CPL commissioner David Clanachan on the aspirations of Canada's new league

The Canadian Premier League is in its inaugural season and is eying future growth to help fuel the sport in that country. Soccer America recently spoke at length with the league’s commissioner, David Clanachan, about the challenge the sport and the league faces north of the border.

SOCCER AMERICA: David, congratulations on getting the first season of the Canadian Premier League up and running. How would you assess the inaugural year so far vs. your expectations?

DAVID CLANACHAN: With my expectations, we are right where I thought we would be. I am very pleased with what is happening with the game. The guys have done a great job. The players are playing well. We're getting good crowds. You know, no one has really watched a league stand up on its own in a long, long time. Some of my friends over in Europe that want to help, they talk about that they're very impressed with what they're seeing and quite frankly pleasantly surprised that it's better than what they expected. So yes. I am very, very happy with the turnouts. Overall the quality of play has been very, very good. [Editor's note: League-wide average attendance through July 21: 4,612.]

Almost two weeks ago in the Canadian Championships, two of our clubs played two of the MLS teams and a USL team and we did very, very well -- two ties and a loss. And I fondly say that the loss was somewhat suspect ... but that's all good. That's the game. And it's so great to see the competition level. That's where you really realize whether or not you know you've got it together.

SA: I remember when MLS first started there was a lot of things that were unique to America in terms of the challenges the league faced -- stadiums, media skeptical of the sport in an otherwise crowded sports market. What are the challenges that are unique to Canada in your situation or is it similar to the United States in that regard in terms of starting up a new soccer league?

CLANACHAN: Stadiums for sure. In the U.S., you guys have tons of fantastic facilities. They weren't for soccer to start with, let's be honest. But the facilities existed. I always joke and say some of the high schools down there have better facilities than some of the pro football clubs up here. So that's obviously always the biggest thing is -- where do you play?

But overall, we've been blessed. I mean we signed a great deal with our partners from Spain, Mediapro ... They're the biggest producer and broadcaster of football the world. And we signed a 10-year deal with them because they saw the opportunity that North America, specifically Canada, brings for them. That was something that took MLS 10 years to get to where we were. The key thing for us is just to get it up and running. It's sad to think that in North America in general we don't have the football culture that we should have. You think what the population and the opportunity and everything else. But it'll come. Certainly, it's our time -- for sure.

SA: Now when you mentioned stadiums. Obviously, a big turning point for MLS was Columbus Crew Stadium, which gave the league a start with physical assets and control their own revenue a little bit better. It’s still an issue in some areas like New York and New England. What is the progress towards team’s owning their own stadiums or at least being the major tenant?

CLANACHAN: We're already there with a few of the stadiums. The one on Vancouver Island. It's a partnership with the city. For Forge FC in Hamilton, it's the same thing. It's the city that controls it but we are the major tenant along with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Canadian football team. It's the same with Winnipeg. We're definitely there in Calgary with Cavalry FC -- they own their facilities. So, we have the ability to control it. But still, it's the existence of the facilities that are the big thing. You hit the nail right on the head, that you gotta be the major tenant.

When someone shows up and says I want to put an expansion team in your league. The very first question I ask is where are you going to play?

SA: What is the status of the sport in Canada right now? How much competition does it have with other sports like the U.S. has with American football, basketball, baseball?

CLANACHAN: Soccer is the No. 1 participation sport in the country. A unique thing that we've seen -- we've had such success with our women's team. With the women's team being Top 5 in the world, we have as much following from women and girls as we do from men. It's almost split 50/50. In participation, it's the fastest growing sport in Canada. There's about 15% of the population that says they play the game at least once a week. And we're a nation now where immigration is probably what fuels the growth of the population of the country. And we all know if you come from parts unknown in the world to come to North American to immigrate, more than likely you know the game of soccer.

The other thing is the appetite is huge for young people in this country because they're seeing it more and have access to it. Like when I was young it took a big giant satellite that was eight feet across and you went and paid $20 to go watch a game from overseas usually in Europe. And now, you just turn on the channel today and with NBC Sports and what they're doing with the EPL, and all these other guys. It's so accessible now. The game is just on fire.

SA: The sport is healthy but like in the United States there's always the competition for the local teams with the big teams in Europe or even Mexico. The Premier League audience is huge here and that interest sucks up a lot of the oxygen in the room. MLS teams often have to fight with these foreign teams for even local coverage. Are you finding the same thing in Canada? Or are you finding more of a willingness from the public to embrace the local teams?

