Excitement building for pro soccer in Saskatchewan

Belan has vision of a team, a stadium and a World Cup bid for province

By Matthew Gourlie

REGINA — A Saskatchewan team in the Canadian Premier League may not yet exist, but it started to feel a lot more real Friday night.

A crowd of approximately 50 people attended the Canadian Premier League Sask. Primer in Regina to listen to CPL president Paul Beirne, Joe Belan and Lee Genier discuss their vision for a team in the province.

Belan and his partner Grant McGlaughlin are the driving force behind the ownership group. The 43-year-old former Canadian youth international has a big vision for the sport in the province.

“We want to be as much a part of the fabric of the sports culture as the Roughriders,” Belan said of Saskatchewan’s beloved Canadian Football League franchise.

Belan, 43, is the chairman and founder of Novatrek Capital, a corporate advisory and investment firm. McGlaughlin is a Toronto-based lawyer who played basketball for the University of Regina.

Joe Belan

Joe Belan

Their vision for a team in the province includes an 8,500-seat modular stadium in a downtown location in either Regina or Saskatoon.

“When we look at them we think they are both very strong and viable markets,” Belan said of their two options. “I think the final deciding factor is going to be around the stadium and how quickly we can get that done. We do have aspirations to be part of this league and as Paul said ‘team No. 7’ that’s the slot we would like to have. That’s going to require a lot of work and a lot of effort, but I’m very encouraged by the response we’re getting from various constituents we’re getting here in Saskatchewan including both the municipal and  provincial governments who see the benefits of this project — not only to bring professional soccer, but to help the broader cultural development as well as economic development.

“This is a team that is going to bring 45 new full-time positions. It’s going to employ over 165 people. It’s going to bring a lot of new revenue to the province. When we look at it in aggregate we think it has a lot of benefits for either city as well as the province.”

While Belan and his ownership group weigh the two main centres in the province, ideally the CPL will have a team in each city at some point.

“When I look at this longer term, we’re not thinking one CPL team. We would ideally like to see two CPL teams in this province,” Belan said. “We have to think about this over a 10 year period, but in order to have that vision, you have to start planning and thinking about those things now.”

Genier has previously worked for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders and Bobsleigh Canada. He came to Saskatchewan in 2016 to help launch the National Lacrosse League’s Rush and the team was a massive success on the floor and in the stands. Genier said that was testament to the sporting passion of the people in the province and he expects the new CPL team to similarly capture the imaginations of fans province-wide.

“People love to travel across this province to see their team play. When I was with the Rush we had people come from Estevan to La Ronge and Lloydminster who were dedicated to showing up every week. I don’t anticipate anything different (with the CPL),” said Genier who will run the CPL team once the franchise is granted. “This is going to be a provincial team that we launch and we’re to draw from across the province.”

Valencia training photo

Fans swarm players from Valencia CF following their training session at the University of Regina. photo courtesy of Valencia CF

Saturday is “Soccer Day in Saskatchewan” with events around the city that will be capped by a friendly between the NASL’s New York Cosmos and Valencia from Spain’s La Liga at the New Mosiac Stadium in Regina.

Belan had a chance to look at the new $278M, 33,350-season stadium and came away impressed.

“When you walk into that stadium, it really gives you goosebumps. It’s a pretty spectacular facility. It’s world class in my view. It stacks up with many of the best stadiums around the world, including Europe. There’s a world class facility here in Regina and for Saskatchewan,” said Belan who was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in England and currently resides in Switzerland.

“I like to think big. I don’t like to think small. Canada being part of the 2026 World Cup is going to fundamentally change soccer culture in this country. We have a world class stadium blocks away from where we are right now and part of this project is not only going to bring the CPL into Saskatchewan, but also to be in the discussion and the conversation to have Saskatchewan host a World Cup game,” Belan added to cheers from those in attendance at O’Hanlon’s Irish Pub in Regina.

Saskatchewan may not seem like a soccer hotbed, but more than 300 spectators watched a brief Valencia training session at the University of Regina. Some of the supporters in attendance Friday have travelled across country and abroad to watch Canada play. One of the long-suffering Saskatchewan fans recalled seeing Canada beat Mexico in a World Cup qualifier in 1976.

