Clarke Stadium renovations needed to give Edmonton ticket to new soccer league

In order to join the Canadian Premier League, teams must have a 7,000-seat stadium, with upgraded washrooms and concessions.

Canadian Premier League requires teams to have a 7,000-seat stadium with upgraded washrooms, concessions

A new recommendation for support for soccer in Edmonton requests upgrades to Clarke Stadium so Edmonton can join the Canadian Premier League. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

A new national soccer league could establish a team in Edmonton if the city agrees to fund renovations to Clarke Stadium.

According to a city administration report, the owners of the now-defunct FC Edmonton soccer team are interested in joining the Canadian Premier League, which intends to start playing in 2019.

However, the league's standards would require Clarke Stadium to be substantially upgraded with additional seating, washrooms and concessions, along with permanent dressing rooms and laundry facilities — which would all need to be done on the city's dime.

Fath Sports, which owns FC Edmonton, are also asking the city to provide a new operating agreement that would identify the soccer team as the main stadium partner and have requested naming rights for the venue. 

Coun. Scott McKeen, who represents Ward 6, said upgrading the stadium seems like "a fairly humble, reasonable plan." He said it could be a smart investment, as long as stadium use isn't isolated to professional soccer games.

"Can we justify this for one user? Probably not," he said.

"You wouldn't necessarily want to invest a pile of money in something that only gets used by the professional soccer team. But if there were other ways we could look at adding value through investment in Clarke Stadium, then sure."

McKeen said the proposal could be seriously considered as long as the stadium can host various events and organizations, aside from those associated with the Canadian Premier League.

The Canadian Premier League standards require Clarke Stadium to have 7,000 seats. It currently has 4,153. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

When FC Edmonton shut down operations in November, its fans immediately began expressing hope the team would join the Canadian Premier League. Hamilton and Winnipeg have already said they would have teams in the league.

The league requires its teams to have a stadium with at least 7,000 seats, which would mean Clarke Stadium would need to be expanded from its current 4,153.

This is despite the fact that an average of 3,400 people attended FC Edmonton games at Clarke Stadium in 2017, according to the city report.

FC Edmonton co-owner Tom Fath said the seat requirement is based on a projection that teams would need to fill 7,000 seats to help manage the costs of running a professional team.

Fath believes joining the new league with a renovated stadium will boost attendance at the games.

The novelty of going to see the event in the new facility wears off.- Dan Mason,  sport management professor

But University of Alberta sport management professor Dan Mason said renovations might not make a long-term difference.

He highlighted research about the "novelty effect" as a reason why crowds at local soccer games might not permanently increase.

"When you build new facilities or substantially renovate new facilities, there's always an increase in attendance," he said. "But that attendance usually declines over time and tends to go back to what it was originally because the novelty of going to see the event in the new facility wears off."

It won't be the renovations that determine soccer's success in Edmonton, but the community's interest in the sport, Mason said.

And that interest hasn't appeared to be very large in the past, with FC Edmonton shutting down due to a lack of fans in the stands.

Appealing to Edmonton's diversity

Fath sees joining the Canadian Premier League as a new opportunity for soccer in Edmonton to thrive.

He said the city can find value in investing in soccer.

"It's very relevant to a high percentage of Edmontonians. And by being on any sports team, youth, as they develop, they develop all sorts of skills," Fath said, highlighting the personal and athletic skills young soccer players learn.

FC Edmonton co-owner Tom Fath says soccer appeals to a significant number of Edmontonians. (CBC)

Both Fath and McKeen highlighted how soccer is a world sport that appeals to various communities in Edmonton.

"Probably almost more than any other sport, it has the opportunity to bring a bunch of Edmonton's diverse, multicultural communities together to cheer for one team."

And Mason agreed.

"A lot of the diversity [in Edmonton] comes from countries where soccer is a very popular sport," Mason said. "So I think over time, it can only get more popular in a city like Edmonton."

There are not any cost estimates attached to the proposal, which will be going before city council's Community and Public Services committee on April 18.

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