The month of June has been eagerly anticipated by Manitoba soccer fans who pay rapt attention to the global spectacle that is the World Cup. In other next-month news, by the way, Winnipeg officials will announce details of a new professional soccer league.
The juxtaposition of the World Cup tournament beginning June 14, and a news conference planned for June 6 about the new Canadian Premier League, offers context to ponder the challenges and opportunities facing Winnipeg officials aiming to give professional soccer a toehold in Winnipeg.
To the surprise of no one who knows soccer, Canada is not among the 32 national teams competing for the World Cup. When it comes to the top international level of soccer, Canadians are great hockey players.
That said, soccer has eclipsed hockey as a participation sport in Canada in the past generation. It’s the most popular youth sport in Winnipeg, with 27,000 enrolments in the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association alone.
The big question, however, is this: will the burgeoning interest in playing soccer translate into fans willing to pay to support a pro team?
Winnipeg’s pro soccer team will play in the CPL, a Tier 1, FIFA-sanctioned soccer association that hopes to kick off its first season next spring. It will include up to 10 teams from cities throughout the country, although participation is unlikely from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, which already compete against U.S. soccer teams on the professional Major League Soccer circuit.
Details of Winnipeg’s entry, including the name of the team and the price of tickets, will be announced soon by Wade Miller, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Football Club, which will run the new team and also runs the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
Mr. Miller is surely aware soccer was not an easy sell in 1992, when this city’s last professional soccer team, the Winnipeg Fury, and its league folded after six seasons. Paid attendance was sometimes as low as 2,000, and team travel costs are always high in a country in which major cities are far-flung.
But the sports scene in Winnipeg has changed considerably in the past 25 years, and there is reason for optimism that Winnipeg’s fourth professional sports team could be financially stable.
Attendance at pro soccer games might be bolstered by Winnipeg’s incoming stream of immigrants from countries where soccer is paramount, and by the soaring number of recreational soccer players who have grown up with the game and might pay to watch it played at a high level.
The new team will have the advantage of administration that is experienced in successful pro-sports management. These are the same people who led the Blue Bombers to an overall operating profit of $5.1 million in 2017. They know how to attract sponsors, and how to find innovative ways to increase revenue.
Many sports buffs will attend an initial game to check out Winnipeg’s new professional team. They won’t expect World Cup-level play, but they will want skilled soccer. They will also want an exciting environment, which is important to modern fans. Successful sports franchises connect with fans pre-game and post-game, entertain them, enlist their participation and build relationships.
That’s the dual challenge facing the Winnipeg Football Club. Convincing fans to come back after their first game will depend on the quality of the soccer, certainly, but it will also depend on whether fans feel engaged by the experience surrounding the action on the pitch.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.