Pro women's soccer initiative is a huge step forward for women's sports in Canada

Diana Matheson, centre, is CEO of Project 8; Helena Ruken, left, is CEO of AFC Toronto City, and Shilpa Arora is general manager of DoorDash Canada, one of the team's sponsors. (APEX PR - image credit)
Diana Matheson, centre, is CEO of Project 8; Helena Ruken, left, is CEO of AFC Toronto City, and Shilpa Arora is general manager of DoorDash Canada, one of the team's sponsors. (APEX PR - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Wednesday morning, Canada woke up to the news that Toronto would be home to the newest professional soccer club in North America, when AFC Toronto City announced it would be joining the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Calgary Foothills in the women's league expected to begin play in 2025.

Diana Matheson, a former member of Canada's women's team and an Olympic bronze medallist, is the co-founder and CEO of Project 8, the company that has been building the league from the ground up. Hailing from Oakville, where she grew up playing in her local organizations, Matheson said the "the sky's the limit" for AFC in Canada's largest city.

A professional women's team in Toronto is a long time coming, and a domestic professional league should have been established eons ago. Matheson said they are "on track" for the league to begin play in two years, and expect to get membership with Canada Soccer at its general meeting next week in New Brunswick.

Matheson said the intention is to have all eight teams for the league by the end of 2023. While pursuit of ownership in regions across the country is definitely a priority, simple awareness and keeping momentum is important for Project 8 and its success. AFC Toronto City's sponsor is DoorDash, to go along with CIBC, Air Canada and Canadian Tire as sponsors for the league. The attention is not only focused on cementing the foundation for women's sport, but also the value that goes with it.

"We've been stuck in the past crying out for more investment into women's sport, but for whatever reasons in Canada we've only had national team pathways in all the sports … and that's really limiting in how fans can support the teams," Matheson said. "National teams only show up every three or four years, [merchandise] is limited, opportunities are also limited. All we're trying to do is add that professional sport infrastructure that we've been lacking."

Canada is home to world-class athletes and those with so much potential, but prior to the announcement of this domestic women's league, the opportunity to play at home has been almost non-existent. The only pathway now for Canadian athletes is to play for a U.S. college, with the national development teams or in overseas professional leagues.

There are stellar players who just won't get the chance to continue to play here. Should they have to hang up their cleats and move on from the game? There are women's junior leagues in Canada that will be able to feed into the professional league as well.

Project 8's latest announcement comes on the heels of a research paper released by Canadian Women and Sport about investing in professional women's sport in Canada. The findings are what we know: the market has been undervalued. The paper is called It's Time and is available on the Canadian Women and Sport website.

The reality is that when corporate partners come on board it creates more opportunity, and sponsorship is key to success. Canadian Women and Sport CEO Allison Sandmeyer-Graves underlined that on Monday at the public release of the report.

"We know that women's professional sport is not charity," she said about the report. "It requires a business case, it requires investors, and that is something that has not been fully explored in this country."

The trajectory of women's sports is going straight up. Support from the global women's sports community is truly something special. The solidarity on issues that women athletes face, including pay equity and abuse, is not unnoticed.

I keep thinking about something that Matheson said to me: "I know that I can call anyone in the world in women's sports and say: 'I'm building a women's pro soccer league in Canada, I would love to talk to you about this.' And they will say 'absolutely' and 'here's some time.'"

That's different from the way that women's sports have usually operated: on shoestring budgets, often as a second thought, but with grit and with intentionality and support from other women in similar spaces. Women are bringing the issue of sponsorship to the forefront, as the corporate sector hasn't often given priority to women's sports.

But we know that women's sports benefit all of society and the positive impact of girls sports is incalculable for confidence and for leadership and teamwork and other life skills.

Women's sports are invigorating and have so much potential. Even at a time when Canada's sports organizations are suffering from abuse scandals and systems of oppression that desperately need an overhaul, or an inquiry at the very least.

It is refreshing to see a movement that wants to grow the women's game at home and is led by people who understand, believe in, and value women in sport and women's sports. Canadian fans and lovers of soccer deserve a home team and players deserve the opportunity to thrive without having to grab their passports and fly out of the country.

Matheson said that one of the most profound responses to the announcement has been from older women and fans of the game.

"Women in their 70's have told me, 'it's about damn time,'" she said. "We're allowing that choice for Canadians to come out to a game, buy a ticket, watch it on TV, share on socials, buy a jersey, play in the league, come work for one of our teams."

Matheson is humble when she says Project 8 might have "planted a few seeds and a dream," but essentially they are approaching the league with not only opportunities for players but for an entire ecosystem to thrive. Her advice to Canadians? "Support in any way they can."

I hope Canadians are ready to get those supporter's scarves, toques and merch. I hope Canadian companies think about investing in women's leagues that will likely quickly multiply in value and bring pride to communities across this country. I hope seats sell out and that the press box is full.

I hope that generations to come will find their home on a pitch — at home.