Editorial — Let’s have another difficult-but-not-actually-so-difficult conversation surrounding Canadian soccer, shall we? Let’s discuss the potential of there being a professional Canadian women’s soccer league.
History, Gender Equality, and Finances: Discussing the Viability of a Professional Canadian Women’s Soccer League
As Canada recently started a professional men’s soccer league, many have started to ponder the question: “when will we take the same step on the women’s side?”. There are many differences between men’s and women’s soccer, but are those differences enough for a women’s league to be an impossible idea? It’s a tough question as many factors go into it.
Women’s sport isn’t as glamourous as men’s sport due to historical inequality.
Many people see women’s soccer as a big financial risk with a minimal financial return. This narrative often causes important people to side-step this side of the sport completely. A global lack of funding and attention towards the women’s game is the unfortunate result of that narrative. But as we know, sports can be elevated as much by passion and emotion as by money, and these qualities are no different whether we’re talking about men’s or women’s soccer.
Many of the issues surrounding women’s sport come from inequality, and while we are doing a better job as a society of recognizing and stamping out this sort of inequality, a big chunk of it has been ingrained and entwined within our daily lives right from birth. This is why women’s soccer is often seen as inferior, rather than just different.
Let’s say we live in a hypothetical, perfect world, where men and women were treated equally throughout history. Would women’s sports still be considered vastly inferior in that perfect world’s modern-day? I highly doubt that. Sure, there are perpetual differences between the two sides of the sport, as men and women differ biologically, but in a perfect world, everyone would accept and support these differences rather than use them as divisive factors.
What sort of benefit would starting a women’s league even bring?
Now let’s get into the technical parts of the big question. Is a professional Canadian women’s soccer league a viable and sustainable idea? The first thing we have to understand is that modern sport is a business. I don’t think anyone really likes this, but with so many eyes on the global game, every club’s goal is to win, create income, and keep the board members and shareholders happy.
Anyone that works on the business side of a sporting franchise will tell you that running a sports team isn’t much different from running any other business, and the goal of running a business is to create revenue, minimize costs and put a little jingle in your pockets. Even on the men’s side, lower level professional sport is seen as quite a risky investment, so I know you could imagine the way women’s football is seen in the eyes of investors: It’s a minefield.
But for me, it’s a minefield with a pot of gold on the other side. Women’s sport is risky, I don’t know if anyone could refute that. However, the potential for growth is massive and we are seeing proof of that in the women’s leagues currently thriving in Europe.
An amazing example is the Dutch Women’s National Team. Between 1991 and 2011, this glorious footballing nation, revered for developing greats of the men’s game such as Cruyff, Bergkamp, and Arjen Robben, didn’t qualify for a single FIFA Women’s World Cup. Then in 2015, they qualified for the tournament for the first time. Four years after that, the Netherlands nearly won the whole dang thing, losing to the USWNT in the final.
How on earth did they make this massive jump? I think you could point to their domestic women’s league as the answer. The Netherlands created a women’s division in the late 2000s. Although it failed at first, the league still helped produce a ton of gifted players that are now pushing on and powering their nation to the pinnacle of the women’s game.
The investors might have lost money, and maybe they still are, but they helped create a result far more important than the numbers in their bank account — they helped create national success in women’s football. This success will inspire more and more women and girls in the Netherlands to start taking football seriously as a career, especially as they see high-profile Dutch women playing for massive clubs, like Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema or Jackie Groenen at Manchester United.
Can Canada follow this model? Perhaps, but the one thing standing in our way is that we aren’t really a soccer country. In the Netherlands, it’s very likely that the people who are rich enough to be investors and owners of football clubs are football fans themselves. This makes them hungry to achieve success and be willing to lose money to achieve it. This is hardly going to be the case in Canada. I know Canadian Premier League owners fall into this bracket of being dedicated to the growth of the game.
For them, we are so grateful, but are there more out there, and are they willing to take even bigger financial hits than CanPL owners? This is one big stumbling block. How do we sell the women’s game to investors? I would argue that we’ve already done the best we can to convince them, by winning Olympic medals in 2012 and 2016 and hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2015. I don’t even have a theory for this, because in my eyes: what more can we do? Find water on Mars?
It’s also entirely possible that since Canada is still a top 10-ranked women’s national team that has achieved Olympic success, some people might believe that we are doing just fine without our own domestic league. This opinion barely scratches the surface of this topic, as digging a bit deeper will show you that the sudden rapid growth of previously inferior nations now puts Canada’s future at the top of women’s soccer at risk.
Starting a women’s league would allow our domestic players to reach a higher level of performance, which would then aid our national team in staying competitive on the global stage as other nations start to rival Canada via their own domestic soccer investments.
If you want to see what others think, check out the replies to the below tweet.
Genuine question: what risks do you see with starting a women’s pro league in Canada (any team sport)?
— Carmelina Moscato (@cmoscato4) October 19, 2020
Comparing the finances of Canadian men’s soccer with a potential women’s league:
Let’s discuss the Canadian Premier League, the men’s first division that was founded a couple of years ago. The salaries aren’t great, there are still growing pains, and things just aren’t perfect. That’s the nature of starting a brand new league, but the long-term signs look very strong and the player development has already been impressive compared to our initial expectations.
