The sports scene in Winnipeg has changed considerably since 1992, when members of the Winnipeg Fury professional soccer team hung up their cleats after bringing home the championship of the Canadian Soccer League. The league folded that year after six seasons, but interest has been renewed recently by news that professional soccer may return to Winnipeg.
Ownership groups for pro soccer teams are being sought by the Canadian Premier League, which would kick off in 2018. Interested parties in Winnipeg, including officials of the Blue Bombers football club, say they may field a professional team that would play out of Investors Group Field.
As always in professional sports, the success of a team depends on whether it can sell enough tickets to pay costs, including player salaries and travel expenses that are particularly high in a country whose teams are separated by too much geography.
Previously in Winnipeg, fan support for soccer was minuscule compared to that for professional hockey and football. The Winnipeg Fury saw paid attendance as low as 2,000 at some games, although many other tickets were distributed for free.
Much has changed in 25 years, however, and there are signs Winnipeg might now be willing to pay for high-level soccer.
As Winnipeg’s population has continued to grow, interest in minor soccer in Winnipeg has soared in the past generation, surpassing hockey as the most popular youth sport. The Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association has more than 27,000 enrolments; demand is so high that soccer is now played year-round in facilities such as the just-opened $20.5-million Garden City Community Centre, which is large enough to host four indoor games simultaneously.
There’s also evidence that local soccer enthusiasts might be willing to pay, not just play. A "friendly" between women’s team from Canada and the U.S. attracted 27,500 fans. And the FIFA Women’s World Cup games played in Winnipeg in June 2015 were successful financially.
That’s not to say professional soccer would automatically be a success. It would depend on the calibre of soccer, certainly.
But it would also require what marketing professionals call the "game-day experience", offering added attractions that leave fans eager to return.
The Winnipeg Goldeyes are a successful example — the club surrounds baseball with music, giveaways and between-innings shenanigans at a ticket price that is affordable — an important factor in a city where frugality is considered a virtue.
It’s an understatement to say there would be room at IGF for another professional sport. The new facility is used barely two dozen times a year, primarily for Bomber home games, university football and stadium-sized concerts. Increasing the number of game days at IGF would help the public get its money’s worth from the stadium, which is expected to cost $384 million by the time loans and interest are paid off.
Perhaps the matter of whether Winnipeg fans are ready to pay for the return of professional soccer would best be pondered on June 8 in Winnipeg, when Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team, including local product Desiree Scott, will host Costa Rica.
The large crowd will undoubtedly be heavily skewed to a generation of teenagers and young adults who have grown up with soccer as the most popular sport in Winnipeg, and have learned to appreciate the game’s flow and strategies.
This young generation of fans represents the future of professional sports in Winnipeg, and there’s reason to hope they would vote with their wallets for the return of a professional soccer team.