Seven Things To Know About The League1 Ontario Restructure
With the historic news that League1 Ontario will be restructuring into a three-tier league format in 2024, there’s a lot to consider.
For those who missed today’s announcement, the semi-professional league is enacting the ‘2024 Plan’, which will see the pro-am competition shift into three distinct tiers that feature promotion and relegation between them for both the men’s and women’s side of the game.
It’s a significant game-changer for League1 Ontario, and it brings a lot of changes for all the clubs involved. We spoke with League1 Ontario Executive Chairman Dino Rossi about the big picture changes, and he had a lot to say.
Without further ado, here’s seven big things to new know about the new League1 Ontario divisions:
1. Promotion And Relegation Is The Name Of The Game
The ability for teams to move up and down the League1 Ontario ladder of competition is the obvious headliner here. It was a change that needed to happen, according to Rossi.
“It’s the right solution for where are at this time in the evolution of our league,” said the chairman, “at some point, it dawned on myself and some of our other leadership that you can only keep bringing on new teams and parachuting them into the top tier and only tier of competition for so long before you run the risk of dilution of talent, and risk the competition losing a little bit of its meaning.”
When the new competition format drops in 2024, the champions of the League2 and the Championship divisions will advance upwards to the league above, whilst the bottom-placed teams of the Premier Division and the Championship will drop down to the league below.
League1 Ontario received unanimous support from its clubs to go ahead with the plan, which means several teams have signed off on a move that will see them drop down to the second or, perhaps, even third division of the semi-professional football pyramid. “They all believe in the logic and rationale behind it,” surmised Rossi, “and they voted in favour of doing what is right for both the league and the sport in general.”
Rossi also acknowledges a growing gap in regular season performance between the league’s current top and bottom performers, suggesting that the new Premier Division will benefit from the increased importance and competitiveness of each regular season game. Lower-tier teams will, of course, have the opportunity to work their way up towards this through the promotion pathway.
2. The Next Two Seasons Determine What Division Clubs Will Land In
It wouldn’t be just if the league assigned teams to random divisions, so League1 Ontario has come up with an fair solution: teams will be assigned to their respective tiers in 2024 based on their accumulative points earned over the next two seasons. There’s a caveat here: points earned in 2022 will only be with 75%, whilst points earned in 2023 will be worth 100%.
That means that the top twelve men’s teams and ten women’s teams will slot into the L1O Premier Division, but the rest will start 2024 a tier below in the Championship, one level above the a regional-based reserve division.
In the meantime, next two seasons will see the League1 Ontario premier division enter a single table format as the clubs duke it out to see where they’ll land come 2024.
Rossi thinks the staggered value to points accumulation is a fair approach given that some teams are still essentially just getting started due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a number of clubs on both the men’s and women’s side who didn’t get to have a full season in 2020, and last year was a compromise year. You have teams like St. Catherine’s, or Waterloo, or Guelph Union that took part in the summer series because they didn’t feel that they could commit to a whole year. This is for all intents and purposes their first year, and it felt unfair to make it a one-and-done and that’s how we do classification. At the same time, I feel like the year that leads into the system needs to be the one that’s for all the marbles. It’s worth a little bit more.Dino Rossi
Those still getting launched will be aided by the fact that a lower landing this season will have a lesser blow: if a team earns 48 points, they’re still carrying 36 over into the next season – not an insignificant number, says Rossi. If another team finished at 20, however, they only lose 5 – the relative impact of a poor performance in is lessened.
“It gives everybody time for the next season in 2023 to really get ready,” explained Rossi, “I expect that season is going to be quite a shooting match.”
3. Future Clubs Will Have To Work Their Way Up
The League1 Ontario board of directors have announced a pause to expansion that will run through to 2024. When clubs join after that point, they’ll begin their footballing journey on the lowest rung of the ladder in League2.
We can have two tiers at the top level, and we can have a third tier where our reserve teams can play and new clubs can join and work their way up. That’s a privilege we have as a big province that is an engine that helps drive football in this country. We think it’s the appropriate decision to make, and our license holders agreed.Dino Rossi
While the Premier Division and Championship Division have a hard limit on the number of clubs, the bottom rung of the semi-professional league, League2, is split up into regional divisions and has no such capacity limit. While that’s something that might change down the line if further expansion is needed, right now it’s the right fit as designed in the 2024 Plan.
