Diane Matheson’s to-do list is growing. But so does support for her planned Canadian women’s professional soccer league.
Matheson and business partner Thomas Gilbert, co-founders of Project 8 behind the league, already have helping hands.
“It started out as just Tom and I, obviously very much in the startup way,” Matheson said in an interview. “But I think one of the real strengths of this project is that it’s not very hard to get people to do it. We’ve found that so many people want to help and so many people want to make this happen.”
“It’s a Canadian league and Canadians across the country are going to help build this. And we’ve seen that so far,” she added. – It’s really cool.
The Project 8 team includes strategic advisor Nathalie Cook, former vice president of Bell Media and TSN. Former Olympian Georgia Simmerling and Shawn Small, co-founder/president of consulting agency RISE Integrated Sports and Entertainment, serve as directors of global partnerships.
Project 8’s plan is to launch a league in 2025 with eight teams divided into two conferences. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills have already applied.
“There’s a lot to do this year and the next building until 2025,” Matheson said. “But those are priorities. Obviously, for the next six months, the priority is to secure the remaining six of our owners in six markets. And then include the rest of our partners.”
The former Canadian international has a current list of 13 potential owners, either people they have identified themselves or who have reached out to them. Project 8 deliberately sought a variety of potential owners, open to everything from MLS franchises to independent groups and “even foreign ownership.”
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Placement of women in management positions
“We want women to be in leadership, in ownership,” Matheson said. “That’s obviously not traditionally the case in professional sports, and it has to be part of this product, certainly. So in every market we’re in, we’re trying to find those women who want to be professional sports franchise owners.”
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 exclusively 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. It’s run by women. It’s community-focused. It’s player-focused,” Matheson said. “We absolutely believe it can be built in the 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.
The franchise fee for the new league is $1 million with an estimated need for $8 to $10 million in total capital invested over the first five seasons.
The league model calls for a limit of seven foreign players per team. That compares to four per side south of the border in the NWSL, although teams can send more imports by trading for international slots.
“As we get closer to kickoff, I’m sure there will be tweaks here or there as we get more feedback from the owners,” Matheson said. “They’re obviously going to be shareholders and owners of the league. A few things might change, but we have a direction and a model that we’re going with [with].”
The model does not appear to include dealing with Canada Soccer Business, the company that helped finance the launch of the men’s Canadian Premier League and that sells Canada Soccer’s corporate partnerships and broadcast rights. Under the long-term agreement, CSB pays Canada Soccer an annual fee and keeps the rest.
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However, there is likely to be some overlap of facilities – and possible ownership – with the CPL.
“Hopefully we can find investment and further improve the stadiums and markets,” Matheson said.
Talks about a TV partnership are expected later this year.
But she says other markets have shown that broadcasting women’s professional soccer on major television stations produces “consistently increasing numbers and engagement.”
The goal is to find a broadcast partner “that increases our visibility in Canada.”
Leading the charge on and off the pitch
Matheson says her group will be working closely with Breagha Carr-Harris, Canada Soccer’s head of women’s professional soccer, in the coming months. There is FIFA funding available that must be accessed through Canada Soccer, not to mention sanctioning and issues like coaching, refereeing and discipline that will involve the governing body.
Matheson’s passion for the project is clear to see.
She calls it “all-consuming,” an endeavor aided by the fact that her Executive MBA program at Queen’s — where she met Gilbert — ended classes in November. Her work on the UEFA Master for International Players programme, designed to help players make a successful transition to a “second career within football organisations”, is also coming to an end.
It remains to be seen what Matheson’s role will be in the league once it’s up and running.
“I think I’m going to go where I’m needed most,” said Matheson, who is Project 8’s executive director.
Matheson, who turns 39 in April, played 206 games for Canada from 2003 to 2020 (including 193 starts).
She made the difference until the very end, scoring one goal and setting up another in a 2–2 draw between Canada and Brazil on March 10, 2020, in her final international appearance.
Matheson, an attacking midfielder known for her football intelligence on the pitch, has appeared in four World Cups (2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015), three Olympic Games (2008, 2012, 2016) and two Pan American Games. (2007, 2011).