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EXCLUSIVE: Chris Keem, The Man Behind League1 Ontario’s Growth, On What’s Coming Up

By on August 30, 2023 2 2411 Views

League1 Ontario’s 2024 plan has brought with it a whole slew of changes and updates to the League1 formula that started in 2014 and has now grown into a soccer system spanning nearly 50 unique brands from coast-to-coast.

Recently, Northern Tribune had the opportunity to speak with League1 Ontario’s Manager of Operations, Chris Keem, about his current major project: overseeing the expansion of L1O’s pyramid and awarding licenses to new clubs entering League2 for the 2024 season.

New Kids on The Block: Progress on Expansion

The process of building this bottom tier of the L1O pyramid is a rigorous one, to say the least.

It goes without saying that the third tier of Canadian soccer is not a financially lucrative investment. Those who enter this world understand that they are not here to make a profit or perhaps not even break even.

Photo Credit: Keague1 Ontario

This is why those who did apply for expansion status with League2 Ontario for 2024 went through such a thorough selection process. The league needed to make sure these clubs were in this for the right reasons while also trying their hardest to make their club a viable sports product.

In conversation, Keem outlined how clubs went through multiple stages of vetting which included interviews, site visits, financial auditing, and product feasibility studies.

“We were looking for organizations who weren’t going to concentrate on just the on-field product only” said Keem, “we [have] too many organizations who say… ‘we won the Ontario Cup, we should be in [L1O]” adding that many of these groups lack the basic structures of club development and sustainability.

Among the list of off-field requirements that Keem knew he needed going into this included proper facilities, physiotherapists, a merchandising and ticketing plan, and a training plan – amongst other things.

A vast array of organizations applied for a spot in L2Ontario, everything from youth clubs with men’s teams (akin to Unionville Milliken) to stand alone organizations (like Electric City FC) and even some Canadian UPSL sides.

Electric City FC Attendance
Peterborough’s Electric City FC has shown how semi-pro soccer can thrive when given the right resources and support.

Ultimately, 40 teams put their hats into the ring last September as applicants, but as the process became more scrutinizing, that number would drop from 40 to 20 to 14.

“When the 20 gave their applications, I graded them and gave feedback. Six decided right there that it was too much,” said Keem. He added that amongst the six who applied then pulled themselves out of contention, there was a pervasive idea that organizations could ‘just field a team and be happy’.

This grading system proved to be worthwhile, and after having their plans meticulously picked apart by experts in finance, coaching, public relations (and by Keem himself), teams were given a rank of 1-4 to determine whether their bids were successful. According to Keem, teams with a one were turned away, twos were given provisional expansion status for 2025/2026 if they undertook the recommendations given to them, threes were for clubs who were ready but needed some minor corrections, and fours were ready to go right away.

This latter group is where the Sudbury Cyclones fell.

So What About dem Cyclones, eh?

As you may have heard, the Sudbury Cyclones were recently announced as an expansion side for the 2024 L2O season and are presently the only announced expansion side.

In Keem’s eyes, they had everything needed to achieve that title too when they submitted their final business plan earlier this year. Owned and operated by SW Sports and Entertainment – owners of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves and the NBLC’s Sudbury Five – the Cyclones entered this process with a winning formula which will allow them to succeed come season’s start.

In regard to the Cyclones application at large, Keem stated that SWSE “hit every point we wanted”, with well thought-out plans for every aspect of running a club including community outreach, home pitch, their PR, their merchandising, everything. “The only part of their plan they didn’t have – the only thing they got docked points for – was VIP tickets” said Keem, and even then, this minor issue was quickly resolved when brought to ownership’s attention.

Photo Credit: CTV News Northern Ontario

Furthermore, the club is already preparing for expansion before even having announced a logo, including adding a press box and additional seating at James Jerome Field while also penciling plans for their own facilities beyond the city-owned pitch.

Keem’s main concern with the Cyclones’ proposal was in relation to the travel aspect of their participation – even considering L2O’s planned regional divisions – but those were quickly nullified when SWSE proposed using the Sudbury Wolves’ team bus over the season, a commodity which the OHL side won’t be using during the summer months.

And this is where Keem sees the future expansion of League1 headed. In his conversations with SWSE’s Dario Zulich regarding the Cyclones’ bid, Zulich offered to reach out to his contacts within the ownership groups of OHL and CEBL teams. To Keem and Zulich alike, the benefits of having CEBL and OHL teams own and operate League1 teams are endless.

These conversations have proven fruitful too. According to Keem, there has been interest from several OHL owners regarding possible partnerships with purchases of L1 clubs.