“You should have to earn your place in the top of the pyramid as opposed to just making an application to join it,” says Rossi, “and we’re in a position where we can do that: Ontario is a province that has the scale, the number of clubs, the number of players and coaches with the relevant standards to be able to have a league big enough where we can do this.”
4. The L1 Cup Will Return
The L1 Cup used to run concurrency with the regular League1 Ontario season in a knockout format. With League1 Ontario now set to expand to three divisions, the cup will be returning – and it’ll offer clubs in the lower tiers a golden opportunity to punch above their weight against teams tiered above them, much like the England’s FA Cup or the Canadian Championship.
“I felt that when you go to three tiers, the one thing you absolutely have to have is a competition that unifies everybody, and the L1 Cup is that unifying vehicle. A team in League2 or the L1O Championship will get a chance to scalp one of the teams in the top tier, and I think that’s a really fun feature,” stated Rossi.
While the L1 Cup has been shelved for the last few seasons, it’s new expanded format means it’ll be back in a big way. Reserve teams won’t be allowed to feature in the cup competition, for obvious reasons.
Rossi also noted that he’d love to see the L1 Cup champion qualify for the Canadian Championship one day, though that isn’t his decision to make. He also recognized the financial burden that kind of qualification puts on semi-professional clubs, but it’s certainly food for thought for the future.
5. OPDL Teams Can Play In League2
Rossi states that the bottom rung of the League1 Ontario ladder will feature both reserve teams and OPDL teams, with expansion sides set to begin their footballing journey in the regionally-split tier.
Those OPDL groups won’t be required to be full League1 Ontario license holders, but can enter a hybrid system with a mixture of standards between League1 Ontario and the current reserve standard. Those clubs can also enter a full first time into League2 that won’t have to be U-21 age restricted.
“It would be an opportunity for those groups who are not currently part of League1 to enter the ecosystem with their first team if they so choose,” explains Rossi, “or they could still continue to take advantage of being an OPDL group and continuing to field a reserve team.”
6. Expansion Interest Remains High
While the League1 Ontario board of directors have paused expansion until the 2024 Plan is enacted, Rossi revealed that interest in the semi-professional organization hasn’t slowed down in the slightest.
“We have an enormous amount of interest to join our league, and we’ve not said a word about expansion this year. People are reaching out to us unsolicited,” says Rossi, who expects that this number will only grow with the news of a tiered footballing ecosystem.
There will be a roadmap as to how they can be a part of our ecosystem as of 2024. There will still be an evaluation process and vetting, because it’s still standards-based and you’ll have to show that you can meet those standards. It will open a door to organizations who may not have been previously able to join for a variety of reasons to possibly come in.Dino Rossi
The previous League1 Ontario season saw the addition of five new men’s teams and three new women’s, with the upcoming campaign seeing two ambitious clubs enter through the license acquisition of existing teams along with the return of Pickering FC. With twelve new teams joining the men’s side since it launched in 2014 and ten for the women’s, the growth clearly hasn’t finished yet – but it will be paused until the new competition format takes hold.
7. Many Details Are Still Being Decided
The 2024 Plan is still two full seasons away, and that gives the board of directors time to fine-tune the details.
For the moment, whether reserve clubs will be eligible for promotion from League2 remains to be seen. Rossi states that sentiment has been expressed on both sides of the fence, with some clubs believing the reserves should be eligible for promotion so long as they never join the same tier as the senior team, whilst others believe that they should be locked in to League2.
“Like we do on other topics, we’ll have a good energetic debate it on, weigh the pros and cons, and vote. When it comes to that, the license holders have a right to have their voice heard on that topic. If there’s enough support one way or the other, that’s how we’re gonna go,” he says.
In a similar vein, it remains to be seen whether the promotion spots will be accrued through playoffs or simply a club’s position at the end of the regular season. Rossi recognizes that playoffs brings a lot of excitement and emotion to the table, but it’s a conversation that has been tabled right now so that focus can shift towards the upcoming season.
“It’s like the reserve team issue: if the clubs want that, why would we object? If it’s something they feel strongly about, we’ll go with the way democracy wants it to.”
The chairman has committed to having those details sorted ahead of the 2023 League1 Ontario season, so that fans, clubs, and players alike know exactly what they’ll be heading into for the final campaign ahead of the 2024 Plan.
There’s clearly a lot of moving parts in play to help League1 Ontario expand to a three-tiered system with movement between all levels, but it’s an exciting moment for both semi-professional football in Ontario and the province’s pathway to professional football, too.