Al Simpson is determined to see a professional soccer team on the pitch in Saskatchewan – one way or another.
The born-and-raised Regina businessman is leading the effort to bring a Canadian Premier League (CPL) expansion team to the province.
“It began for me in 2017 … I thought ‘what a wonderful idea — Saskatchewan could certainly use the world’s game on a professional level,’” Simpson said.
“I’m a lifelong sports fan and a lifelong Saskatchewan Roughrider fan. My dad started taking me to the games when I was seven or eight years old and sitting in the Rider rookie section … at 50 cents a ticket.
“I’ve always had an interest in sport and this particular venture with the (CPL) just seems like a natural for our province.”
Rahim Mohamed, with the Saskatchewan Soccer Association (SSA), described the province’s interest in soccer as “massive.”
“I believe we’re the largest or the second-largest team sport (in Saskatchewan). We have over 40,000 participants … in soccer every year,” Mohamed said.
“For fans that have watched the games on TV, they now have the chance to watch games live and really enjoy that and immerse themselves in the soccer culture and the live game-day match atmosphere.”
He said having a professional team in the province will attract even more fans to ‘the beautiful game.’
“I think that a future CPL team here in Saskatchewan is going to have a profound impact … I think it’s something that we’ve been dreaming of.”
Brett Levis became the CPL’s first Saskatchewan-born player when he signed with Winnipeg’s Valour FC last May and said he’s excited about the prospect of the league coming to his hometown.
“I think it’s incredible news. It’s something that’s much needed. It’s something that people have been talking about for quite a while now. To see it actually come to fruition or at least get the ball rolling is amazing,” Levis said.
“I’ve seen way too many players with a ton of talent and a ton of skill that just fizzled out because there wasn’t a good pathway. There wasn’t a direct pathway for them to go or take the next step, whether that was after club soccer or university. And for me, this is the perfect step for them to take.”
The CPL announced previously that Simpson’s company, Living Sky Sports and Entertainment (LSSE), has been given the rights to a new club in Saskatoon, which is contingent upon the building of a soccer-specific stadium.
“The key for us, and this is the long-term sustainability of a professional soccer club, is that we must have a stadium that allows us to generate the type of revenues required to support a soccer team,” Simpson said.
“The league is averaging about 4,500-4,600 fans per game. Some teams are obviously higher than others to get to that average. We need to be in excess of 4,000 fans per game for us to be sustainable and we think that that’s doable in Saskatoon.”
This wouldn’t be the first professional soccer team to make a go in the Bridge City after the now-defunct Saskatoon Accelerators lasted a handful of seasons roughly a decade ago in the Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League, which folded.
Levis, 28, grew up in Saskatoon and played for the Accelerators before joining the University of Saskatchewan Huskies soccer program.
“I think we actually got quite a few (fans). Bear in mind, the old soccer centre doesn’t hold a massive capacity but it was definitely full for, I think, all of our home games … it was the whole soccer community,” Levis said.
“I don’t know exactly why (the Accelerators didn’t last). In theory, the idea was there but I don’t think that … type of soccer, whether you call it futsal or that indoor, it was pretty new, I think. And it was exciting for the first little bit.
“Whether it’s sponsorships, ad revenue, fans coming to games, you need those type things for leagues to succeed. And, at the end of the day, soccer is played on a full-sized grass field, turf fields with 11 players on each side … and I think that’s just more exciting. It is what people are used to.”
All three agreed that times have changed and Saskatchewan could be ready to support a professional soccer team.
“I think there’s a lot that’s actually changed … the (CPL) is growing. I think the model that they’ve put into place and how they’ve gone about starting the league, getting access to all games for fans, making sure that the quality of players is incredibly high. I think the league itself is going to help the stability side,” Mohamed said.
“It’s not a matter of, ‘is the CPL going to last?’ It’s a matter of ‘how successful is CPL going to be?’”
“I think we’re a country of immigrants, that’s no secret. And I would argue that over the course of the last 20 years, most of those individuals, families who have immigrated to Canada have come from countries where soccer was either the number one participant sport or the number one spectator sport or both,” Simpson said.
“We’ve got a changing face of the country and soccer is their game. It’s the universal game. It’s the world’s game.
“We’ve got what we celebrate as this diverse culture and growing diversity in our province … (and) we can weave a thread of commonality — which is soccer — through our diversity and bring people out to a stadium to watch the game with a common purpose, obviously cheering for their team. That’s a good thing for a community. That’s something that I think we’re all looking to try and achieve.”
While LSSE is headquartered in Regina, Simpson is choosing to focus on a Saskatoon-based team but said his deal with the CPL could lead to further league expansion in the province.
“If I were to look out over the next five to seven years, I think there would be a natural rivalry to occur between Saskatoon and Regina, much the same as you see with Edmonton and Calgary,” Simpson said.
“Obviously, we’d like to see Saskatoon get up and running but, at the end of the day, if things don’t come together in Saskatoon and we can’t get a stadium financed and built then maybe Regina becomes the next logical place to look.
“I shouldn’t say maybe — it does become the next place to look and work hard on. And we’ve had preliminary discussions with some folks in Regina about doing something and those conversations are ongoing but, right now, Saskatoon is the focus.”
While on board with the idea of two rival teams, Levis had some reservations.
“Like club soccer growing up, we always had a rivalry with any team from Regina. That was just kind of the basis, Saskatoon versus Regina, that whole aspect. I think it’d be really cool,” Levis said.
“I’m a bit hesitant on the market and the growth. I think we need to see it succeed in, for example, Saskatoon before we attempt because you want the sport to grow but you don’t want to push it to an extent where it’s not ready for that growth and then you see teams folding.
“Saskatoon has been a market that … we rally. Whether it’s football, hockey, (or) lacrosse, we rally around our teams and everybody knows that the fans will come out in support. So I think it’s a great city to have it.”
LSSE has partnered with Prairieland Park as its preferred site for a stadium with its exit from the horse-racing business. Simpson revealed that the goal is to start with roughly 5,500 seats by refurbishing parts of Marquis Downs and developing further around it.
“The hard part right now is trying to get the stadium built … We’re at the stage where we’re in plans, deeply in development plans, to see what we can do,” Simpson said.
“It’s a project that can happen because there’s a pro soccer club that wants to be the anchor tenant. But it’s very important to understand and for folks to know that for this stadium to work requires financial participation by the City of Saskatoon and the province of Saskatchewan, in addition to myself and Prairieland.”
As for a start date for a new Saskatchewan club to play in the CPL, Simpson said, “2023 might be ambitious. We’ll certainly shoot for that but I think 2024 is probably more realistic.”
Since its first season in 2019, the CPL currently has eight teams across five provinces and both coasts.