Canadian Premier League still on course, looks to engage fans during hiatus

TORONTO — While his teams have been sidelined by COVID-19, Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan believes they can still make a difference.

CPL players and clubs have been reaching out during the hiatus, looking to engage fans.

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"We need to stay connected to our communities," Clanachan said in an interview. "I think we did a great job in 2019 in our first season of connecting with the communities. You build clubs and leagues from the bottom up. You don't build them top-down."

The Canadian soccer league was slated to kick off its second season on April 11. Play is now on hold as Canada and the rest of the world look to slow the virus's spread.

While the league is running different scenarios on what the 2020 season might look with, Clanachan says it recognizes something much bigger is at play right now around the globe.

"The most important thing is for people to be healthy and to stay healthy and for us to get through this as a community and as a nation, from a global perspective," he said. "And then there'll be time for football afterwards.

"And that's when I actually believe that sport, and especially football, will become that kind of rallying cry for folks as we get through this period ... That time will come and we need to be ready when that happens. And until then, we follow what we're being told by the health officials and by our provincial and federal governments."

Clanachan says the new league, thanks to the commitments of its owners, will survive the pandemic.

"As in any business, you do what you have to do and adjust as you go. But we're in this for the long run. This is a long game here and we're very focused about what we're going to build and the legacy we will leave going forward. That's not changed at all."

And the league continues to hear from potential new ownership groups.

"A bit of a pause obviously right now but that doesn't mean those conversations aren't happening," Clanachan said.

In the meantime, the eight-team league is looking to find ways to engage off the pitch.

While the inaugural eCPL, an esports tournament announced in February, was put on hold in mid-March along with other EA Sports events, the league has since started the weekly eCPL Home to Play competition which features eight CPL players and eight top Canadian FIFA gamers.

Expansion Atletico Ottawa won the first eCPL Home to Play knockout event last Friday, defeating HFX Wanderers FC 6-2 on aggregate in the two-legged final shown on Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. The event is slated to wrap April 24.

The league also debuted "Forever First: Rise To The Finals," a 33-minute documentary on its last season's championship series between Calgary's Cavalry FC and Hamilton's Forge FC, on March 29.

Atletico Ottawa players like midfielder Ben Fisk, in self-isolation after their training camp in Spain was cut short, have reached out to check up on fans who put down season-ticket deposits.

It was a club, rather than league, initiative and other teams are doing the same.

"The players all talk throughout the league," Clanachan said. "They started calling fans and supporters that they knew because they were in our database ... The word I got back is people in the community were blown away.

"There was no sales pitch, no nothing. It was just about 'How are you doing? How are you handling things? We miss you guys as fans. We're looking forward to getting back at it. We just want to thank you for all the support you've given us in the past.'

"You don't see that very often."

Like other leagues, CPL teams and players have also put our videos urging fans to follow guidelines on hand-washing and social distancing or saluting health-care and other front-line workers.

The hiatus has also given Atletico Ottawa more time to prepare for the season.

"Although I think if you'd ask them, if they could make themselves go faster and be playing earlier, I think they would trade that off," Clanachan said.

While Clanachan believes his league scored well in building bridges with fans in Season 1, he knows there is more work to do.

"That was our first shift. Now we've got to be better on our next shift," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

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