CLANACHAN: There is definitely an embrace and I'll tell you why. Strategically when we were plotting out how we were going to build this league going forward, we were very clear. We've built it from the community level up, as opposed to top-down where we say we're going to talk about it from a league perspective and then we'll make it filter down. No, no, no. If you do it at the community level they'll come and they'll follow.

You go to a place like Halifax where they're constantly getting you know 6,000-7,000 fans per game and it's sold out all the time. Yes, it's not a huge stadium but I mean it's packed all the time. And the people embrace and it becomes part of the culture. So, we're seeing that in a big way. And to me, that's the way that you build. If you ever build a movement, you want people who really are fans, which obviously is short for fanatic. You can't dictate it from a national perspective. It doesn't work.

SA: What is your relationship like with MLS and specifically its three Canadian teams? I am sure it must be competitive in those three large markets. Are you rivals or have you found a way to coexist and get along?

CLANACHAN: We have not had a huge relationship with them. I know I know the owners of teams well -- the teams in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. They've done a great job in those markets. They've done a great job in Canada in those specific markets. I mean they've carried the torch for a number of years for sure and they helped move the game along in those markets. But the reality is they are Canadian teams that are sanctioned to play in an American League. It's different for them. I mean they're not about developing Canadian talent. They're about putting a product on the pitch. So, we have maybe a little bit of a mutual respect thing and that where it's at. And we've left it at that. I mean we've been busy doing what we need to do. We've talked about how we work together in the future. But it's not indepth, let's put it that way.

SA: In terms of expansion. You have seven teams right now. I know you talked about having a tiered structure with promotion and relegation. What is the ideal team limit for that tier and how do you get there?

CLANACHAN: Fourteen to 16 teams for a population of 36-37 million people in the country. But with the geography we have, 14-16 teams in the Premier League. And then really what you want after that is -- I follow obviously the European model and I love the idea that you could have a second tier division, a third division. The whole idea promotion/relegation, that is something that is unique to the game of football globally and it just keeps people interested. It's a story within a story. You think about two years ago when Manchester City was running away with the EPL. Back then you'd think people are going to fall out of favor here and people won't want to watch it. But there was as much excitement about who was going up and who was going down from a relegation and promotion perspective.

So eventually you want to get to 14-16 teams. And then and then you say: OK, how do we get that second division level?

SA: Regarding expansion and getting to that high number of teams in various tiers, is there a lot of demand among Canadian markets trying to have teams in your league? How many Canadian markets can support a team?

CLANACHAN: We've got about 18 different markets, cities and regions because it's not just about a city, right? Sometimes it's like it's a catchment area. So, we've got about 18 different markets and regions and then potential ownership groups. The problem is that you have to vet these things. They don't just pop up. It's a process and it can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to get somebody on board with that because a lot of work that has to be done in order to let them in the league.

And, of course, the clubs that are in, they're our partners so they have a say in who comes in -- which again I think is very unique but it is unique to the sports world more than anything else. They're not franchises either. These people are partners. When they come in, they then get a say and get a seat at the table -- which is a unique business versus others that you see out there. It’ll take time.

Quebec is a great market. It's probably the No. 2 market from a participation rate in Canada as far as football is concerned. I think a lot of that has to do with obviously it's French and the game is known well but it's a market we want to be in. And two, we've got multiple groups talking to us about just outside of Montreal, which I would call Montreal, and Quebec City.

SA: What do you want to see regarding player development from the teams in your league in the league? What are some of the steps they are taking to develop players? Are these clubs looking to establish academies?

CLANACHAN: Here's the thing. We made a commitment to Canadians when we started this league as part of a community level because one of the first things I got asked when I went to these cities was: are we going to see our boys playing? We made a commitment that at least 50% of the roster had to be Canadian players and in the starting 11 -- six out of 11 had to be Canadians on the field. That's aggressive, no doubt. But 77% percent of the players now in the league today are Canadians. We're putting thousands and thousands of minutes on the pitch and that's how you improve. When you play young players best vs. the best, that's how they improve. You don't develop on the training pitch. You develop in competition and the best coaches in the world will tell you that. We have put our money where our mouth, so to speak. That's important.

