Can York9 FC succeed in Canada's most saturated sports market?
TORONTO - The sodden banners bearing the names of suburbs in York Region - the municipality that begins just on the other side of Steeles Avenue from York Lions Stadium - had been taken down. The beer garden, which had curiously paired a butter tart stall with local craft pours, was packed into the back of a white van.
Meanwhile, those who'd turned up for the first Canadian Premier League match at York9 FC's temporary home - 4,260, according to the organization's website - sat in cars or stood in doorways of York University's deserted Keele Campus to escape the barrage of rain and lightning that cracked around the venue. Ultimately, most gave up and went home, including many of the ball boys. Few fans rushed back inside when the game restarted after the 75-minute weather delay.
If it wasn't obvious already, the washout - an eventual 2-0 win for visitors Forge FC - offered a stark reminder of York9 FC's largest hurdle.
For some attendees, the inclement weather was a convenient excuse to leave and prepare for the Toronto Raptors' historic Game 6 scuffle with the Milwaukee Bucks later that evening. York9 FC, who technically play in northern Toronto rather than York Region, are also competing with the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, the CFL's Argonauts, the rugby league's Wolfpack, and, of course, Toronto FC for attention.
In this saturated market, scheduling issues are already hindering the CPL's accessibility. For example, the timing of the league's inaugural game on April 27 in Hamilton - the hometown of Forge FC, who took on York9 FC in the first "905 Derby" - raised eyebrows given that it finished just as Toronto FC kicked off a match around 65 kilometers away.
"We can handle a couple of games on the same day," league commissioner Dave Clanachan told theScore at the time, glossing over the fixture conflict.
Still, it appears the CPL may be more mindful of its scheduling in the future, as evidenced by the recent tweak made so supporters can watch Saturday's European duel between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
"We moved the start time of a game in Halifax earlier this week because we realized that it was intercepting with the Champions League final, and the fans said (they) want to be able to watch both," CPL president Paul Beirne said.
"We do have some ability to do that, but at the same time it's impossible - just with the logistics of having seven teams, a minimum number of weeks throughout the summer, and at multipurpose venues (that) have other things going on - to accommodate all of the things."
Beirne added that while Canada does lack soccer-specific venues, York9 FC are in talks with two areas of York Region over where to build their own stadium. In the meantime, the club will soon remove the running track at its temporary abode to widen the pitch and bring fans closer to the action.
Additionally, the CPL and York9 FC are using local pride and a love of the sport to sell the product in this opening season.
"I think it's the student population, but I also think it's about the massive footballing community in both York Region and the north half of Toronto," Beirne said of the demographic York9 FC are trying to pull.
"As you know, a club takes on the identity of its region and the region takes on the identity of its club, so I think that would come over time that there's a real positive perception and pride in having their own club. York9 - the nine represents the nine municipalities. That's a real touchstone for all the communities in the region."
Overall, rather than viewing York9 FC as a risk, the CPL appears to regard the club as a flagship of its values. The feeling among Clanachan, Beirne, and others behind the scenes is that Canada doesn't have enough professional teams in general, and that York9 FC are simply representing an area that doesn't have enough spectator sports to satisfy its local population.
"It was a combination of the right community, the right facility, and the right owner," Beirne explained of dropping a team in York Region.
"There's lots more runway for us to build new clubs around Canada to have the same formula."