By Théo Gauthier
The late-afternoon sun beats down on us from the western side of TD Place as OSEG CEO Mark Goudie and I take our seats in what is normally the Ottawa Fury opposition’s bench. Earlier in the week, Goudie revealed to the assembled media that the Fury would not be joining the Canadian Premier League in its inaugural season. Instead, the Fury will continue to play in USL in 2019. Beyond that? It depends.
Author’s note: What follows is not a balanced article. I’ve picked out the highlights from what he and I discussed while we sat for a chat before Friday night’s Ottawa Fury friendly against the Montreal Impact at TD Place.
When Mark Goudie started working for OSEG in 2013, he wasn’t a soccer guy. But with OSEG launching a professional soccer club, it was suggested he go to Portland to see a Timbers MLS game in order to acclimatise himself with what a high-functioning soccer culture looks like.
“I grew up playing everything else (but soccer). I’d been away from the world of sports for 25 years and I was going to venues to figure out what’s changed in that time, and someone said ‘Go to Portland and see what they do with soccer.’ And I was like ‘I don’t want to go to Portland. I don’t want to go to soccer.’”
Often, what we first resist can lead to a great love affair, and this was the case for Goudie and the beautiful game. “I loved Portland. It was phenomenal. As I was walking into the stadium all the patios were full of people with Portland Timbers (merchandise). They were playing a Mexican club team and I spent most of my time watching the people in the stands and their supporters section and I thought ‘This is…oh I get it. I get it now.’ It was more than just the sport, it was a community. That was the first night where I think I understood the allure of soccer better than I did before.”
We spend a few minutes reminiscing about the birth of the Fury, the supporters sections, the 2015 season and the buzz in the crowd during their NASL playoff run, and as pleasant as that is, we quickly find the subject matter both of us want to talk about: the Canadian Premier League.
“It was a long shot from the start—and by ‘the start’ I mean two years. We started talking to the CPL before it was even started; when it was a concept that was coming. This was late 2016. I spent tons of time with the CPL. I gave CPL all of our history with the Fury, I went through the good things we did, the bad things we did, what I thought we learned in the NASL about how not to run a league, the good things I saw in the USL. I shared all of our documents with the CPL, so we were trying to be helpful. We volunteered to any of the ownership groups that wanted to come here and see what we do. Not because we’re the smartest people, but we were happy to do that. So we had a long dialogue with CPL—from the start.”
At the core of all these discussions, one senses that the prospect of the Fury joining CPL was always the elephant in the room, perhaps expected on the CPL side but never a sure thing in the minds of the OSEG brass.
“‘If we were to join,” Goudie tells me he told the CPL’s people, “we’ll be your last team, we won’t be your first team. This has got to make sense.’” And here, we get to the crux of the issue for Goudie and OSEG. “(Joining CPL) has got to increase the likelihood that we’re going to be playing professional soccer in Ottawa 20 years from now. We were insistent from the start that that’s what it’s gotta be. Less risk than we have right now. And that’s really hard to do because it’s really hard to start a league.”
Here Goudie makes sure he’s not appearing to be down on the new Canadian league; quite the opposite in fact. “From our experience, we know they are building this league right. The difficulty for us is that you can’t prove fans and sponsors are on board and stadiums are ready until you kick a ball.”
Much of the commentary that followed on Twitter (which Goudie followed) after Wednesday’s news centred on the anger emanating from the Canadian soccer community, but lost in all of that was the fact that the Fury left the door open to joining the league in the future. When I ask Goudie about this, he elaborated on his mid-week comments.
“We know there’s excitement in Canada and in the CPL for this league. We’re excited for them and to see CPL kick off as well. We will continue our dialogue and monitor the league’s progress closely. When I leave here—and decades after that—I want (us) to be playing soccer. I want to develop what I saw in Portland, in Ottawa. So whatever gives us the best opportunity to do that: we’re game for that.”
I ask him if a TV contract is also part of that equation. Goudie doesn’t think it’s necessary, at least at first. “Honestly, a TV contract—I know the CPL talk about it, but it’s far out. The USL is a pretty successful second division and (even) they don’t have a TV contract, and there’s no shame in that…it will come when it’s warranted. What if (the CPL) doesn’t get a TV contract? I don’t think it’s a big deal. They’re building a prudent financial model for their teams and that’s a good thing.”
The NASL experience seems to loom large with the OSEG CEO, and he returns to it here as he sees the CPL avoiding the pitfalls incurred by that now-defunct circuit. “We saw with the NASL what a lack of prudence means. NASL was worried about taking over the world—”internationalisation”—and taking on MLS and not worried about the on-field product, in-stadium experience; the grassroots stuff you need to be successful. I think if the fans come, then the TV contract will come and then the sponsors.”
The NASL’s lofty ambitions and risk-taking proved to be the league’s undoing, and Goudie is taking the prudent route this time around, comfortable with OSEG’s decision to keep the Fury within the predictable approach espoused by the USL. The goal is to do what’s best for the Fury and to make sure professional soccer is alive and well into the foreseeable future.
From talking with Goudie, one gets the sense that the CPL’s first season, at least, was not a good match for where the Fury currently stands. Joining the CPL would have been similar to what a Premier League team has to go through when they get relegated to the second division, with all the financial risk and roster headaches the move would entail. For example, the USL’s most recent expansion fees were 8 million USD; joining CPL would have meant walking away from that valuation.
When the CPL finds its footing and catches up to what the Fury currently have on offer, it’s easy to imagine a much smoother—and beneficial—transition for both entities when OSEG brings the capital city into the CPL picture.
For now, though, CPL boosters in eastern Ontario and western Quebec will have to follow the league from afar, and take solace in the fact that OSEG and its CEO have the best of intentions for professional soccer in the region.