By Ed Tait
The Canadian Premier League is taking its first breaths as professional soccer entity and with every inhale and exhale, Paul Beirne’s belief in the idea becomes that much more steadfast.
But before we proceed, an introduction…
Beirne is not only the CPL’s President, but was hired as the first paid employee of this country’s new domestic soccer league, set to debut in 2019, as a project manager.
Named president in January, he is managing day-to-day operations and criss-crossing this country – and beyond – to help establish the CPL’s foundation.
Beirne brings 25 years of experience in pro sports to his new gig, having worked with the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, then eight years with Toronto FC, the Ottawa Senators and then two years with Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club of the English Premier League.
And it’s that experience that has him convinced the CPL is going to succeed.
“There’s a lot of selling happening, but it’s selling something we absolutely believe in,” began Beirne. “I believe a lot of people in this country are waiting for this.
“Personally, I like an empty white board. I like to start unencumbered with no history, nothing holding me back. We’re approaching this through the lens that there are no rules… the only rules we want to adhere to are those for the game itself. We don’t look at this as risk. It’s not how hard will I crash, it’s how high will I fly.”
“It’s the opportunity to create a legacy. We say this all the time: this isn’t a five-year plan or a product we’re building, we’re building something for the next 100 years. That’s why I’m in it.”
The CPL’s inception began four to five years ago when former Canada Soccer President Victor Montagliani – now the president of CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) – stressed the importance of Canada having a professional domestic league. He met first with Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young and president Scott Mitchell about the idea, but the initial reaction was one of skepticism.
“Hopefully one day this will be a legendary moment, but there was a time when Victor got upset with Bob and Scott and said, ‘Stop telling me why this can’t work. And start telling me what needs to happen in order to make it work.’ That was the moment everyone started to think about this from a glass half-full perspective.
“It’s taken a number of years for the checklist of hurdles to be cleared, but here we are.”
What is the CPL? Where do the players come from? How will it work when professional soccer leagues in this country before have failed?
With Winnipeg now officially on board in the new CPL with Valour FC, we sat down with CPL President Paul Beirne recently for a 45-minute conversation that attempted to touch on many of the questions soccer fans – and general sports fans – in this province might have.
Here is that conversation…
Q: Sounds like you’re leaning on the old expression, ‘You only get one chance to make a good first impression’, then?
PB: Absolutely. I say that several times a week in front of my staff. I know it’s frustrating for soccer supporters across the country and it’s frustrating for us as well, but that is the exact point – you only get one chance at a first impression. Let’s set it up properly. Let’s set it up with strong foundations so that we make the best first impression and put the best product out there.
Q: I understand you are in the middle of your club ‘reveals’ right now, but how many teams will be in the CPL initially?
PB: We’ve always said that we’re going to start with no fewer than six teams. There are a number of clubs on the spectrum of readiness and we will reveal them as they become ready. I can’t actually look you in the eye and say it’s going to be eight teams and ‘X’ number of games. Those things will become more solidified as we go through the summer.
Q: What happens after the team announcements and the initial splash? How do you market and sell something when teams don’t have coaches, players, brands or even nicknames?
PB: One of the things they do have already in place are supporter groups. The culture of soccer is very close to the culture of Canadian football in the best CFL cities. Winnipeg is in that category. And so, while these games feel like worlds apart, in some ways they are very similar. The Canadian Premier League now has, at last count, 16 supporter groups across the country (Red River Rising in Winnipeg).
I’ll use Mississauga as an example. There’s no owner there. There’s no stadium. There’s no project. But there are supporters and, man, are they active. The same can be said for Quebec City and Moncton and across the country. That’s unprecedented and it really opens the eyes of politicians who are thinking about what to do with a piece of land and does it make sense to build an outdoor stadium for their community. Or, it opens the eyes to a potential owner who really wants to get into pro sports knowing that Canada’s No. 1 participation sport is soccer and that there are already supporter groups in place.
Those groups build something you can’t manufacture. I could buy ads, I could put up billboards, but that’s not the same as the passion that exists in the hearts and minds of soccer supporters across the country.
Q: That poses an interesting question, I think. You’ve got diehard fans who are going to come to games no matter what. But how do you attract the kids that play that haven’t gone to watch soccer and at the same time appeal to the Man U, Juventus or Real Madrid fans that might potentially look down their noses at the CPL because of the level of play?
PB: The reality is there are two types of Juventus fans, for example. There is one who loves the game and everything about the culture of the game. And there’s one who just loves Juventus. The one who just loves Juventus, we’re not going to try and convince him or her that this is the same type of quality. This is professional local soccer and the best we have in our country. It’s about this community and players from Manitoba who help contribute to something special out there on the pitch. It’s about the romance of the game and if you can’t get behind that, then this isn’t the product for you.
