Launch of AFC Toronto City with Project Eight Sports hoping to lean into "untapped pool" of women's soccer talent in GTA
The pieces are falling into place for Project 8 Sports’ upcoming women’s professional soccer league, set to launch in 2025.
After launching their initial plans to kickstart their league this past fall, they took a huge step this week, announcing AFC Toronto City as the third founding franchise for the league, joining the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Calgary Foothills as founding members.
With Toronto being the biggest financial market in Canada, and one that is heavily involved in sports, it’s a big move, too, allowing the league to leave an imprint in a key hub.
Plus, with the city being rather light in women’s professional sports teams, beyond hockey team Toronto Six of the PHF, this is a huge opportunity to bring more women’s sports to a city that has shown an appetite for them, shown when they immediately sold-out a WNBA exhibition game in the city in less than a day, as an example.
“We brought this group together from the soccer community in Toronto,” AFC Toronto City’s CEO, Helena Ruken, told OneSoccer last week. “We are women lead, and each of us has extensive experience in soccer and in business, we are rooted in the community and that's our founding principle. This market has an incredible depth of talent on the women's side, and we're so excited to be here and provide these opportunities for young women and girls and contribute to the community's growth.”
Yet, while the idea of setting a footprint in Toronto makes a lot of sense on several levels, there remain key obstacles to overcome.
One is that while there is a strong appetite for soccer, it’s important that you enter the community with an idea of how to connect with the people who are heavily involved in the sport, especially at the grassroots level.
Therefore, that’s one big box that this project made sure to tick, as Ruken and her associates, COO Brenda Ha and CMO Jill Burgin have strong ties to North Toronto Soccer Club, with Ruken having served as president of the club since 2020.
As a result, having seen the growth of a League 1 women’s side within that club, they have an understanding of the market, as well as existing relationships that will come in handy as they look to build this new venture from the ground up.
“Yes, absolutely. This is a separate entity, Toronto City is a separate entity (to North Toronto), and while we all share our common roots, that's how we got to know each other, it was from the North Toronto soccer community, but this is a separate organization and currently doesn't have any affiliations,” Ruken explained. “We know how important grassroots development is, so for Toronto City, the professional women's team, it’s so important to have good relationships with the soccer infrastructure here in the GTA, for player development, pathways, recruitment and retention.”
Toronto. We’re here.— AFC Toronto City (@AFC_TorontoCity) April 26, 2023
Alongside @project8sports, we’re powering up women’s soccer in Canada. A.F.C. Toronto City will now be the 3rd founding team for Canada's women's professional soccer league, kicking off in 2025.
Follow us & @project8sports for our launch later this year. pic.twitter.com/KeIivtdaqB
From there, they believe that should provide the platform for them to ultimately mould their team into their vision, which is to create a side that can both provide opportunities for the players of tomorrow, while bringing in the stars of today.
And given the sheer amount of talent that has and continues to come through the province, they believe that they should have no issues with building up a good player pool from day one.
Similar to how the Canadian Premier League has become a launchpad for League 1 Canada players to take that next step in their careers, Ruken believes this new team can do the same for the wealth of talent that exists at the semi-professional level across this country.
Instead of seeing those players have to leave elsewhere or give up their dreams altogether, something like this could give them a chance to pursue such ventures without having to stray too far to do so.
“Ontario has a great and complete player pathway for the boys and men,” she explained. “And we all see what an excellent job League 1 Ontario and the CPL have done for providing male players with more opportunities if they want to play professionally, but I think on the women's side, there's still an untapped pool of talent right here in Toronto and in the GTA.”
“And what we're doing here is we want to open more opportunities and allow them to play at the top level right here at home with other top talent from other parts of the world.”
Yet, while there is certainly a lot of upside to what this team could bring, there is one key obstacle - a stadium. With a franchise fee of $1 million already sorted, they must now find a place to play, which as seen in the launch of the CPL over the last few years, is crucial to nail.
Location, size and usability matter, as you must find the right-sized venue to make a home.
There, it’ll be intriguing to see what happens. With Toronto FC not involved in this project, that would indicate BMO Field is out of the running. Lamport Stadium could be one, as it is a great location and a good size, but the stadium would certainly need a facelift. Varsity Stadium is also a shout in terms of location and size, but same with Lamport, availability issues could arise.
Otherwise, the options could be to play a bit out of Toronto proper, or build a new stadium, with the latter likely tying into the former.
But while Toronto City have yet to fully figure that out at this momment, they appear to have plans in the works, which they’ll be hoping to take care of very soon.
“We don't have a stadium confirmed, but it's in the works,” Ruken confirmed. “We really want to make sure that we get this right, and that we have the right infrastructure for game day as well as the proper training facilities before we announce that. We're working with a number of partners to have everything in place when the league launches in 2025.”
“(We want) around 5000 to start in a soccer-specific stadium with great facilities, change rooms, and medical facilities suited for a professional team.”
From there, they’re eager to get to launch, with the league now around two years away from launching.
There’s a lot of work still to do before then, with five teams yet to be announced, and a lot of infrastructure to be created off the field, but this move is an encouraging first step.
One thing’s for sure, however, and it’s that women’s professional soccer is overdue in Canada, a problem that this project is eager to fix when it all comes together.
“Canada is a bit behind on the world stage when it comes to women's sports,” Ruken said. “There are investors, sponsors and governments that really want to get on board with women's sports as governments are realizing how beneficial it is to society to provide women and girls with these role models and leaders who are working in professional sports, so I do think that there's definitely a market right here in Toronto."