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How to Ensure a Stable, Long-Term Canadian Second Division

Swangard Stadium could yet be home to a professional soccer etam again - if we play our cards right. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Swangard Stadium could yet be home to a professional soccer etam again - if we play our cards right. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

Yesterday morning, I reviewed ten cities that could serve as potential homes for teams in a Canadian second division. Some of them were better choices than others, but they all had at least one suitable stadium for professional soccer and they were all markets capable of supporting a second-division team in this country. That's always been one of the key objections to starting up a domestic professional league: there aren't enough cities that can host a team, and most of those cities don't have a suitable stadium. Well, that might have been true in 1985 but it's not true today.

Of course, that's not the only reason people say we could never have our own professional league today. Most of the other objections come back to history: remembering the failed Canadian Soccer League, or the CSA's last effort to create a national league which collapsed before it even started in a cloud of incompetence, corruption, and blind lunacy. "It didn't work before, so why will it work now?" And it's true, one definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

So let's not do the same thing, then.

It's true that there's been plenty of failure in the histories of the Canadian and American second divisions, but that gives us plenty of lessons to draw upon so we can do it properly this time. We already have a list of potential cities for a Canadian league. Today, Eighty Six Forever brings you ways, beyond picking the right markets, that a Canadian national, professional league could ensure stability for years to come.

The old business model in the second division was that the very successful clubs (Seattle, Montreal, Rochester, and so on) provided a core group that the league could rely upon to remain profitable, while the other clubs formed and folded around them as a bunch of owners who didn't actually have any money paid their franchise fees and dutifully went broke. This kept a lot of revenue coming into the league office but prevented league stability and meant that any new team in the second division would face the automatic stigma of "well, they're just going to fold in a season or two anyway; everyone else does". Right now, FC Edmonton fans are nodding grimly at me. It's become virtually an expectation. No new fanbase is secure.

A Canadian second division can't afford to be that unstable. The division's credibility depends on being able to build popularity in all of its markets and promise professional soccer for years to come. The most important way to guarantee that would be a policy of aggressive revenue sharing. Revenue sharing is common in North American major league sports, but largely anathema in the international soccer world. Quite the contrary: overwhelmingly top-heavy leagues like the Scottish Premier League are virtually defined by the revenue they don't share, and the English Premier League itself was initially formed to give the first division an overwhelming slice the Football League's television money.

Luckily, North Americans are used to the concept and most of us don't react with the same horror as a Celtic fan when told that clubs should pool their resources for the common good. Major League Soccer, of course, incorporates revenue sharing, and it's no coincidence that no MLS club has folded since the two Florida-based teams went under in 2001. A Canadian soccer league would almost certainly have even lower television revenues than MLS, of course: Canadian teams would be reduced to largely pooling gate receipts. Such a Canadian system would have to be fairly aggressive to ensure all eight teams could remain solvent, even through temporary dips or while smaller markets build a local fanbase. It would also have to be coupled with an equally aggressive salary floor to prevent unscrupulous owners growing fat off of revenue sharing while fielding an uncompetitive team, as happens in Major League Baseball. Revenue sharing is not a cure-all. But it is a solution that has served much of North America well and deserves to be tried in the second division.

A Canadian league would also have to avoid the old Canadian Soccer League's trap and avoid overenthusiastic expansion. This is best known as NASL Syndrome, when the first incarnation of that league expanded to the point that in 1984 there was one NASL franchise for every six Americans (or something). The lure of franchise fees proved toxic to the NASL, in need of ready cash: they pimped themselves out cheaper and cheaper until at last they had nothing left to give. Expansion dilutes the player pool, it reduces the competitiveness of the league, and it reduces stability when the occasional expansion team inevitably fails to work out.

At its peak in 1990, the Canadian Soccer League had eleven teams. They had begun only three years ago with eight and had added four more while losing the Calgary Kickers/Strikers. All of this was in an era where soccer was relatively less popular in Canada than it is today, and in a league that demanded a higher calibre of play and therefore required larger ticket sales (it's sometimes forgotten that, in its prime, the CSL was probably the highest-quality league in Canada or the United States). You're not going to believe it, but that strategy didn't work out. In 1991, the CSL was down to eight teams. By 1993, it was dead. Any new league would have to be sure to avoid the same mistake, to avoid spreading the league's wealth too thin, leading to inevitable folding or relocation and a subsequent erosion of the league's stability. Once a Canadian second division was up and running, any new owners interested in expanding the league would need to demonstrate that they have plenty of cash to operate the team. They'd need to be able to produce a stadium up to national standards, and if they're having one built then they can get their team when it's done. Ideally, they'd even be required to post a large bond ensuring that even if the owner flees for Cancun, the team can be kept operating for a couple seasons at no expense to the league while new ownership is sought. The bar must be very, very high. Better to have a modest league that can last forever than a league with a team in every city that lasts for two years.

