MLS in Canada? Dumb ideas die hard.
The CSA continues to dream in Technicolor...
Can Canada support a MLS franchise?
By NEIL DAVIDSON
(CP) - News that A-League franchises in Calgary and Edmonton have shut their doors seemingly does little to engender hope that Canada can support a Major League Soccer franchise.
But Kevan Pipe, chief operating officer of the Canadian Soccer Association, believes it is simplistic to link the two. Apples and oranges, he says. Perhaps, cranberries and caviar may be a better analogy. MLS is a whole new snack bracket for a sport that has staggered at Canadian turnstiles in recent years.
With the green light having been given to a 25,000-seat stadium at York University, Toronto will have the necessary home to catch Major League Soccer's eye.
Now it just needs in excess of $10 million US.
The MLS is currently at 10 teams, with new franchises on deck in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, where the new team will share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy.
Both new franchises paid $10 million US to join the league. Expect the admission fee to go up next time around.
This is for a city where the existing A-League team, the Lynx, has lost $5 million Cdn over its first eight seasons, according to indefatigable owner Nicole Hartrell.
The good news is the bottom line is improving for the Lynx, who have been without a decent home since an aging Varsity Stadium was demolished. Hartrell estimates last season's losses at $300,000 Cdn last season - on a $900,000 Cdn operating budget.
Hartrell is even expanding her soccer world. She has taken over the Toronto W-League women's franchise and expects to pour an additional $250,000 Cdn in that team next season.
She understandably does not want to compete with an MLS franchise.
"We don't believe that Canada's ready to support financially and otherwise an MLS franchise," Hartrell said Thursday.
And she wonders why the Canadian Soccer Association is looking past her organization.
So does the United Soccer League, the umbrella group that runs the A-League, W-League and others.
"I guess I'm a little unclear why the franchise that has been working to keep professional soccer for the period of a decade would be looked at as insufficient as a tenant in that stadium," USL vice-president Tim Holt said Thursday from Tampa, Fla.
"Maybe because of its past attendances? Well aren't they a direct function perhaps of not having an appropriate venue at this point? I think the Lynx should be given every opportunity to be the professional soccer franchise in Toronto and that should be supported by the CSA."
In terms of loyalty, he probably has a point. Still it's a dog-eat-dog world out there and the MLS trumps the A-League when it comes to soccer status in North America. Would you rather drive a Pinto or a Porsche?
The MLS is on record as saying it would welcome two more teams in 2006 or 2007. At $10 million US a head, why not?
Still the MLS is smart enough to know that expansion to the wrong places is akin to one step forward, two steps back. The league has already had to close franchises in Tampa and Miami.
So for the time being, it is safe to guess the league is going to take the best-heeled bid it can get.
Even if the gigantic MLS expansion fee includes upfront money for some league obligations for the first few years - so says Pipe, MLS won't say what the money covers - the CSA will need more than the Argos owners to pony up.
The CSA is essentially trying to act as matchmaker, in linking the Argos ownership with others with the resources to get involved.
There are people out there. Auto parts millionaire Frank Stronach of Aurora, Ont., has already dug into his wallet for soccer in his native Austria. In a perfect world, he could drop a few bucks in his backyard.
But even with a stadium and a franchise, pro sports teams exist on TV revenue. And there is no proof that TV is ready to spend real money on soccer in Canada. Not to mention North America's poor track record of past pro leagues.
Still Pipe is nothing but positive on MLS. "Pretty substantial progress," has been made on the search to expand an ownership group, he says. There have been "many" talks with MLS, which is "extremely positive."
As for the A-League woes in Alberta, Pipe argues that the two teams were hamstrung by oversized football stadiums, with Calgary's MacMahon further plagued by outdated artificial turf.
Losing records didn't help either. Both teams went 4-18-6 with the Calgary Mustangs averaging 1,258 fans per game and the Edmonton Aviators 1,478.
Toronto drew 2,444 per game, compared to 4,833 for the Vancouver Whitecaps and 9,279 for the champion Montreal Impact. The league average was 3,879.
A-League soccer may resurface in Calgary in 2006, according to Holt, if the right ownership group is found. Plus the A-League has yet to announce the makeup of the 2005 season, so the ink is not yet dry on the league makeup.
Pipe argues the right soccer venue will draw fans in Toronto and points to the huge population base in and around the city.
And he agrees that soccer snobbery - fans who will pack SkyDome to watch Liverpool or Celtic playing a meaningless exhibition game rather than take in a local pro team - could work in an MLS team's favour given that the league is North America's top flight and has star appeal with the likes of Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu.
The Toronto Argonauts like the MLS idea because it represents another tenant for their new home. The Canadian Soccer Association loves it, because it would keep some Canadian players closer to home while playing soccer at a competitive level.
More players at home means more time for Frank Yallop to work with his internationals. It also means less cost in assembling his squad.
And while the CSA is not looking to become part of any potential ownership group - it does not have deep enough pockets - Pipe says it is open to just about anything else.
"We've got an open agenda, an open book . . . we're not going to outright reject anything. Our top priority right now is being directly involved in the process of securing an MLS franchise for a least Toronto - and who knows what down the road."
That positive approach and out-of-the-box thinking is commendable. And the CSA and Argos deserve credit for rescuing their stadium plan after the University of Toronto pulled out.
But the road to an MLS franchise needs to be paved with more than good intentions.
Is there no limit to Kevan Pipe's lunacy?