We need to know who we are and assert ourselves in a manner that is confident without over-selling it. This is about local soccer. So, Saturday morning get up and watch Everton play and your mate might be a Liverpool fan and you might hate each other’s guts for breakfast. But then you come down to the grounds on a Saturday afternoon and you enjoy local pro soccer together.
That dynamic exists around the world. Just about every nation on the planet has a pro league that provides that opportunity. It’s the local game and they’re not all Real Madrid.
Q; There will be an assumption that the CPL is a feeder-league to teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and other MLS teams. Is that how you see it?
PB: We will be Canada’s top professional level of play. It will start at a certain level and it’s going to proceed to grow on a yearly basis. We’ve seen that in other leagues that have started from scratch in other nations like Australia, Japan, Korea, USA. All of them have created a newer league in the last 20 or so years and all of them have started at a certain level and improved every year. And none of those countries have missed World Cup qualifying since they created their domestic league.
We endeavour to do the same thing for Canada. We’re not a development league for any league, but we are a development league for Canadian players and if they move on to a better situation for them somewhere else in the world, then perfect. But as we grow I think we’ll find more players will stay in Canada because it will be a viable place to earn your living.
Soccer in Canada is like a sleeping giant. And look out… in the next 10 years you won’t recognize it.
Q: How has the success of the MLS changed the perception that professional soccer can be viable in North America?
PB: There’s no question in my mind that CPL isn’t happening without those trailblazers in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. If you go back to 2004 and said a pro team was going to exist in Toronto and it was going to achieve high TV ratings and sold-out nights in a 28-30,000-seat stadium people would have looked at you as if you were crazy.
But in the years since the NASL and the Canadian Soccer League, this country is unrecognizable. We bring in 300,000 newcomers every year and have been doing that since the 1980s. The majority of these newcomers are coming from soccer nations where soccer is the No. 1 or No. 2 sport. They’re bringing that soccer culture with them.
I think what happened was in the 1980s and early 1990s people fell in love with their local clubs and got burned when they went away. They don’t want that to happen and there’s like a defence mechanism.
But there is a whole generation who have grown up with the game… playing the game, watching the game, playing the FIFA video games and they’re crying out to be part of that culture. And they want to have a way to enjoy it locally.
Q: I’ve been around long enough that I covered the Winnipeg Fury of the CSL and so I recognize there is a generation of fans in this town who have grown up without pro soccer or have been burned by it. But those who are old enough to remember might carry a certain amount of cynicism towards the CPL and its chances of survival. My question would be, what’s different now?
PB: Nobody likes to fall in love and then have their heart torn out. I completely understand. But we also touched on the changing demographics in this country. When someone came to Canada in the late 60s you learned hockey… there were no other options. Now 50 years later soccer is the No. 1 participation sport in the country. This is about that sleeping giant, with the one million people playing but no place to go. This is about giving them that opportunity when they are 14 to think they could be on a team when they are 18.
Q: Who will play in this league? Where will the players come from?
PB: We are unashamedly by Canadians, for Canadians. We know that statement will have an impact on the quality on the pitch. But we also know that Canadians, more today than ever before, are proud about being Canadian. We were in the closet about that pride for years but now it’s like we know we’ve earned our place in the world.
So, the reality is we are going to be largely Canadian. But if we are going to stick by our mandate to improve the game then we need to put our Canadian players in situations where they are pushed to the next level and the way to do that is to surround them with better talent. And if we have to go abroad to find that talent for the good of the game and for the good of the entertainment product we are putting out there, then we’re going to do that. It will be about striking a balance, but that balance will be tilted heavily in the Canadian favour.
It’s hard for me to predict where this is going to start out, but we’re going to start with a limit on the number of import players and whatever number we start with we will reduce over time as our Canadian player pool gets deeper and stronger.
Q: So, what will differentiate this league from the local amateur guys I can watch playing during the summer?
PB: You can and you should go out and support those teams. But there are several hundred Canadians plying their trade somewhere else in the world as a professional and it’s our intention to entice them back and the early response we’re getting from a lot of those players is ‘Absolutely.’ They almost resent that they had to leave in order to go earn a living in the game. I think we will have a nice blend of local guys and those who have played abroad or in other leagues or who are playing in the first, second or even third division of some European or South American leagues. You’d be shocked if you started to look at the numbers and you’d see there’s a kid from Moncton playing in Colombia.
One of our strengths is we have players from all over the world living in Canada. But it’s also a weakness because they generally carry a second passport and so they go and play in Colombia or Portugal or wherever. We’re going to turn that on its head by attracting those guys back and have them start to develop a real Canadian version of the game.