For all they have seen in a lifetime of following Canadian soccer, most admitted that they never expected to see a professional team in Saskatchewan.

O'hans main

Paul Beirne took this picture of some of the crowd at O’Hanlon’s Irish Pub in Regina to prove they were there from the start of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Premier League team. twitter photo

Beirne, who was the first employee of Toronto FC in Major League Soccer and is still a season-ticket holder, has seen first hand how MLS has benefitted Toronto.

“It’s 11 years old now. If you go to a Toronto FC match today, the number of parents with youngsters and this is their club now. The parents bought it because they love the game. The youngsters come in because it’s in their heart. It’s a completely different sense of connection,” Beirne said. “There is a generation of kids in Toronto now who are growing up in a city that in their existence has always had a big club. In 10 years we’ll have that same thing happening here — this Saskatchewan club will be in the hearts and minds of all of those youngsters who are toddlers today, but very soon they will be committed to this club for the rest of their lives.”

Beirne has said that they are building the league for the next 100 years and beyond. With that in mind, they have been cautious in revealing details before the league is formally launched. Winnipeg and Hamilton have been granted franchises and Beirne has said that there have been 10 expressions of interest in the league and that there are other centres who are exploring their options.

“There are 10 who are on the path to readiness. If we launch this league with six teams, I would suspect the Saskatchewan team would be No, 7 or No. 8. There are cities that are a little bit behind this group and they will be nine and 10,” Beirne said. “Then there are some others that are just getting started, so they have a lot of work to do. They have to find investors. They have to find that piece of land. They have to find a business model that makes sense for them and that community. There’s a lot of moving parts, but all of them are moving in the right direction and all of them are moving a lot faster than people realize.”

The league could kick off as early as Saturday, July 22, 2018 — exactly a week after the World Cup final in Russia. They would not begin with fewer than six teams, but are looking to have two more teams already unveiled for a 2019 start date if they launch next year.

Belan said it is unlikely Saskatchewan could be ready for a 2018 launch, but he is optimistic that they could have a stadium build and ready for the spring of 2019 with their modular stadium model.

While the league would like to begin play in a year, they aren’t married to that idea.

“We’re not going to rush into it if we’re not ready,” Beirne said. “The more important principal is that we won’t launch unless we’re ready. We won’t launch with fewer than six teams. The ideal scenario is that we launch with six and the subsequent year we add two or three and then we just move from strength to strength after that. If we’re not ready, then we’re quite prepared to wait until 2019. You only get one chance to make a first impression. We have to launch in a strong fashion. We understand that this is something that has been tried by smart people in the past and there are high expectations on us. We’ve got to get it right.”

Getting it right includes adhering to a salary cap. Beirne wouldn’t get too deep into specifics, but he did envision it slowly increasing over the first few seasons as they continue to build the Canadian player pool.

It would also include a building boom of smaller stadiums that will be more intimate for the CPL experience. To make those more cost effective, many will have artificial surfaces which will allow a bubble to go over the surface in the winter months and make them accessible to other teams and groups to play and train on.

“There will be a lot of artificial surfaces,” Beirne said. “I think we’ll be very aggressive in trying to ensure that we don’t have any gridiron on our pitches, but I don’t think I can look anybody in the eye and say that’s 100 per cent not going to happen.There are some compromises that we may have to make along the way.”

One thing they won’t compromise upon is the need to develop Canadian players. Beirne said there would be a finite amount of foreign players in the league but he hoped that number would decrease as the league grew.

“Our mandate and commitment is to the Canadian player. The Canadian player pool right now is quite shallow. That’s not a knock on any of the players. That’s just our current fact of life,” Beirne said. “If we start with six teams that will be a shock to the player pool. We add two more teams that will be another shock to the player pool. It will take some time to normalize.”

The event was hosted by Rob Notenboom from the From The Black Hole podcast and founder of the Pile ’O Bones Supporters Group in Regina.

Amongst the crowd was Regina’s Kevin Holness who had nine caps and scored twice at the 1998 Gold Cup and is currently a technical director of FC Regina.

Also present was Regina mayor Michael Fougere, Ken Cheveldayoff, the Saskatchewan minister for parks, culture and sport, Don Story from the Canadian Soccer Association board, and Tracy Fahlman, CEO of the Regina Hotel Association.

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