When I assess the stumbling blocks that a women’s league would have to overcome — well, the men’s league is actually going through a lot of the same things, and they are determined to overcome them. Travel costs, wage issues, revenue, getting fans into the stands, sponsorships, it’s all difficult at the lower professional level on both sides of the game, so I don’t see many valid excuses in this area, especially logistically. However, these are challenging issues to overcome regardless.
One difference to me is really profound: the potential for external financial return. A women’s professional team might be able to match or even exceed the matchday revenue of a men’s team in Canada, but we have to think about what happens when we produce players that start attracting attention from bigger teams in bigger leagues. Developing players to reach a level where they can move to a better league is one of the main goals of the Canadian Premier League, and that would also likely be a big goal for a Canadian women’s league in the future. The big problem is the gap in transfer fees.
Last season, the Canadian Premier League saw a handful of players depart the league for transfer fees (Estevez-Tsai from York9 to ADO Den Haag, Tristan Borges from Forge to OH Leuven, Joel Waterman from Cavalry to Montreal Impact, and a few others).
In total, I think we could assume that the values of these transfers in total were a few hundred thousand Canadian dollars (we don’t have many financial details about these transfers). This was a big gain for the clubs that sold players, and I’m sure the league knew before they even kicked a ball that selling players is the best way to ensure long-term financial success and create serious income apart from internal match day revenues.
As a top division in a first world country, the Canadian Premier League actually has quite promising potential as a selling league. On the women’s side, however, the transfer fees are so minimal that banking on this to be a long term revenue stream isn’t viable.
As I mentioned, the combined transfer fees received by CanPL clubs for player sales in 2019 and 2020 were probably a few hundred thousand CAD. According to The Telegraph, the total amount spent on transfers in all of women’s football across the globe in 2019 was approximately just $652,000 USD or $829,000 CAD.
The Canadian Premier League, being a rather small professional men’s league on a global scale, could realistically surpass that total in sales on its own within 5 or 6 years. The financial side of the women’s game is growing, but not at a rate where we can expect to see transfer fees outside of the biggest clubs. We can play a small part in improving this though.
Next time you travel to London to see your beloved Chelsea FC play at Stamford Bridge, why not snag a ticket for one of their women’s team matches as well? After all, they’re also Chelsea blue through and through, just like the men’s team. Or perhaps next time you go to buy a new Arsenal kit, you could get ‘Miedema 10’ on the back instead of ‘Aubameyang 14’. These little actions can add up and go a long way in convincing owners and investors that women’s soccer might be worth a bit more of their time and money.
Salaries are a problem too. As revealed by the PFA Canada, over half of Canadian Premier League players make less than $22,000. This is hardly a livable wage, and while the salaries will grow over the years, most players will still have to find other sources of income. If Canada had a women’s league in a perfect world, their salaries would be identical to the men’s. Denying that is fundamentally sexist.
Unfortunately, that is not the world that we live in, and realistically the starting wage in a women’s league in Canada (if it was to miraculously be implemented tomorrow) would likely be lower than what it is for the men, due to all the financial stumbling blocks they would face. With lower salaries comes the need for a secondary source of income for most, if not all of the players, and this subsequently creates another problem of how to schedule matches, travel (remember, we live in the second-largest nation in the world), and training. Yet, they’ve made this work on the men’s side, and when the love of the game takes over, there are ways to find solutions.
Canada’s women’s team has had success on the international stage in the recent past while the men’s team hasn’t, which is a large reason why the recent focus has been towards the development of the men’s game, but we have to start realizing that our women’s game is now falling behind too. When you see the women’s footballers that nations like the Netherlands and Spain are starting to produce, at technical levels that we are yet to reach in this country, you get the feeling that we absolutely need our own league to start keeping pace with these nations that we were once vastly superior to.
I believe the lack of potential in terms of financial return will result in less investment into a Canadian women’s league compared to what we have seen men’s game, but that doesn’t mean a league couldn’t exist. At the end of the day, Canada Soccer’s goal is to improve the men’s and women’s national teams. With that being said, we do need to be realistic and understand the immense difficulty behind this venture. We don’t just want a women’s league – we want one that will last. Planning and having confidence in a venture as comprehensive as this takes time, as it did for Canada to put together a men’s professional league.
One thing we must also remember is that there is already an established women’s soccer league down south in the NWSL. Just like how we landed three MLS franchises on the men’s side before introducing our own domestic league many years later, perhaps our domestic women’s soccer journey has to start by getting a helping hand from our friends down south before we can truly start creating our own independent platform. A step is a step, even if we need to be dependent for a while in order to reach independence.
So yes, a women’s league is surely viable down the line if Canada Soccer is serious about its long-term development goals and wants this to become a reality. It just might take a few years for conversations to become serious, especially as the Canadian Premier League is still awaiting long-term stability. The general idea of a women’s league, however, can start building momentum this very minute. It starts with us!