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Opinion: Canadian Premier League making the best of a bad situation with Island Games

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The Canadian Premier League kicks off its shortened 2020 season on Prince Edward Island Thursday with a behind-closed-doors opener between 2019 champions Forge FC and 2019 runners up Cavalry FC.  The 35-game tournament has been named the Island Games and replaced the league’s original 2020 season after it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

While the league and its eight clubs can be commended for pulling together any sort of competition during these trying times, there’s little doubt the CPL Island Games are, in some way, simply the league’s attempt at limiting the damage brought on by the global pandemic.

The CPL inaugural season was a success and seemed the perfect springboard from which the league could launch itself into 2020.

But COVID-19 had other ideas.

And now the Canadian Premier League, like so many of us, is making the best of a bad situation.

Canadian Premier League fan growth likely to stall

While the more devoted fans will certainly follow their clubs over the next couple months remotely with an admirable passion, the number of CPL fans is unlikely to rise in 2020 – other than the obvious influx of Ottawa-based supporters following expansion club Atlético Ottawa. Some of the less committed supporters might pass on the 2020 season altogether.

The CPL’s great appeal was that many Canadian soccer fans were finally able to attend professional matches played in their own communities. But the Island Games is a closed competition with no fans able to attend for health and safety reasons.

With no opportunities for fans to attend matches, the Canadian Premier League has lost its greatest draw for new fans.

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But CPL league commissioner David Clanachan believes his league can maintain fan interest during this shortened season citing ‘Canadian content’ as a primary reason.

“I think we have a real opportunity,” said Clanachan during a media call last week. “People are looking forward to seeing live sport. (Canadians soccer fans) love watching Canadians compete against Canadians. We’ll garner our fair share of fans as we go through this program.”

OneSoccer will, of course, present all 35 matches on its streaming service. And CBC is looking like it will present some games on its online and TV services as it did in 2019.

However, the league’s schedule was released Monday. And some fans were disappointed to learn many matches are scheduled during regular work hours, which would leave some fans unable to watch those contests live. (Note: The CPL has changed the kickoff time of the tournament’s opening game since this article was originally published. And more schedule changes are anticipated.)

But the league commissioner believes fans will remain engaged throughout, in part due to improved and larger broadcast capabilities.

“The engagement comes a lot with what’s happening with the broadcasting with our partner OneSoccer,” said Clanachan last week. “When you see what we are able to do with that, it’s fantastic.”

Due to the the pandemic, 2021 will certainly find the league short of the goals it had forecast for itself by then. But with a comprehensive broadcast presentation, the league will be hoping to lessen the short-term fan drop-off.

What is the Canadian Premier League’s true situation?

Clanachan and Co. are unlikely to reveal any great details regarding the financial and operational implications of the pandemic. But it would maybe surprise some of us how tenuous a situation the league is in.

This league is virtually a start-up company, dealing with all the usual issues and costs coming with such an undertaking. The CPL and its clubs will have been prepared to take acceptable financial losses over the first few years of operation, as any start-up should.

But the pandemic, and resulting additional financial implications, has cost more than many new businesses were prepared for. And it has forced many of them to contemplate permanent closure, despite any government assistance.

The comparison could be too simplistic. But is the CPL’s situation very different?

We’ll likely never know. Or maybe it’s a matter of hoping we never find out how bad the league’s situation is.

But with no ticket sales in 2020 the league and its clubs have lost their primary source of day-to-day income revenue. This loss will hurt.

Canadian Premier LEague, CPL commissioner David Clanachan.

Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan.

The league and its media partner, OneSoccer, have devised a decent attempt at a revenue stream via ‘The Collective’ membership. For $185 non-season ticket holders get a OneSoccer subscription, a club jersey of their choice and more. Season ticket holders pay $165 for the same deal. This should recoup some financial losses.

In the end, everyone will be hoping to survive 2020 relatively intact, if somewhat battered, bruised and a little weary. The target will be to get back to proper business in 2021 and beyond.

But it will be interesting to see where this league is if the pandemic protocols and resulting economic implications continue deep into 2021. Because there’s no guarantee this is ending anytime soon.

Is the 2020 season worth the health risks to Canadian Premier League players and staff?

The Canadian Premier League has implemented many safety and health protocols in preparation for its 2020 tournament.

Among other things, players and staff are to be quarantined in a contained bubble during the tournament including staying and the same hotel in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. COVID-19 tests were administered multiple times to each player in the two weeks leading up to the tournament. In part, the venue was chosen for its isolation from other provinces.

“We’re creating a bubble within the bubble,” said league commissioner Clanachan, when asked about league health protocols during a media call last week. “We have the maritime bubble (and) we are creating a bubble around the facilities where we are housed – where all of our people are together. That doesn’t mean we are in lock down. But it does mean we have to practice distancing from everyone else. We can’t have anyone leaving our bubble. They can’t interact with anyone on the island.”

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But these precautions don’t guarantee safety.

Most North American sports leagues – NHL, MLB, MLS – saw some players and staff infected by COVID-19 during their re-opening campaigns despite taking precautions. Dallas FC and Nashville SC withdrew from the MLS is Back tournament after nearly 20 players and staff tested positive for the virus.

So, is it worth the perceived risk to gather players, staff and other people connected to the tournament all in one place?

The Canadian Premier League seems to think so, believing they’ve learned from the leagues who re-started before them.

Re-opening is an achievement

Despite all the possible drawbacks, the league, its clubs, its players, its staff and its hardcore fans are ready to get the show on the road.

At times over the last few months, there were doubts any 2020 competition was even possible. And, the lack of definitive league communications during this time concerned and frustrated many fans.

But with the launch of the Island Games, the league has shown it is strong enough to eventually do what all the other heavy-hitting North American professional sports leagues were able to do: to re-open in 2020.

That the league is going to have any product to speak of in 2020 is a massive achievement worthy of praise.


About Author

Photographer and Writer | Stuart Gradon is soccer journalist and web communications professional. He covers Cavalry FC of the Canadian Premier League and Canada's national teams. He has also worked on assignment at FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 and FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010.

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