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Countdown to Kickoff: Matheson outlines plans for new pro women’s soccer league

Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills 2 of the founding clubs in the 8-team league
Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair autographs a fan’s ball at a World Cup watch party in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. Sinclair is serving as an adviser to Project 8 Sports Inc., a new pro women’s soccer league planned to kick off in Canada in 2025. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

It didn’t take long for Christine Sinclair to see the impact from the announcement that a new pro women’s soccer league planned to kick off in Canada in 2025.

“The number of kids that came up to me and said, ‘Well I’m going to be playing in 10 years,’ I think that’s why we’re doing this,” Sinclair said. “Inspiring the next generation of young Canadians and giving young girls an opportunity to fulfil their dreams.”

On Monday night, former national team player Diana Matheson and business partner Thomas Gilbert announced plans for the league under the banner of Project 8 Sports Inc. More details were provided Tuesday on a media conference call.

CIBC and Air Canada are founding partners and the league will be led “primarily by former national team players,” Project 8 said. Sinclair, who’s serving as an adviser, and Stephanie Labbé, the Vancouver Whitecaps GM of women’s soccer, will be involved in planning and development.

“As a player that still plays on the national team, I’ve been waiting my entire career for even just the opportunity or the chance or the choice to play at home,” Sinclair said on a video call. “I think as national team players, that’s all we ever wanted.”

The Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills are two of the founding clubs in the eight-team league. The other six teams are expected to be named next year.

“Women’s professional sport is a new industry,” Matheson said. “It’s growing faster than men’s sport and it will keep growing over the next two decades. We know that. So it’s both the best sport and it’s growing.”

Canada’s national teams have made significant strides over the last decade. The women’s side won Olympic bronze in 2012 and 2016 before taking gold last year in Tokyo.

The men’s team just made its first World Cup appearance in 36 years and Canada will co-host the 2026 tournament. Canada is expected to be a contender at the women’s World Cup next summer.

Canada Soccer has offered its support for the project, Matheson said, noting that official sanctioning of the league has been targeted for May 2024.

“We plan to be working closer with them next year to work toward that and build out things that we know that need to be built out,” she said. “Like coaching, education, coaching pathways to our league, referee pathways to our league.

“There’s lot of things that we’re looking forward to collaborating (on) with them.”

Many top Canadian players currently play for European clubs or the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League.

Matheson expressed optimism that “recognizable Canadian stars” will want to play in the new league, adding that each team will have at least one Canadian international.

The franchise fee has been set at $1 million and each team’s operating cost is estimated to be in the $8-10 million range over the first five seasons, she confirmed.

Based on early projections for corporate sponsorships and attendance, Matheson added, the average player salary should be competitive with other leagues.

“We’re setting our sights high because we don’t think there’s any reason not to given our player pool, given the companies that are behind this, given the clubs that are already behind this and given the growing women’s game,” Matheson said.

The league hopes to finalize a partnership with a broadcaster/distributor by the second half of 2023. Nathalie Cook, a former vice-president at TSN and RDS, is serving as a Project 8 strategic adviser.

“I think people are waiting for this product to arrive and it’s our job to make sure it looks good and they can find it when it does arrive,” Matheson said. “We think there’s going to be a really strong foundation to build.”

The league has yet to be named. Preliminary conversations have been held with several potential ownership groups, Matheson said.

“We want this to be a Canadian league,” she said. “So anywhere from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes.”

—Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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