Perfect example: York9, two weeks ago they're playing against the Montreal Impact from MLS in the second leg of the Canadian Championships. And York9 started eight Canadians and three foreigners. Montreal started eight foreigners and three Canadians. That's the difference, right? If you don't play, then you don't get better. You have to play against talent that's better than you. Every sport in the world is that way. And for us it's very, very important that happens. And the other thing too is young people have to have a chance to do it.

When it comes to academies and things like that, I have very different views on that. We had an opportunity to buy what they call League One in Ontario: 16 men's teams and 14 women's teams a what's called a "high performance level." They're all kind of under-21-type players. And, to me, I'd rather have a much wider, deeper, pool of talent vs. trying to pick talent at a young age because sometimes we miss the boat. You try to pick them too early. I'm always terrified of that young phenom who got missed because three or four people decided at an early age that he wasn't good enough or she wasn't good enough. So sometimes we need to rethink things and the way we look at things in North America, for sure.

SA: It sounds like a big job for teams to scout their local area if players aren’t going to come from their academy?

CLANACHAN: Absolutely. We see it all the time. There's no better sight in the world then when you see a young player who's from that community -- I saw it with Forge FC a couple weeks ago when a young man scored his first goal professionally. After the game, all the young people were down there getting him to sign their jersey that they're wearing on their back. And you don't see anything better than that. What is that worth to an 18- or 19-year-old to play professional football for the first time in their life?

SA: That raises another question in terms of like when you do identify a young player and he and he is having a lot of success in the Canadian Premier League. How willing are the teams in your league going to be about selling your players when big European teams come calling? We’ve seen MLS commissioner Don Garber say he wants his league to be more of a selling league.

CLANACHAN: Yes. 100% and I'll tell you why. At the end of the day it's good because it creates opportunity for the next players coming up. But more importantly, I would be talking to both sides of my mouth if I didn't agree to it because if a player is going to play in a league that's a step up for him -- if I won't do that, I'm not I'm not supporting the players. This game is all about the players. For me, that's a massive checkmark for the league if players go on to play at a bigger and better level. Now you've got better players available for the national team. Those are the things that you wanted. I mean it validates what you're doing. For me, you have to do that. You need to develop the players because at the end of the day that's who the supporters come to see. They don't come to see the executives. They come to see the players.

When Alphonso Davies left the Vancouver Whitecaps and went to Bayern Munich. That was a fantastic day for Canada. It was a fantastic day for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Quite frankly, was a fantastic day for MLS. If anyone sees it differently, they're wrong. The key thing, though, is to make sure that they're going to a club where they're going to play. What I would hate to see is a really great Canadian kid go to a team in Europe and then find him sitting on the bench and getting 0 minutes. I'd rather him play in a different league where he gets 90 minutes a game and he's on the field all the time honing his talent and skill. It's about where they go but definitely, they should be able to go.

SA: I mean it also comes down to valuation of the player and getting a fair price, right?

CLANACHAN: Yeah and you've got to be careful too. Every once in a while, you catch that shooting star where your valuation is very, very high. That doesn't mean that the valuation is high for everyone. Everyone's unique, so to speak but, listen, I look forward to the day that we could do that. We're not there at this point in time. But we as a league and all of our club owners -- they all support that 100 percent. If a player can do that from a talent perspective, they deserve to be able to go on. It's good for the league too -- reputationally and financially.

SA: In the early days of MLS, the league and some of its teams were eager to sign big name European-based players at the end of their careers. Now the approach has been to sign some lesser known South Americans who are in their prime. Still there are some of the older types like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. What is the appetite among the Canadian Premier League for these types of big-money, big name players?

CLANACHAN: You know we've had lots of debate about this. My concern is sometimes -- and I'm not saying this derogatory manner so please don't take it this way -- but sometimes when players come in for stuff like that and they're coming at the end of their career….

SA: The retirement league image?

CLANACHAN: Yes. They've got a name. Once in a while you'll get the phenom to come. That's what you have to watch with foreign players too. If someone's a mercenary, they're looking for their next job the day they land. Think about the old NASL. Years and years ago. Like when Pele was playing and Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia for the Cosmos. George Best was playing in Tampa -- arguably one of the best players ever in the game. I mean we had the best players play in North America but the only player that everyone back in actually had better career when he went back to Europe was Trevor Francis who played for the Detroit Express.

