SASKATOON — Local soccer fanatic Lee Kormish says he was shocked when he heard the news that Prairieland Park and Saskatchewan-based Living Sky Sports & Entertainment were teaming up to bring a professional soccer team to the city.
“You couldn’t knock the smile off my face, I mean I was so excited,” he said. “I thought we were years away from this type of plan.”
Kormish was co-chair of the SK Summer Soccer Series in 2019, which saw three exhibition games at SMF Field between a team made up of local players and Calgary Foothills FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23 squad, and Toronto FC2.
“It was a test market run, and it passed the test,” said Kormish. “Nothing games attracted 3,000 people, and that is a success rate across the country.”
Canadian businessman Joe Belan was part of the group that organized the series, and worked towards bringing a professional team to the province. Another member of that group was Alan Simpson, who went on to co-found Living Sky Sports & Entertainment.
Simpson says Belan is no longer in the plans to bring pro soccer to Saskatchewan.
Percy Hoff, the director of coach and player development with Hollandia Soccer Club in Saskatoon, coached the local team in the first of the Summer Series games.
Hoff says soccer in the province is “fragmented,” with provincial teams being cancelled in 2011.
“They’re not part of our programming anymore, which I think wasn’t the best thing to happen to soccer,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people pulling in different directions and hopefully we can see it start to come back together again, work together.”
He says he hopes one of the goals for LSSE and a professional team would be to unify soccer in the province.
“Hopefully it’s a positive thing, and we will work together and try to get something going,” he said.
Simpson says he’s in the process of connecting with the soccer community in Saskatchewan and the team would engage with soccer right down to the grassroots level in the province.
“I don’t want it to ever be lost that we are a country of immigrants,” said Simpson on Wednesday. “The people who have arrived here over the last 25 years, I would argue, I think it would be right that 80 per cent of them come from a country of origin where soccer was either the number one spectator sport, or participant sport, or both.”
“And so when you fast forward that into Saskatoon, and you’ve got that kind of diversity that we all talk about, that diversity of culture, and you can take and you can weave the common thread of soccer through all of those cultures, stitch that all together, bring all that diversity together one or two days or nights a week, coalesce it under one roof, cheer for one club.
“If that doesn’t build civic pride and community, then I’m missing it.”
In an interview with CTV News on Friday, CPL commissioner David Clanachan said it’s important to the league to gain a presence in Saskatchewan.
“It’s one thing to say coast to coast, but you’re on opposite coasts, you’ve got to fill in everything right, and you want everybody to be part of the program here,” he said.
“To build a sports franchise in this world today, it’s all about fans. Live sports is about people, it’s about those bums in seats. At the end of the day you’ve got to have people there that support it, and (Saskatchewan has) that.”
Creating a development path
Kormish believes what’s missing in the sport is the pathway for local players to progress to elite levels of the game as they get older.
“University is the highest level that we have in Saskatoon, so what you’ll see is you’ll see a lot of players going to Vancouver to Winnipeg to Toronto, even a lot of the female players go down south to colleges and universities,” he said.
That would change with a professional team, he says.
“That will allow local players to have opportunity here in Saskatchewan, which is probably the most exciting part for me.”
“Absolutely we want that,” echoed Simpson, who says the CPL will allow U-Sport soccer players to “get a taste” of the professional game with their clubs, and still be eligible to return to school.
“That’s a commitment to the development of the local player,” he said. “It is a pathway for kids who are playing now, to play professionally in Saskatoon.”
Hoff says that could have a big effect on youth soccer in Saskatchewan.
“Anytime that there’s a horizon for somebody to look towards, and something to aspire towards, (it’s a good thing),” he said.
New stadium site and cost
Simpson says the new franchise is contingent on the building of a new soccer-specific stadium, which he says is a necessity to long-term viability.
“It becomes quite evident that we need to have a stadium where we are the key anchor tenants, where we have access to naming rights, sponsorship rights, advertising rights, employment, food and beverage, and all sorts of things, and all the ancillary revenues that come,” he said.
“They’re very, very committed,” Prairieland Park CEO Mark Regier said of the CPL on Friday. “They have a good management team, and they’re committed long term to the success of the league, and we think it’s going to be hugely successful going forward.”
The infrastructure at Marquis Downs, including the grandstands as well as electricity and utilities, is what makes that site work.
“You’ve got that sitting out there, and you’re on Circle Drive and you’re driving past, I don’t care what direction you’re coming from, that can be very visually appealing,” he said. “And this may sound goofy, but those things are important to communities, and the pride and the culture that they build.”
Simpson says construction costs could range between $15 to $21 million and within two to three weeks initial concept designs of the stadium will be released.