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AFC Toronto City becomes third team to sign on to Canadian women’s pro soccer league

Plan is to launch a league in 2025 with eight teams split across two conferences
Helena Ruken, left to right,CEO of AFC Toronto City; Diana Matheson, co-founder and CEO of Project 8; and Shilpa Arora, general manager of DoorDash Canada, are seen in Toronto in an undated handout photo. AFC Toronto City has signed on as the third franchise in the proposed women’s pro league, after Vancouver and Calgary. DoorDash joins CIBC, Air Canada and Canadian Tire as “dedicated partners” of the new league. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Project 8 *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Diana Matheson’s Canadian women’s pro soccer league now has a foothold in Toronto.

Matheson, a former Canadian international who is co-founder and CEO of the Project 8 group that is driving the new league, announced Wednesday that AFC Toronto City is the third founding franchise to join the fold.

The plan is to launch a league in 2025 with eight teams split across two conferences. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills have already signed on.

The Toronto City ownership is an entrepreneurial group with roots in the North Toronto Soccer Club although that organization is not affiliated to the new team. It is led by CEO Helena Ruken, COO Brenda Ha and chief marketing officer Jill Burgin.

“I think all our owners will have a bit of a different look and feel, but in building this league we’ve said from the beginning we want a different look to ownership in building this league built for women by women,” said Matheson.

“So women-led, strong business background, roots in Toronto, roots in the soccer community in Toronto. And it’s a group that’s been a pleasure to work with so far and we’re really just getting started. So we’re pretty excited about where Toronto City is headed.”

Project 8 also announced Wednesday that DoorDash Canada has joined CIBC, Air Canada and Canadian Tire as the new league’s corporate partners. The league is looking for four more lead partners.

Ruken, who has a master’s degree in elementary particle physics from the University of Freiburg, got involved in soccer through her four children.

“I could see how important sports is to their development,” said Ruken. “Building their confidence, teaching them to dream big and believe that they can achieve anything they can dream of. And I want to bring that opportunity to all the young women and girls in Toronto.”

Ha spent time in the financial sector with the BMO Financial Group and CIBC and founded Check Box Services, a self-described “concierge service that provides customized support to help you accomplish items on your life’s to-do list.”

Burgin, who has an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has marketing experience having spent three years in London as a training director for Diageo Global, a British multinational alcoholic beverage company whose brands range from Johnnie Walker to Smirnoff. She was also a principal with Clockwork Talk, which helps those in business better get their message across.

The other three co-owners are Mike Ruthard, Billy Wilson and Shamez Mangalji, who also have ties to North Toronto Soccer Club. Ruthard and Mangalji have experience in the financial sector while Wilson is North Toronto’s executive and technical director.

Ruthard will be Toronto City’s chief financial officer while Mangalji looks after sales and fundraising and Wilson serves as a technical adviser.

Project 8 plans to go after official league recognition from Canada Soccer at its annual general meeting in May and to continue adding franchises to get to the eight-team mark.

The hope is to have all eight teams announced by the end of 2023, “which is an aggressive timeline but we’re pretty comfortable with it,” said Matheson.

“We’ve got good leads in the markets we want to be in across Canada,” she said. “We’re hoping this announcement generates further leads. We had multiple groups interested in Toronto and we’re hoping that’s the case in other cities so we can continue to choose from the strongest groups.”

The franchise fee for the new league is $1 million with a need for an estimated $8 million to $10 million in total invested capital over the first five seasons in addition to necessary spending on infrastructure. Owners are buying a piece of the league as well as their own franchise.

Ruken acknowledges there is plenty still to decide, including where Toronto City will play.

“Infrastructure, we know, is a big piece,” said Matheson.

“We know on the men’s sports side it takes city, provincial, federal investment,” she added. “Look at BMO (Field) and where that money came from. So we’ll absolutely be pursuing the same routes and looking for multiple levels of government to back women’s professional sport in the city and this province.

“Our current (federal) government has a mandate to have equity in sport by 2035 and we don’t think that can happen without a home for women’s professional sport. So we’re looking to build over the next few years.”

Toronto City will be looking at all available stadium options “whether that’s existing, it’s renovation or it’s new,” Matheson said.

Women’s sports is on the rise. The price of new NWSL franchises south of the border are soaring with reported franchises fee of US$50 million in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.

Project 8 Sports Inc. was founded by Matheson and Thomas Gilbert.

Matheson’s stoppage-time goal earned Canada a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. She won 206 caps for Canada (including 193 starts) from 2003 to 2020.

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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