Going back to the school of forced parity, a sustainable Canadian league would almost require a hard salary cap. Forced parity, I know, is not always a popular concept. But a salary cap set at a percentage of league revenues makes it mathematically impossible for teams to spend on players beyond their means. If anything, such a salary cap makes even more sense for a lesser league that won't have the option of promotion to the first division. The key in any lower level division, particularly one that will be operating along the margins for the first couple years of its existence, is to control costs. Player costs are a professional team's largest expenditure, and will it really make that huge a difference to soccer in this country if we pay big coin to lure in sub-MLS international players?

There would be no need for a Canadian league to implement the Byzantine roster rules of Major League Soccer: quite the contrary, allowing unrestricted free agency and doing away with MLS's love of player drafts would help the Canadian player pool significantly by promoting fair competition and ensuring that our top talent always has the best opportunity to succeed. But a good, hard salary cap would give us a league of equally competitive teams, ensuring good ticket sales, while also making sure that nobody goes bankrupt trying to keep in an arms race. Making that salary cap a set percentage of league revenue would also allow the league's wages to grow as its resources did, and organically improve the quality of play when the league was ready for it.

I've been discussing the lessons a Canadian league could take from Major League Soccer to ensure solvency. But one potentially radical idea is a complete departure from MLS's traditions: a fall/spring schedule. Soccer is playable on artificial turf in most of the country except for during the depths of winter, so a two-legged season with a break between November and January would keep weather from being a serious concern. The main advantage to such a schedule would that it would partially avoid competition with the Canadian Football League and Major League Soccer: there'd be some overlap at the beginning and end of each season, of course, but it would still give a Canadian league a period where it would be the only soccer in town. If there were second division teams in MLS cities, this would make creating a schedule that avoids competition easier. And since in an eight-team league we'd be seeing the same old matchups every week, the winter break would give both fans and teams a chance to catch their breath.

There are some interesting reasons why a fall/spring schedule are worth considering, as well as some reasons to avoid it (it would become harder to schedule games for teams sharing CIS fields, February in Winnipeg is still pretty cold). I'd probably stick with a summer schedule if it was my money. But I mention this both because it's an interesting idea, and because it's the sort of unconventional thinking a Canadian soccer league would do well to consider. We cannot enslave ourselves to tradition, either American or European. Canada has its own unique soccer problems, and these will sometimes require our own solutions.

Finally, a bit of controversy. When I advocate creating a Canadian second division, I imply the existence of a Canadian first division. That's the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer. No all-Canadian league could, for the foreseeable future, match MLS in competitive quality so I wouldn't propose to try. Let those three teams remain the pinnacle of the professional sport in this country. At the same time, when a successful Canadian division two league gets started there will inevitably be Canadian team owners looking to join Major League Soccer in the future. We have to keep our own teams in our own league.

A Canadian league has to avoid the fate of the American second division, which has allowed its best teams to be picked off one by one by Major League Soccer. Once Montreal is gone, the only reliably, historically profitable team in the NASL will be the Puerto Rico Islanders. Does that sound like a path to long-term league happiness? That cannot happen in Canada; we haven't got the market depth to keep replacing defecting teams with new ones.

In the event that a few teams become far more successful than the others financially, the health of the league will depend on keeping those teams happy. Income from attendance over a certain number, for example, could be exempt from revenue sharing: if the Hamilton team is drawing 25,000 fans a night in its new CFL stadium while the league average is 5,000, that could be 20,000 fans of pure profit for Bob Young every week. That's a powerful motivator. Competition in the Voyageurs Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League provides the possibility for ambitious organizations to test their mettle on the world stage without leaving home. But if we allow the Americans to poach all of our teams that turn a profit while we keep the failures, our league will soon fail along with them. Stability runs in both directions: you don't want to lose the least successful teams, but you can't afford to lose the best.