Matheson again at the forefront in big moment for Canadian women’s soccer
Posted Dec 7, 2022 09:00:00 PM.
Diana Matheson stands five-feet tall, but she was a figurative giant among women on the pitch during her playing days.
As one of only three players for Canada’s women’s team with more than 200 caps to her credit (Sophie Schmidt and Christine Sinclair are the others), Matheson was at the centre of some of the biggest moments in Canadian soccer history during her 17-year international career before retiring in 2021.
But of her 19 goals, none were more important than her injury-time strike in a 1-0 win over France at the 2012 London Games, scored on a rebound attempt to lift Canada to a bronze medal. It was the country’s first medal at the Summer Olympics in a team sport in 76 years.
In one of the biggest moments for the Canadian women’s team, Matheson stood up when it mattered the most. Now Matheson is standing up again, only this time the stakes are much higher.
On Monday, Matheson announced her plans to launch a domestic professional women's soccer league in 2025. Matheson and her company Project 8, and her business partner Thomas Gilbert, are spearheading the project, while current Canadian women's team captain Sinclair is also involved as an advisor.
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The as-yet-unnamed league aims to have eight clubs when it kicks off, with each team featuring at least one Canadian international player. Two team ownership groups have already committed to joining the league in 2025: the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS and the Calgary Foothills Soccer Club. CIBC and Air Canada are also on board as league sponsors and investors.
Since retiring, Matheson, a 38-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., has been pursuing an MBA at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and enrolled herself in the Executive Master for International Players program offered by UEFA, European soccer's governing body. In December 2021, Matheson and a group of confidants met with Canada Soccer and tabled a proposal to work in partnership with the sport's governing body to help the advancement of the women's game in Canada.
Those discussions stalled, but that didn’t quell Matheson’s desire to keep working on bringing a pro women’s soccer league that would be the first of its kind in Canada.
“At that time, no one had a really clear plan of how to begin building a league and what the end product would look like,” Matheson told Sportsnet. “No one really had a plan at that point. So, for me, my journey since then has been continuing to learn. I kept doing my executive MBA, doing the UEFA master program, and just doing those things and continuing the conversations with lots of people in Canada. That gave me a better picture of how to start to build this league. Everything I was doing in those two programs, I would immediately apply to the Canadian landscape and be like, ‘Yeah, this will work. Will this work? This won’t work.’ And through that process I got a much better picture of how we can start to build a league in Canada.
“And then I spoke to a colleague of mine in my executive MBA program, Thomas Gilbert, about joining me as a business partner at having a go at building a professional women’s soccer league. So, we’ve been full-time at it for the past six months behind the scenes, and that’s brought us to where we are today.”
Women athletes around the world have long had to fight for pay equity and better job opportunities in professional sports. The National Women's Soccer League has been rocked by sexual harassment and misconduct scandals by coaches over the last few years, which resulted in the players coming together to help bring about changes to how the league deals with such issues.
So, the fact that it took a former high-profile player with the Canadian women’s team to lead an initiative to launch a new professional league in Canada shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
“The narrative around women’s soccer is evolving because great athlete leaders like Diana and Christine are evolving it as we speak,” said Katrina Galas, a women's sport strategy consultant at In Common Consulting. “They’ve both stepped up many times on the field of play when it counted the most, and now they're stepping up off the field too, with a compelling approach to proactively building a professional soccer league, by women for women. … The biggest obstacle to creating a professional women’s soccer league in Canada right now, is waiting – waiting even one more minute. It’s time.”
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Getting the Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills Soccer Club involved right off the bat was a strategic move by Matheson. Both organizations have a long history of supporting women’s soccer in their communities with financial resources and were looking to get involved in the professional game.
It didn’t take a hard sell to bring them in on the ground floor of this new league, according to Matheson.
“People seem to think there were really difficult conversations and really hard pushes to get Vancouver and Calgary involved,” she explained. “But the honest truth is it wasn’t. The hard work was in getting the plan together and building the business case. Once we had that, we went to speak to the people at the clubs first who we knew shared the same vision for women’s soccer in Canada as us.
“My first call was to (Whitecaps co-owner) Greg Kerfoot because, as a former Canadian women’s team player, I know what he has personally put into Canadian women’s soccer over the past 25 years and still does. Calgary Foothills were next because I had heard from (former teammate) Stephanie Labbe and others that they’ve been pushing the women’s game for years and had been looking around to see how they could take things to the next level and start to build a professional club. So, we went to the two markets that we thought would get onboard first, and they were eager to do so.”
The goal for this new league is to have teams across the country, from B.C. to the Maritimes. With the Whitecaps committed, one of the next steps for Matheson is to get Canada’s two other MLS teams (Toronto FC and CF Montreal) involved. Matheson has had preliminary discussions with both outfits’ ownership groups, including MLSE, who own TFC, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
NWSL teams Portland Thorns, Orlando Pride and Houston Dynamo share the same owners as MLS clubs. Ideally, Matheson would like to see the similar ownership models in this new league.
“Like the NWSL, we’re looking at different types of ownership groups,” Matheson said. “So, absolutely, we’re looking at the MLS team in those key markets. … MLSE and CF Montreal, we’ve spoken to both of them and they’re aware of our plans. So, we’ll see how those conversations progress over the coming months.”
Getting into two of the biggest markets in the country would be a huge boost for the prospective league, even if TFC and CF Montreal aren’t involved.
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Galas argued that finding ownership groups in those two cities that understand the core values of safe sport and governance, and who can “contribute to the positive energy and growth of women’s soccer” in Canada should be the priority.
“There’s no doubt that both the greater Toronto and Montreal areas are prime target-city markets,” Galas said. “However, the most important factor for success is the ownership group and getting that fit right. …. Brands that quickly recognize this rare chance to invest in building a professional league from scratch, alongside the top players in the country, will stand out.”
With two teams in place, Matheson and her Project 8 colleagues will now focus on convincing six other owners to buy into the league for the inaugural 2025 season. Once those commitments are in place, the league will apply to Canada Soccer for sanctioning, with Matheson having set a target of May 2024.
“Tom and I put in a lot of work behind the scenes getting the model and the business plan set before we approached Canada Soccer with this,” Matheson said. “Those conversations have been nothing but positive.
“They’ve been fully supportive and we’re going to work with them fully in getting this league sanctioned. We want all of our teams in place before we do that, so we’ve got a good runway there. We’re looking forward to working with them closer next year.”