received league documents specifying Kelowna as an expansion team, too.
York United Set For New ‘World-Class Ownership’ In 30 Days
With stalled stadium plans and worrisome attendance numbers, this year saw the league take over ownership of York United from the Baldassarra family. The club urged for calm following the transition, but after FC Edmonton you could forgive fans for worrying.
When asked about the situation, Noonan had an extremely positive-sounding update: not only does the league believe they’re found a world class ownership group who are set to take the keys, but he expects that group is expected to do so within the next thirty days.
“We were not pleased with the development of York in arguably the most important market in Canada, and we took a risk on ourselves and we bet on ourselves to take control of that club, risking that we could remarket that club and get great ownership,” said Noonan. “I am incredibly pleased to report that we’re making progress on that. I think within the next 30 days we’ll be able to announce a world-class new ownership group for York United.”
Noonan kept the identity of the new ownership group under wraps for now. There’s been rumours that 777 Partners – who own Canadian budget airline Flair along with football clubs like Italy’s Genoa FC, Spain’s Sevilla FC, and teams in Belgium, France, Brazil, and Australia – were set to buy the club after visiting in the summer. They’re also trying to purchase Everton right now.
However, from what we’ve been able to dig up, 777 Partners have dropped their interest in York United. With the group having now passed on FC Edmonton and York, it remains to be seen if they’ll eventually invest in the growing league – but evidently, another significant purchaser wants to take a shot in a Toronto market which York United sits on the gate of.
There’s Positivity About Cable
It’s no secret that the Canadian Premier League has been largely snubbed by traditional domestic broadcast services like Bell and Rogers. While it’s available on digital streamers OneSoccer and fuboTV, the only cable channel in Canada to carry it is Telus Optik. Contrastingly, the league was available in 35 other countries through the likes of USA, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean thanks to companies like Fox, Sky Mexico, and Flow Sports.
This year saw the ongoing dispute between Rogers and OneSoccer lead to a CRTC decision that favours the CPL, and Noonan believes this could pay dividends come 2024 and beyond.
“We have to continue to build our audience, build people that care about our sport. Those of you who are close to the league understand the issue that we’re having with the two major distributors Bell and Rogers, and the CRTC issue that we continue to fight that we’re making progress in. The government works a little slower than we’d likely them to, but we had a great ruling from the CRTC and we need to continue that.”
U-21 Minutes Initiative Will Not Change for 2024
It’s now been two seasons since the Canadian Premier League set the required domestic U-21 minutes goal for clubs at 2,000, which was a 500 minute increase over 2021. Despite it being a requirement to take part in postseason, this year saw some clubs barely get themselves over the finish line. Noonan, however, is happy with 2,000 minutes being the marker, saying he thinks it’s the right number.
“It’s going to remain for 2024. We assess it throughout the season as well as after the season to make sure that it is still having the effect that we want it to have, so it’s status quo for 2024.”
“[U-21 athletes] are not sitting on a bench, they’re not playing glorified low-stakes friendlies, they’re playing,” he ocntinued. “You look at our nominees from the CPL Awards, including winner Matteo de Brienne, and they’re shining examples of how that initiative is working.”
VAR Is Still Under Consideration, But It’s Give-And-Take
Refereeing proves to be a contentious subject in any sports league, but it’s fair to say 2023 saw criticisms reach new heights. Amongst those shouts came rumours that the league was considering a video assistant refereeing system, or at least a trial run of its little brother VAR Light.
When asked for an update on the matter, Noonan made it clear that this was a decision with a big price tag behind it: beyond the expensive nature of the equipment itself, Canada Soccer would need to train VAR officials, resulting in a higher cost to cover a larger officiating crew in each of the league’s matches.
While the league hasn’t settled on a decision as of yet, it looks like the CPL’s Executive President of Soccer Costa Smyrniotis and Executive Vice President Glen Johnson are leading the thought process on VAR behind the scenes.
The commissioner had made it clear earlier willing to experiment as a young league that needs to differentiate its product on the field, but he also recognizes that putting resources into VAR means taking them away from something else – for example, they need to balance if fans would rather have VAR or additional U-18 roster spots.
“Those are the tradeoffs that we make in a land of limited resources in a startup environment that we are five years in,” said Noonan. ” We weigh the pros-and-cons.”
The Banner Year For Attendance Broke Revenue Records, Too
It’s really important to remember that the Canadian Premier League, despite running from coast-to-coast, is just five years old. It’s a start-up business that weathered a pandemic in its second year and ongoing hostility from traditional broadcast networks that could expand its reach by multitudes. And yet, it keeps growing.
This year saw a huge increase in league-wide fan attendance, with 19% growth overall through the regular season. The jump from 360,832 last year to 429,915 this year is no small potatoes, with Mark Noonan revealing that those extra butts in seats also helped set records for merchandise sales, concession sales, and national local sponsorship incomes, the specifics of which will be transparently revealed later.
Those budget line items might not have the same pizzazz as world-class owners coming in, but they are integral to the growth of the collective – make no mistake, this is fantastic news for the young league.
With growth metrics, expansion promises, and news that York United look to be finding firm footing, it was quite a positive state of the league address for the CPL – albeit one without mention of a players’ union that has largely remained quiet for 2023.
“2023 has been a banner year for our league on and off the field,” said Noonan. “We’re a nascent league, but we continue to build a league that all of Canada from coast-to-coast can loudly and proudly call its very own. A place where young Canadians have a platform for their biggest dreams, that communities across the country have their own slice of the world’s most popular and beautiful sport. For this, we are incredibly proud and grateful for the support of all of our stakeholders”
“Let me emphasize – we’re far from satisfied. We’re looking forward to the next game and creating a lasting legacy for the sport in Canada. That’s what drives us and we know the best is yet to come.”
Header Image Photo Credit: David Chant