Editorial: York9 FC will be ready for kick-off despite premature panic

Canada has reached fever pitch. A ball won’t be kicked for another year but supporters are already desperate for the Canadian Premier League. Five teams have been announced as we head into the FIFA World Cup break, and most clubs have put up imposing numbers early on. But with the next reveal not due for another 30 days, fans are already scrutinizing the future of those announced. And York9 FC are already being vilified before a single signing has been made.

It’s true that the numbers don’t reflect well on the Ontario club, but membership figures aren’t parallel with success. Valour FC will shortly be celebrating their 1,000th membership – if they haven’t done so in private already – while FC Edmonton is well past the 800 mark. Cavalry FC has also sailed past the 500 membership milestone despite the two clubs competing in the same province. And while little is known about York 9’s exact figure, they were pushing for 150 at the start of the month.

Naturally, this has several supporters across the league questioning the suitability and sustainability of the York Region outfit. But things aren’t quite as bad as they may seem…

The league has upped the production value of launches with every club, and we can expect this to continue when teams in Hamilton and Vancouver Island are revealed next month. While York9 FC had the privilege of going first, this also means they become the ‘guinea pig’ of the league.

Everyone involved with both the league and club carries a wealth of expertise, but only so much can be known about launching a new professional league. After all, it’s not something seen every day. Lessons were learned from the first announcement, which lacked the hype of a live stream to appeal to a broader audience. York9 FC were also the luckless club who had the least amount of time to prepare.

They also became the ‘guinea pig’ in terms of branding. Trademarking the crest over a month before the launch meant there was little surprise and excitement for the club’s key element of branding. Those in charge quickly learned and have trademarked all other club crests after the launch. But this alone can’t be credited for the difference in membership numbers.

Several small factors must also be considered before writing off the club. A supporters group named ‘Generation IX’ was present at the club’s launch but lack any social media presence. The largest York9 FC related group on Twitter are still in their early days, while the likes of the Foot Soldiers, Privateers 1882, Red River Rising and YEG for CPL all have a strong identity both online and within the community for the other clubs.

And while the others are gaining significant marketing from their supporters, York9 FC haven’t had the opportunities for quite the same treatment so far. A lack of merchandise available for public sale doesn’t help and will limit the chance for supporters to market the team by wearing their club’s colours. But recent appointments should mean this is about to change, and there will be plenty of time for this to aid the club later on.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Preben Ganzhorn and Jimmy Brennan. There’s a common suggestion that clubs are holding back on their marketing while others are announced to “let all teams have their moment”. And it’s true that they’ve all been relatively quiet online following their launch. But that doesn’t stop York9 FC going from strength-to-strength in their local community. Within weeks of their announcement, there was plenty of coverage from the York Region Soccer Association showing the name and crest worn across the area.

A collection of York9 FC branded hats
Photo: David Chant/York9 FC

While social media will be a big part of marketing plans for all clubs, the ticket sales will be driven in the community. And that is where the York9 FC movement can be seen. Their focus appears to be on the younger generation, labelled the “bright lights, rising stars and our future” by the club, and membership sales will be targeting an older audience. The league is still almost a year away, and once the schedule is confirmed and dates are known, you can bet plenty of those rising stars will be filling the York Lions Stadium whether as a season ticket holder or not.

The location of the club will also play a part in this. Halifax and Winnipeg are unrivalled in their cities, while the competition between Edmonton and Calgary will only spur the clubs on more. However, York9 FC have the unique situation of a leading club nearby in Toronto FC. In keeping track of the league, I’ve seen multiple fans say they’re becoming more intrigued about the Canadian Premier League by the day. Some have also said they will not be renewing their season tickets at BMO Field and will try out the York experience instead. Given that the regular MLS season won’t finish until late October, there may be another boost in membership registrations shortly after.

Some may see nearby TFC as a hindrance, but the tourist attractions of Toronto will only be a boost to the club. The essential tourism to-do lists often include embracing local sports teams, and the Canadian Premier League could be a part of that soon. Co-founder Jimmy Brennan confirmed these suspicions and is confident in their approach to target the local community and budding footballers across York Region first.

“We’re not worried at all,” he told The CanPL Hub. “We were the first ones to come out of the gate and we didn’t really have time to work with all of our local clubs. So right now, we’re doing the rounds and talking to 15 clubs in our region.”

Thornhill and Vaughan side Glen Shields FC recently shared photos from their meeting with both Ganzhorn and Brennan, and the latter has begun to make radio appearances to spread the word further.

“We’ve got a big plan that we’re working on together with them [local clubs], York Region Soccer Association and all of our businesses,” he added. “We’re absolutely not worried at all about that right now.”

Supporters are hopeful that the break from team announcements for the FIFA World Cup will lead to a marketing push, and Brennan was confident that it will be a big success. He explained that the strategy of the league handling marketing rather than individual clubs will continue for the coming weeks, and the focus of York9 FC remains on the community-driven marketing. And they’re aware that time is now on their side.

“We’ve had great feedback from the community and we all know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve got to make sure we do things right and that we engage the community in the right way.”

Membership figures may be lower for the York Region club right now, but that doesn’t mean the support won’t be there come April 2019. The club has the fiery supporters that can provide an electric atmosphere on a matchday, proven at the launch on day one, but they could also have a youthful crowd who will be dreaming of wearing the York9 FC jersey in the future.

Don’t be too downbeat about the club’s future just one month in.