The Canadian Premier League is looking to add a team in Saskatchewan, awarding "exclusive rights" to an expansion club to a company planning to start a franchise in Saskatoon.
But there are more hoops to jump through before the fledgling soccer league, which grew to eight teams with Atletico Ottawa coming on board last year, expands again.
The agreement in principle with Living Sky Sports and Entertainment Inc. (LSSE) is contingent on the Saskatchewan-based company providing a soccer-specific stadium to league standards.
LSSE is looking at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon as the preferred site for a stadium — on the site currently occupied by the Marquis Downs racetrack.
"The key thing now is to get everybody behind it — the community, the soccer public in Saskatchewan and get that machine running the way they do. Because they're great sports fans," said CPL commissioner David Clanachan.
"I think soccer will fit perfectly in that province.
Should everything fall into place, 2023 would likely be the earliest for the Saskatchewan team to kick off.
The man behind LSSE is Alan Simpson, a 63-year-old Regina businessman.
He was co-founder of Hospitality Network Canada, which provides entertainment services within the healthcare industry. He subsequently co-founded StorageVault Canada and currently is chairman of the company's acquisitions committee and serves on its board of directors.
Soccer is his game now
"My time right now is consumed with Living Sky Sports and Entertainment and trying to get this soccer project to fruition with CPL," he said in an interview.
Simpson has no partners as of now, but says he is open to bringing on "other founding partners and community partners in Saskatchewan."
While the soccer team would be the primary tenant, the proposed venue could be used for other things. Simpson said Prairieland Park would be a partner in the stadium.
Prairieland Park, a non-profit corporation established as an agricultural society in 1886, is a 55-hectare site in the southeast section of Saskatoon.
Prairieland Park CEO Mark Regier said his site is reviewing the merits of adding a soccer stadium.
“When Prairieland was approached about the possibility of a soccer stadium at the park, we felt compelled to consider whether such an infrastructure project could enhance the long-term sustainability of the park, as well as contribute meaningfully to the city of Saskatoon,” Regier said in a statement. “While we have not come to a definitive answer, Prairieland has entered into a memorandum of understanding with LSSE."
Regier said the memorandum of understanding "marks the ending" of thoroughbred racing at Marquis Downs.
Simpson is looking at a stadium that can accommodate 5,000 to 6,500 to start, refurbishing some of the existing infrastructure of the racetrack. Clanachan says the plan could see the venue expand to 10,000 to 12,000.
Starting in 2023 would mean "we would need to put shovels in the ground probably second quarter of 2022," said Simpson.
"We'll focus on 2023. We'll be assertive and aggressive on trying to achieve that," he added. "But we will also be realistic that it's a very very ambitious timeline."
Simpson says his soccer dream is "somewhat idealistic."
"The province is ready for it. Saskatoon is ready for it. And all the kids who have participated and will participate in soccer are ready for it because it's a stepping stone to creating a vision and a hope and a dream of perhaps playing professional soccer one day if not in your own province, in your own country. That's the underlying driving force to do it."
The CPL's current lineup includes Pacific FC (Langford, B.C), FC Edmonton, Calgary's Cavalry FC, Winnipeg's Valour FC, Hamilton's Forge FC, York United FC (Toronto) and HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax) in addition to Atletico Ottawa.
The league has targeted the Victoria Day long weekend (May 22-24) as the kickoff for its third season.
Clanachan says the league is moving "full steam ahead" on expansion.
"We're still having conversations with multiple other groups," he said. "Every one of them is going to come along at a different pace. This is one that just seemed to be able to pick up a little more steam than the others. And so it's important for us to get it out there and get working on it."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press