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Matheson says support growing for proposed Canadian women's soccer league

Diana Matheson's to-do list keeps growing. But so does support for her planned Canadian women's professional soccer league.
Canada's Diana Matheson jogs during a FIFA Women's World Cup soccer practice session in Vancouver on June 24, 2015. Matheson's to-do list keeps growing. But so does support for her planned Canadian women's professional soccer league. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Diana Matheson's to-do list keeps growing. But so does support for her planned Canadian women's professional soccer league.

Matheson and business partner Thomas Gilbert, the co-founders of Project 8 which is behind the league, already have helping hands.

"It started as just Tom and I, obviously very much in startup mode," Matheson said in an interview. "But I think one of the real strengths of this project is it's not very hard to get people excited about it. We've found just so many people want to help and so many people want to make this happen."

"It's a Canadian league and it's going to be Canadians across the country that are helping build this. And we've seen that so far," she added. "It's really cool."

The Project 8 team includes strategic adviser Nathalie Cook, a former Bell Media and TSN vice-president. Former Olympian Georgia Simmerling and Shawn Small, co-founder/president of the RISE Integrated Sports and Entertainment consulting agency, serve as directors of global partnerships.

Canada captain Christine Sinclair is an adviser and brand ambassador. And Air Canada and CIBC are listed as founding partners.

The Project 8 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.

"There is a ton to do this year and next building towards 2025," said Matheson. "But it's priorities. Obviously the next six months, the priority is securing the remainder of our six owners in six markets. And then getting the rest of our partners on board too."

The former Canadian international has a current list of some 13 potential owners, either people they have identified themselves or who have reached out to them. Project 8 has intentionally looked for a variety of potential owners, open to everything from MLS franchises to independent groups and "even foreign ownership."

"We want there to be women in leadership too, in ownership," Matheson said. "That's not traditionally been the case obviously in professional sport and needs to be a part of this product, for sure. So every market we're in we're trying to find those women that want to be of owning a professional sport franchise."

Matheson sees Angel City FC, a Los Angeles-based franchise that entered the NWSL last season with a star-studded ownership group made up almost entirely of women, as a "case study."

"What they've shown is how big this product, women's professional soccer, can be when there's a strong business model there. It's women-led. It's community focused. It's player-focused," said Matheson. "And we absolutely believe that can be built in Canadian markets as well." 

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NBA Raptors, NHL Maple Leafs and MLS Toronto FC, has expressed interest in both women's soccer and basketball in the past.

"I think it will be interesting to see if they decide to turn their talk into action on this one," said Matheson, politely lobbing the ball in MLSE's court.

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.

The league model calls for a limit on seven foreign players per team. That compares to four per side south of the border in the NWSL, although teams can field more imports by trading for international slots.

"As we get closer to kickoff … I'm sure there'll be a tweak here or there once we get more feedback from the owners," Matheson said. "They're obviously going to be stakeholders and owners in the league. So a few things may change but we've got the direction and model we're going (with)."

It appears that model does not include dealing with Canada Soccer Business, the enterprise that helped fund the launch of the men's Canadian Premier League and which markets Canada Soccer's corporate partnerships and broadcast rights. Under the long-term deal, the CSB pays Canada Soccer an annual fee and keeps the rest.

There will likely be overlapping facilities — and possible ownership — with the CPL, however.

"Hopefully we can find investment and further improve stadiums in markets as well," Matheson said.

Talks on TV partnerships are expected later this year.

"We're building out a bit more on the back-end before we're approaching those conversations," she explained. "The Canadian media market is not the easiest one, we know that."

But she says other markets have shown that airing women's professional soccer on a mainstream broadcaster produces "rising numbers and engagement, consistently." 

The goal is to find the broadcast partner "that maximizes our visibility in Canada."

Matheson says her group will be working closely with Breagha Carr-Harris, Canada Soccer's head of women's professional soccer, in the months to come. There is FIFA funding available that has to be accessed through Canada Soccer, not to mention sanctioning and issues like coaching, officiating and discipline that will involve the governing body.

Matheson's passion for the project is plain to see.

She calls it "all-consuming," an endeavour that has been helped by the fact that her executive MBA program at Queen's — where she met Gilbert — wrapped up classes in November. Her work in the UEFA Master for International Players program, designed to help players successfully transition to "a second career within football organizations," is also coming to a close.

What Matheson's role with the league will be once it is off the ground remains to be seen. 

"I think I'll go where I'm most needed," said Matheson, who is the CEO of Project 8. 

Matheson, whose stoppage-time goal earned Canada a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, cited injuries in announcing her retirement as a player in July 2021.

Matheson, who turns 39 in April, won 206 caps for Canada (including 193 starts) from 2003 to 2020.

She made a difference right to the end, scoring one goal and setting up the other in Canada's 2-2 tie with Brazil on March 10, 2020, in her final international appearance.

Matheson, an attacking midfielder known for her on-field soccer intelligence, appeared in four World Cups (2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015), three Olympics (2008, 2012, 2016) and two Pan American Games (2007, 2011).


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2023

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press