Q: What will the salaries be in the CPL, because there has to be more of an incentive to play in the league other than just coming home?
PB: There’s a financial and an emotional lure. Somebody who has been living out of a suitcase since they were 17 and now has an opportunity to come home and be a star in their home city? I think there’s a lot of value in that.
But, yes, we do have to be financially prudent as well. With all due respect to the leagues that have started before us, they all started with the best intentions of keeping the economics under control. We have tp keep a close eye on that, so it’s a very delicate balance.
To answer your previous question, there are players who are playing locally or at American or Canadian colleges who will play for our teams. You could take the cynical view and say I could go watch these guys play for free locally, but the only reason that situation exists is there is no professional environment. That’s the other thing: we are providing a professional environment, which means they are training every day and we’re going to unleash their potential. They are going to be much better players because of that daily training.
Q: Will the league manage all salaries or is that something of which each individual franchise will have control?
PB: The group of owners will establish a set of rules and standards and the league will enforce those. But it won’t be the league, for example, that signs a player to play in Winnipeg, it will be Winnipeg who signs the player.
Q; Can you explain what the Canadian Soccer Business idea is all about?
PB: That’s the magic. That’s what has made us able to attract top, Tier-1 owners, like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as well as the Southern family, who own Spruce Meadows in Calgary.
Canadian Soccer Business represents all of the rights – digital, sponsorship, partnership, media rights – for all of our league and all of our clubs along with Soccer Canada, which means the men’s national team, the women’s national team, the Canadian Championships that the MLS teams, League1 (Ontario) and the Quebec semi-pro league and our league will play in.
So, we now have a unique and all-encompassing offering to take to the sponsorship market in Canada. It’s the opportunity to create a very specific business through the game of soccer that is what really attracted these people. The Canadian Premier League is the really positive outcome of that. It really is what attracts an owner who says, ‘OK, it might be difficult at the gate for the first few years with my club, however I know I own a piece of this other things which are growing in value every year. So, I’m going to weather the storm here, because I am growing my investment over there.’
Q: I imagine CPL owners will have to have a certain amount of patience in growing this, because it might not be operating in the black from the outset.
PB: It’s the same story for the owners as it is for the partners as it is for the broadcaster, the supporters, the players: we’re on a journey. We aspire to a certain level, but you’ve got to have a starting point. I can tell you what the level will be in Year 1. But what I will guarantee is it will be better in Year 2 and it will be better in Year 3.
We’re asking people to hold our hand and jump off the cliff with us. But we’re extremely optimistic about where that journey is going to take us. As they often say, ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.’ So, let’s get off our butts and support our local players and our local clubs.
Our soccer culture in North America is still very much in its infancy, but the support, at its best, rivals almost anywhere in the world. It tells you we’ve got something special here. As I said, it’s a sleeping giant and when we unleash people and allow them to get on board with their clubs, watch out.
Q: Do you have an idea of break-even numbers for attendance and how will that work with some CFL buildings that hold close to or over 30,000 and then other prospective cities that don’t have stadiums with near that capacity?
PB: That’s part of why we’re trying to be patient. A lot of that has to do with building infrastructure. We have some CFL buildings, but we also have buildings that need to be refurbished or renovated or built from scratch. As an example, in Halifax they might be playing on a public park, but they would put a modular stadium around it. It’s fascinating technology that has become more viable and economical. The cost of building these modular stadiums is making more sense because the cost of building a new outdoor stadium in Canada… there’s no return on investment on that unless you measure what it means to the community.
Q: Can you expand on the ‘modular stadium’ idea and how it might work? Is that similar to the idea used at Empire Stadium in Vancouver a few years back while B.C. Place was being refurbished?
PB: Exactly. Sometimes ‘modular’ means temporary, but not always. These things come with a 45-year guarantee. What it really means is there is simplified construction… less concrete, more steel. If you compare it to Investors Group Field, the concourse would be outside it, not below it.”
Q: How far along are you in terms things like negotiating television or media rights?
PB: That is in the purview of Canadian Soccer Business, so they’re taking not only sponsorship or partnership opportunities to market, but also broadcast or content opportunities to the market. We’re in a really interesting time in that industry, because broadcasters are currently learning the road ahead is different than the one they’ve travelled in the past.
We’ve got players now, like Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, DAZN who are striking at a new type of consumer who wants what they want whenever they want it and wherever they want it. All that is to say there is a very disruptive market and we believe we’re well placed to capitalize on that. It’s not why we exist, but it’s a great opportunity for us. What’s most important to us is our games are accessible to our fans across the country. We’re committed to that, I just can’t predict where we’re going to end up right now.