A pro-level women’s soccer team in Toronto would be a game-changer: U-20 player

The current path for women players to reach professional level is narrow, Nikayla Small said

Canadian Women's National Soccer Team huddles on the field
Most female soccer players on the Canadian Women's National Team have to go to the U.S. if they want to play professionally. (Soccer Canada) 

Creating a women’s professional soccer team in Toronto could help keep female youth engaged in sports, a national player says.

“If there was an NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League] team in Toronto, girls could have that early recognition, like, ‘Oh, I see other women doing it, I want to do that, too,’” said Nikayla Small, who plays on the U-20 Canada women’s national soccer team.

“The only thing that’s separating us from other nations is that we don’t have a team or a league that we can have Canadian players go through,” she said.

Small grew up playing youth soccer in Ontario, having represented Pickering SC and most recently, National Development Centre (NDC) Ontario. Currently, she is a sophomore playing for Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Playing college soccer in the U.S. is a familiar route that most current and former Canadian women’s national team (CanWNT) players have had to take to reach their dreams of playing professional club soccer.

The NWSL is a U.S. pro league that utilizes a college draft system that picks players competing amongst college divisions within just the U.S. The 2023 draft day took place Jan. 13.

Small, too, hopes to play professionally one day. She looks back at how she reached the national team pool through NDC Ontario, which also paved the way for her to be recruited by Wake Forest. “It had a dual purpose,” she said. 

The steps towards the next level creates a dichotomy for female players — they represent Canada on the international level, but have to leave Canada to play at the professional club level.

In contrast, male youth players can progress through the Toronto FC Academy, the club’s youth academy and development system, which can lead to the club’s professional team in Major League Soccer (MLS), which competes amongst American teams. The Toronto FC Academy can also identify opportunities for young talent to play professionally in the domestic Canadian Premier League (CPL).

Toronto FC logo at BMO Field
The Toronto FC Academy has two pathways through which male players can progress to professional level. (Aimi Mayne/Toronto Observer)

Lack of professional opportunities a barrier

A national study in 2020 led by Canadian Women & Sport, an advocacy organization striving to reshape Canada’s sports system, revealed that girls quit playing sports more than three times as much as boys do as they grow up. The study found that 43 per cent of adolescent girls said “the quality of the sport experience was a barrier.”

Small said that while her youth development at home helped paved the way for her to earn a college scholarship in the U.S., the lack of professional opportunities for female youth players to aspire to continues to be a narrow road.

“The exposure wasn’t as much when I was growing up. I didn’t really know until the end of high school how far I could really take my soccer career,” she said.

The CanWNT’s gold-medal feat at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August 2021 brought both hardware and pride home to the nation. Despite this success on the world stage, the Canadian women players are still fighting for equal pay compared to the men.

CanWNT players called on Canada Soccer in a statement to work “towards a deal that offers true pay equity and that advances the sport of soccer in Canada, for the benefit of us all.”

The 2022 NWSL season ended with four Canadians winning the championship with the Portland Thorns including CanWNT captain, Christine Sinclair, who recently criticized the lack of pro women’s teams in Canada.

“It is, quite honestly, pathetic that there’s no professional environment for women to play in Canada,” Sinclair said. “I think we’re the only country in the top 25 world rankings that doesn’t have a professional league. And as a result, players are forced to play in the NWSL in the U.S., or head overseas.”

Domestic pro league coming to Canada

A year later, Sinclair’s criticism turned into action.

In early December 2022, Sinclair and Diana Matheson, a former CanWNT player, announced they are spearheading the establishment of a domestic professional women’s soccer league in 2025 that will feature eight teams throughout Canada.

“We’ve inspired Canadians on the podium,” Sinclair told CBC’s The National. “Now it’s time to actually make an impactful difference here in Canada.”

A supporters’ group advocating to bring an NWSL team to the Six still believes the U.S. league needs to come to Toronto.

Establishing both developments would mirror the professional opportunities that male players have, with Toronto FC competing in the MLS, and York United FC competing in the CPL.

A supporters’ group advocating to bring an NWSL team to Toronto (@NWSLToronto/Twitter)

A former Canadian Olympian says there’s a business case to start up a Toronto women’s team. 

“It would make a lot of sense for Toronto FC to invest, or anyone, or even partner with Toronto FC because they own BMO Field,” said Jolan Storch, founder of Bold. Counsel., a sports marketing consultancy and former business development advisor of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Venues and sufficient facilities are vital in catering a professional team, which has contributed to the success of a lot of European clubs, according to Storch. Such clubs have benefitted from a business model that is made up of both a men’s and women’s side, she said.

A strong long-term bet for investors: TSC

Research conducted in 2022 by The Sports Consultancy (TSC) and business advisory firm BDO discovered that women’s sports “could be a better long-term bet for investors,” as compared to men’s sports, which have become crowded with investors. 

There has also been an uptick in demand for women’s sports amongst younger audiences. 

Findings from YouGov, a international market research and data analytics firm based in Britain, showed that based on a Twitter report, “44 per cent of women’s sports fans are 24 or younger, while 24 per cent of the women’s sport’s fans are aged between 25-34. Tweets celebrating women and gender equality increased over per cent in 2021 compared to 2020.”

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns Toronto FC, Toronto Argonauts, Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors, has reportedly expressed interest in bringing an NWSL team to the city, with the 2024 NWSL expansion on the horizon, which looks to add two new teams to the league. 

“I think that’s it’s time. It’s high time that we have professional sporting options for women happening more in Canada,” Storch said.

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Posted: Jan 23 2023 9:00 am
Filed under: News Soccer Sports