Calgary group pushing for new Canadian women’s soccer league

Click to play video: 'Alberta Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Labbe celebrated in Spruce Grove'
Alberta Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Labbe celebrated in Spruce Grove
Team Canada goal keeper backstopped the women's soccer team to gold in Tokyo. On Monday, Stephanie Labbe was honoured with a pep rally in Spruce Grove, where she grew up. John Sexsmith reports. – Aug 16, 2021

Rather than simply basking in the golden glow of their Olympic win, members of Canada’s national women’s soccer team are using their platform to fight for professional opportunities on home turf.

“I hope that it’s a big wake-up call for a lot of people,” goaltender Stephanie Labbe said. “The fact that this team has two back-to-back bronze medals and now a gold medal and we still don’t have a women’s professional league is pretty unacceptable and quite disappointing, to be honest.”

That dream may be inching closer to becoming reality.

Calgary Foothills Soccer Club is laying the groundwork for a new Canadian pro-am league, which could hit the pitch as soon as 2022.

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“Prior to this year, we’re back-to-back conference champions,” Foothills executive director Danny Hay said. “The last final was played in 2019 against LA Galaxy here in Calgary, to a one-nothing loss. So we were the runner-up and our team was… very predominantly Calgarian. The talent has always been here, they just didn’t have any form or environment to go show how skilled they are.”

Foothills currently fields a team in the US-based United Women’s Soccer (UWS), which is the top non-professional women’s tier in North America.

Labbe suited up for the club in 2018 after the Premier Development League barred her from competing on the men’s semi-pro side.

Foothills’ current proposal would see teams based in Western Canada, Ontario, and Eastern Canada, with a Memorial Cup-style regional playdown.

While it wouldn’t be a pro league right out of the gate, Hay hopes it could get there eventually.

“A lot of this, unfortunately, comes down to the business of soccer, as opposed to the on-field product of soccer,” Hay explained. “So start with a pro-am league, but within two to three years, look to bring in sponsorship behind women’s soccer. I think there would be corporate dollars that could be brought in that could allow the league to flourish into a professional league.”

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Foothills plans to file an application with Canada Soccer for the pro-am league this October, but they’re also speaking with potential investors to bring an NWSL expansion team to Canada.

“We want to have all of the above so there’s a very seamless pathway, right from rec soccer for girls kicking a ball at Foothills, all the way up to pro,” Hay said. “The ‘pro’ of the Calgary market is there is an existing infrastructure that is already prepared and ready on the field and off the field to move forward — and a lot of the infrastructure is joint infrastructure, so it can be done at a reduced cost.”

Sports economist Moshe Lander believes the NWSL expansion option holds more water, noting steep travel fees a domestic league could incur.

“They (NWSL) have a 10-team league. Try and argue for one, maybe even two expansion teams, when the CBS contract expires in 2022. That should be enough time to kind of get the ball rolling,” Lander said.

“I would almost suggest that Calgary should look, in the beginning, to do a joint ownership group with Edmonton. You play half the games here, half the games in Edmonton. Remember, Edmonton has the experience with the Women’s World Cup from a few years back so they could easily make a plausible argument that, hey, we’re equipped and ready to roll here.”

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As for Labbe, she’ll board a plane to continue her career in Europe, and the fight to finally establish a pro game at home.

“I see the rivalry in Alberta now between Calgary and Edmonton on the men’s side and I’d love to see it on the women’s side as well,” Labbe added. “I’d love to bring a team home. I think that would be a great legacy to leave.”

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