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An unlikely inspiration

After an interesting summer national league season, Eastern Suburbs was recently crowned ISPS Handa Premiership champions after beating Team Wellington 3-0 in the final. With their side stacked full of talented young New Zealand players, it was a hugely impressive feat.

There are a lot of things to like about our national league competition; most regions of our country are represented, every team has some genuine star players and exciting youngsters, and the league is arguably now more competitive than ever before (despite Auckland City’s regular season dominance). But while there is a passionate core of footy fans across the country who follow the league closely, recent incarnations of our premier men’s national league have never genuinely come close to piquing the mainstream interest of our nation’s sporting fans.

Crowds are generally dismal, television ratings are so poor that Sky gets paid to show games, and the competition has never had proper investment and support from New Zealand Football. For these reasons there’s been extremely limited appetite from sponsors, leaving the clubs to rely on grant funding and FIFA Club World Cup prize money – two unreliable income streams – for survival. A number of clubs are continuously on the cusp of financial ruin. It’s classified as an Amateur league, but in reality it exists in an ugly vacuum between true amateur and professional status.

Quite simply, everyone involved knows that the league is practically unsustainable in its current form. NZ Football know this as well as anyone – the competition seems to have been “under review” for aeons.

Also permanently under review is the Wellington Phoenix’s place in Australia’s A League. Given the growing calls from some influential corners of the game across the ditch, there’s a real chance we may no longer have a team in that competition in a couple of years time.

So it seems as good a time as any to be looking at some new ideas for our national league. A fully professional league in our country seems far-fetched to many, but is it impossible? With established football leagues in almost every country on the planet, there’s plenty of places to look for inspiration but lately I’ve been taking a keen interest in perhaps one of the unlikeliest places.

A brand new professional competition is about to debut this month – the Canadian Premier League. You may think that in a world so satiated by the glitz and glamour of professional leagues it’s a strange place to look for inspiration. But my curiosity comes from the numerous footballing similarities I see between Canada and New Zealand, including:

  • The profile and presence of football (or, umm, soccer) is dwarfed in Canada by sports like Ice Hockey, in a similar fashion to football’s battle to compete with rugby in New Zealand; that’s despite football at least matching these sports in terms of participation levels in both countries.
  • Both countries have bigger, more established professional competitions in neighbouring countries to compete with; the USA’s Major League Soccer competition is well established, and includes three Canadian teams in a similar nature to the Wellington Phoenix competing in the A League. (There’s also a few Canadian-based teams competing in other lower-tier USA competitions).
  • Both Canada and NZ suffer from a similar logistical challenge in terms of the wide geographic spread of locations. While the CPL features one “derby” between teams situated 70km apart, most match-ups are inter-provincial with games between Halifax Wanderers and Pacific FC subject to a 4,500km journey each way (not far off the A League’s “distance derby” at 5,255km).
  • Much like NZ, currently most of Canada’s best footballers are based overseas. After signing in a big-money transfer from the MLS, teenager Alphonso Davies has recently broken into Bayern Munich’s senior squad, while many other Canadians ply their trade across Europe or in the USA.

Of course, there’s some differences too – most notably, a population of 38 million gives the Canadians a much bigger base than we can ever hope for. But it’s not every day that we can watch and learn from the genesis of a brand new professional league, so here are some interesting things I’ve noted from the CPL:

  • There’s a genuine and unashamed focus on local youth development, with limited import spots and minimum game time thresholds for youngsters. The premise of the league is to provide an initial professional pathway for players to develop and provide that platform to hopefully go onto bigger and better things.
  • There is very limited appetite for the big-name “marquee signings” that we’ve seen in the A League over the years – and that have more often than not failed miserably.
  • Small stadiums – instead of playing in cavernous venues devoid of atmosphere like we see in the A League and Super Rugby, the CPL stadiums range in capacity (with one exception) from 5,000 – 10,000, but they’re expected to be regularly filled close to capacity. A number of teams claim to have pre-sold 1,000-5,000 season tickets. Most stadiums have artificial playing surfaces.
  • Independent owner-operated club based league, not franchises, however all but one of the founding teams are brand new clubs formed specifically for this league.
  • They’re starting small, with just 7 teams – but with ambitious plans to expand and eventually have promotion/relegation.
  • There are no playoffs in a traditional sense – in contrast to the A League, and unusual for North American sports. A split season (similar to many South American leagues) is designed to keep things interesting throughout the season.
  • The CPL has also signed a high-profile 10-year global broadcasting deal with Mediapro which includes a streaming platform, as well as deals with others like CBC, the nation’s public broadcaster.
  • There’s been a huge effort put into all aspects of marketing – including impressively slick websites and social media presences for the league and each team.
Logos for the CPL (top left) and the seven founding teams

This all sounds pretty amazing, right? But I guess the big question is, who is funding it? Most of the clubs are essentially backed by wealthy individuals and consortiums, many including former professional players and executives keen to boost the development opportunities for talented players coming through.

Some may say that this model wouldn’t work in New Zealand – that we simply don’t have enough people with enough money to stump up to fund a professional league. I reckon though that there are a lot more super-wealthy people in our country than most Kiwis appreciate – and that if the right amount of effort was put into a serious new league, then there’s no reason why it couldn’t attract the right kind of backers.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But I’ll be watching from afar with great interest (and perhaps a little jealousy) as the CPL kicks off in a fortnight. It’s obviously not guaranteed to succeed, but I love the fact they’re giving it a good crack.

Check out the official website for the CPL here:

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5 replies

  1. Really interesting. Canada do things so well for a country with a relatively small population base.

  2. If you’d like any further insight into the CPL, other lower-tier leagues, or some of the issues we’re still battling with here (namely the pay-to-play model for youth soccer), shoot me an email. I’m also working with a group trying to bring a CPL club to my province, check out

  3. NZ Football could start by giving the premiership its own website…. wouldn’t take much and gives fans somewhere to go to get info, rather than digging around the NZF site.

  4. Interesting point about playoffs. In a league like our national one, why have a play off?

    Ok, the A league suits see them as a way to parlay extra income from the telly, tickets, extra sponsor revenue etc. But in NZ there’s none of that. In my old fashioned view, you win the league over a season, not a game.

  5. Fully wishful. League and basketball couldn’t do it either. US sporting inclusiveness (paternalism?) has been great for Canada – the Montreal Impact gets weekly crowds we’d be lucky to see once a year in NZ. It seems the success of the MLS was a factor in making the CPL a viable proposition. So it’s a real shame FFA is ambivalent about NZ – on a population basis we’re good for two A-League teams (and we can probably scrape together just enough fat cat funding to prop them up), but it appears we’re going to be lucky to have any at all.

    I agree with @Jon that the online presence seems such an easy thing to do better. Without streaming video, the only way the fanbase will grow is if someone decides to pull over while driving past a game in progress. And couples running online businesses out of their spare rooms have better websites than NZ Football.

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