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The Case for Toronto: National Women’s Soccer League Expansion

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by Emily Dulhanty, May 15, 2013

Rumors from the twitter account of Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl have recently sparked conversations about possible NWSL expansion markets for the 2014 season. Wahl mentioned two specific markets in a tweet on April 14th that may be of interest to Canadian soccer fans: Vancouver and Toronto.

At first glance, Vancouver seems like the more likely market, given the history of Whitecaps W-League success. However, upon further inspection, it seems as though Toronto’s reasons to get involved in the NWSL far outnumber the reasons to not. Here’s why:

Affiliation with MLS’ TFC and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
Wahl’s tweet gives outstanding evidence that if Toronto were to get involved in the NWSL, it would be through a partnership with MLS ownership, which in Toronto’s case, is Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment Ltd. MLSE is one of the most successful sports ownership companies in the world, boasting the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL’s most valuable team, Toronto FC, valued in 2008 as MLS’ second most valuable team, NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and the AHL Toronto Marlies. The resources for a potential women’s team are present, and it seems as though pursuing a women’s program could be a natural progression for MLSE.

Sure, TFC has not been the beacon of success Toronto fans have yearned for since their 2007 MLS debut, and recent late game mishaps and overall poor performances have left TFC supporters with no option but to bang their heads against the wall. But, the reality is, Toronto soccer fans are still in abundance.

The only partnership that currently exists between the NWSL and MLS is the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, who are both owned by Merritt Paulson and play out of Jeld-Wen Field. An attendance figure of 16,479 at Portland’s first home game, including a reported 7000 season ticket holders, and the best live internet stream production of the league’s eight teams shows how important this partnership can be.

If NWSL teams are going to fail, it will be because attendances are too low for sustainability. An already in place and accessible MLS fan base, as well as increased marketing dollars and effort, can prevent this attendance failure from happening.

Riding on the CanWNT’s Popularity

The recent attention post Olympic bronze medal for the Canadian Women’s National Team would undoubtedly help a Canadian NWSL team succeed. Many people would not only pay to support a Toronto team weekly, but also to see the many Canadian stars travel to town to compete against the hometown team.

Looking more locally, you will find that there are currently eight Canadians playing in the NWSL that have hometowns in the Greater Toronto Area, arguably the strongest area for youth soccer in Canada. If the former youth clubs of these GTA players are engaged and specifically marketed to, this could bring a significant increase in attendance to a potential Toronto NWSL team.

If a Toronto team were able to attract a fraction of the more than twenty thousand fans expected for the international “rematch” against the United States in Toronto in early June, a pro team could thrive on a weekly basis.

Stadium Options

Depending on targeted attendance figures, there are a few stadiums in Toronto that would be suitable for a women’s team. Following in Portland’s footsteps, a women’s team could play right where their MLS counterpart plays, at BMO field. BMO field is one of the best soccer specific venues in North America, and would be perfect for targeted attendances of 10,000 and upward. Additionally, playing on a natural grass surface like the one at BMO Field is proving to be a decisive factor in attracting players, something an expansion team would need to put significant effort into doing. In fact, USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara mentioned in an interview in April that when deciding which teams to rank the highest on her allocation selection list, she chose New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC specifically because it is one of three current NWSL stadiums with a natural grass surface.

However, if owners think BMO stadium would be too expensive to operate, or the atmosphere would lack due to emptiness, University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium could prove to be a suitable alternative for a maximum crowd of 5000. Varsity Stadium’s artificial turf is FIFA 2 star certified, and if supporters (and players) could get over the football lines and quicker paced play due to the turf, this venue could provide a more intimate setting, especially if capacity crowds are reached.

Regardless of which of these two stadiums would be chosen, both are very readily accessible to the Greater Toronto Area, something that cannot be said about certain NWSL venues already being used. Chicago’s stadium at Benedictine University, for example, is actually an hour away from parts of the Chicago metropolitan area, and with no reliable public transportation to and from these areas, the Chicago Red Stars have recorded among the lowest attendance figures so far in the league.

North Americans Playing in Europe will return to the NWSL

Concerns that adding additional teams may dilute the level of play for future NWSL seasons have arisen, however the likelihood that many European based players will to return to play in North America in 2014 means a performance drop is very unlikely to occur. Currently, Canadians Stephanie Labbé, Christina Julien, and Marie-Eve Nault play overseas, and it is likely they would want to play in the NWSL if the opportunity arose.

In addition, there are many American women playing abroad, including USWNT striker Christen Press, midfielder Yael Averbuch and defenders Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg. All four Americans have been regulars in the USWNT player pool in recent years, and if they choose to come home to play, their salaries would likely be paid by US Soccer. In a tweet last December, Averbuch mentioned her desire to return to the NWSL when her 2013 contract at Sweden’s Göteborg FC ends:

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