“I’m working on one right now that will hopefully be good. It’s one of our stronger clubs that needs some help… they have a strong following and it would help them tremendously,” said Keem.

Altogether, the goal is to have more money injected into the L1O system so they can put out the best product they can.

Photo Credit: League1 Ontario

Standards, Standards, Standards

On multiple occasions, the topic of standards came up as a point of contention between the League and its existing clubs. For too long, far too many of the clubs have failed to adhere to even the most basic tenants of third division footy.

This is why this process also presented an opportunity for the Expansion Committee to reinvigorate L1O with clubs who were determined to follow the league’s set standards. “We need to start seeing [League1ON] as a sports entertainment product and not just a soccer league”, said Keem, hinting at the need for clubs to start operating more professionally.

“You can’t just post on Facebook saying, ‘we have a game tonight’, it’s not enough… We have [some license holders] who barely do this – if anything all. They aren’t doing nearly enough to draw spectators or advertise their games.” It was added that certain clubs – some of whom have been around since the league’s first season – have been given more slack than other teams in terms of their professionalism as they are founding members of the league, but Keem said that the goal is to reign that in.

Much of this stems from a lack of care, according to Keem, and this leads to clubs being fined. “We fine them into the ground. We make a lot of money from fines. We don’t even budget for it, it’s just added money!”

It was revealed that L1O funds much of its referee development program via fines given out to teams. These include everything from lacking a scoreboard to unsatisfactory changing facilities to not having a physiotherapist on site. Fines ranged from $250 per infraction to upwards of $1000 depending on severity and repetition.

Unfortunately for the League, the clubs know that it is cheaper for them to get these fines than meet the standards, and so the league is pursuing more severe penalties to ensure compliance.

masters futbol academy league1 ontario win
Despite being 2019 L1O Champions, Master’s FA has consistently struggled to meet the league’s standards.

When asked if L1O had considered revoking the licenses of clubs who fail to adhere to the league’s expectations, Keem responded with one word: “Yes.”

He added that the league will possibly not renew licenses and will sell them to organizations who are willing to meet the set standards.

“I told the person [from US Soccer] I brought in to help evaluate the community outreach section of the applications to be rigorous cause I want these teams to know ‘this has to be better… this is what we are expecting”, saying he didn’t want new teams to think that the status quo was acceptable.

Keem, the former General Manager of North Mississauga SC, was proud to cite his former club’s recent improvements with their off-field product, however he added that for NMSC and even others like Electric City or the Simcoe County Rovers, there is still work to be done to fully reach the expectations Keem and co. have for the league.

What’s Next for L1O and L1Canada?

When I penned my piece earlier this year regarding standards in League1 Canada, I argued that League1 Canada should ensure that all its leagues (L1BC, Alberta, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic) are governed by a single set of standards for all clubs.

To my excitement, it seems that I and the powers that be in L1 Canada are on the same page as according to Keem, these standards will be centralized beginning in 2024. In fact, not only will the standards be centralized, but scheduling and discipline will also be done out of the League1 Canada HQ as to ensure uniformity.

Beyond that, the L1O has pledge to undertake a major rebranding strategy in two-to-three-year’s time. Presently, League1 Ontario’s pyramid consists of the L1O Premiership (D3), L1O Championship (D4), and L2 Ontario (D5), similar to the English league system.

“Very few like the English naming convention for leagues. It’s just confusing and so we are looking at other options,” said Keem, continuing on to mention that they are simply waiting for the licenses to expire. “These clubs paid to play in League1 Ontario so we can’t just go change it now.”

Photo Credit: League1 Ontario

Ultimately though, Keem – and truthfully, I too – is just incredibly excited for the end of this season and the beginning of next. He mentioned how the 2023 L1O finals this coming Saturday will be shot professionally with a three-camera set up to provide coverage of all the action between Scrosoppi and the Simcoe County Rovers. This will be followed by a busy off season as the league reveals the remaining L2O expansion sides and oversees their roll-outs in their respective communities.

“This is a test to see what we can do to make League1 better…from the World Cup to the CONCACAF matches to the CanPL, there’s a lot to tie people into the game and hopefully our groups can capture that market and grow the sport.”

The 2023 League1 Ontario Men’s Premier finals are set for this Saturday, September 2nd at 7PM at the Ontario Soccer Centre. The regular season champions, Scrosoppi FC, take on season runners-up Simcoe County Rovers after both clubs bested their opponents in the semi-finals. Tickets can be purchased online here.

  • Emma 11 months ago

    really insightful and realistic !

  • Brett 11 months ago

    Love this! Great article. It’s really exciting to get some behind the scene’s with decision making, process and more! 👏

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