I go back to the same thing when I went to every city where the Canadian Premier League plays, the fans always ask about homegrown talent. They want to fall in love with their local heroes. And so, I think that's where the focus has to be. You're not going to get the Zlatan's of the world saying I'm a Ferrari amongst Fiats. It's a great line but it's not a great line if you're one of the Fiats [laughs]. But what I love is when you see that 19 or 20-year-old, local grown kid that is doing really well.

SA: Then let me just tweak that question a little. Canada was recently the home to one of the most popular and talented players in the history of MLS in Sebastian Giovinco. There was a player who came to the league in his prime at 27, played for Juventus, played for the Italian national team. He captivated the city of Toronto, helped raise the quality of his team and league, and won. Is that the type a player you could see your league making a push for after what Giovinco did for Toronto?

CLANACHAN: I don't know him so I can't speak for him or what his motivation was, but he's a great player. Obviously, he got a ton of playing time when he came to Toronto FC. There's no doubt it can work. But you know if I asked if can you name 10 Sebastian Giovincos, you couldn't give me 10 in North America because it doesn't necessarily always work that way. But it can happen and it can work but it's a low percentage shot - let's call it that.

SA: The big topic that always seems to involve a discussion about the Canadian Premier League is the Canadian national team. It’s been a long time since that team was relevant but now finally seems to have some quality players. What do you want your league’s role to be with the national team? And how much do you want your league to be an asset for that team?

CLANACHAN: John Herdman is the coach there. Great guy. His staff is fantastic. I mean they're changing something. It's been decades since Canada was it at its highest point.

One of the key pillars in our business plan was that we need to help develop Canadian talent to improve the game in Canada. If you look at John's squad, he's got a great squad. When I watched them in the Gold Cup this year, they deserve better than what they got -- let's put it that way. Because the talent is really, really good. My point is it's our job to provide a deeper pool of talent for John and his staff to choose from. And I look forward to the day that the players who walk on the field will say I came from the Canadian Premier League or I started my career in the Canadian Premier League and that's what caught the eye of the Canadian coaches. That's really one of the key things we have to do.

(Brian Sciaretta is a veteran journalist of all-things American soccer and is a senior editor for American Soccer Now.)

3 comments about "CPL commissioner David Clanachan on the aspirations of Canada's new league".
  1. R2 Dad, July 26, 2019 at 1:48 p.m.

    "You need to develop the players because at the end of the day that's who the supporters come to see. They don't come to see the executives. They come to see the players." This guy sounds like he's got his priorities straight--best of luck. Would be HILARIOUS if US-based teams wanted in instead of MLS/USL 

  2. Mike Lynch, July 27, 2019 at 7:55 a.m.

    Excellent interview Brian. David Clanachan offers some interesting and timely insights. "

    1. "We made a commitment that at least 50% of the roster had to be Canadian players and in the starting 11 -- six out of 11 had to be Canadians on the field. That's aggressive, no doubt. But 77% percent of the players now in the league today are Canadians. We're putting thousands and thousands of minutes on the pitch and that's how you improve."

    This is a long term problem for US player development due to current MLS, USL, College structure. 

    2. "I always joke and say some of the high schools down there (US) have better facilities than some of the pro football clubs up here."    "And, to me, I'd rather have a much wider, deeper, pool of talent vs. trying to pick talent at a young age because sometimes we miss the boat. You try to pick them too early...So sometimes we need to rethink things and the way we look at things in North America, for sure." 

    Especially here in US, we have a unique player pool opportunity absent across most of the rest of the world. Absent because it is not relevant or because it is simply not the case elsewhere? I am speaking of high school and college soccer. Yes, most not the same level as youth club or low level pro in talent, but teaming with the most expensive part, the facilities, coaches, physio support, etc.... and they get to continue their education trajectory while pursuing the dream to play at next level. No other place in the world has 10,000 clubs (high schools, ages 15-18) nor even 1,500 club (colleges, ages 19-22). When the Federation embraces high school and college soccer while continuing to expand elite level leagues and club opportunities, the US will have a formula non-existant worldwide. 

  3. Craig Cummings, July 28, 2019 at 9:17 p.m.

    I wish Canada well. I hope they can make the next  MWC. You never know, what will happen. One lucky goal could change a close game vs a central american team, and become a game winner.

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