Ottawa has lost its premier program for the development of women’s soccer on the eve of the Women’s World Cup. Let the optics of that sink in for a moment. While it seems that the media is giving more attention to the demise of a team that it barely recognized during its existence, there is no doubt that the Ottawa Fury W League team was very successful.
A very brief overview of what the Ottawa Fury Women did since the team was created in 2003: 10 conference 1st places (finished second in its other seasons), 3-time runner up in the playoffs, and 2012 W League Champions. The Ottawa Fury was the second most winningest team in W League history. 47 players for the Canadian Women’s National team and 39 players for other national teams went through the program. Players like Robyn Gayle, Kelly Parker, Marie-Ève Nault, and Rhian Wilkinson; all of whom were part of the 2012 Bronze medal team. Coached by Dominic Oliveri, the Fury made technical passing and attacking flair their hallmark style. Undoubtedly, rivalry with the Ottawa Fury inspired other Canadian W League clubs, the Laval Comets in particular, to become better teams.
Economic challenges, however, have made professional women’s soccer a difficult venture in North America. The W League is far from ideal. At the moment only five Canadian teams play in the short season, semi-professional league. Stuck in the summer months between US college seasons, the W League provides a competitive environment for young women but lacks the year-to-year consistency gained during a full length professional season. The W League survives on minimal salaries for its professional players and the amateur status of its college players.
Yet there are very few options for women to play competitive soccer. Canada, it needs to be said, has stalled in its growth of the women’s game. Heroics at the last Olympics in 2012 by the Women’s National Team I think belies the institutional problems of women’s soccer in this country. On a participatory level, there is not a more popular sport. Yet at elite levels Canada has struggled to provide opportunities. Some aspects of the National Women’s Program have improved but we have not seen many new opportunities for women at a professional level. The Canadian Soccer Association financially supports 14 players in North America’s only professional league, the eight team National Women’s Soccer League. Really it is only through the amazing determination and dedication of our women has Canada remained competitive. The infrastructure simply does not exist in this country to transform our competitive young players into a top five team in the women’s game. While good for the sport in general, the rise of programs in Brazil and Japan, as well as some gains in the competitive leagues of European countries, particularly Sweden, Germany, France, and England, means that Canada is falling behind.
It is in this climate that the Ottawa Fury cancelled its W League team. Remember: Canada has lost the best semi professional team playing in the country. No doubt the attendance numbers were a factor. The Fury Women did not average more than several hundred at any point in their history. The blame, I think, lies both with the city and the team. While the Fury has been capable of putting together strong soccer teams, their off-the-field marketing has continued to fail the club and finding an identity within Ottawa has been a clear struggle. On the other side, however, we as a city and, in particular as soccer supporters, haven’t done very much.
I will put myself squarely in the category of underachiever. I went to much of the 2013 season of the Fury Women but in 2014 was unable to make it to a single game. Location and timing of the matches were my major problem but it also felt like we were all distracted by the Men’s NASL professional team. I don’t think we imagined the consequence would be elimination of the Fury Women. Cheering on players like Norwegian international Lisa-Marie Woods, a creative spark plug in the Fury’s midfield, and one of Canada’s best prospects Kadeisha Buchanan was a great experience and deserved a larger audience. And I don’t think our group, the Stony Monday Riot, really lived up to its claim that it supports local soccer in this city. We did a little bit but certainly not enough. Now it is impossible for us to improve, the team no longer exists.
And that is what is most disappointing. There is a very clear lack of vision at the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), the umbrella organization that now owns the Ottawa Fury teams. Up until recently, the Ottawa Fury was a youth and semi-professional club for both the men’s and women’s games in the city privately owned by John Pugh. As part of the Lansdowne Live project, the Redblacks CFL team was created and merged with the Ottawa Fury and Ottawa 67’s to create OSEG. OSEG also operates the city owned TD Place field and arena and is financially backed by the developers of Lansdowne.
While the Fury has historically had a competitive relationship with local clubs, the W League team was always a priority for the Fury: it had a top coach and competitive players. John Pugh must have made difficult decisions to financially support the team over its 11 year history. So why now? In the lead up to the Women’s World Cup, a potentially sold out event with matches being played across this country and internationally televised, one would think that the successes of the Fury would inspire a newly minted sports and entertainment group to expand the women’s game in the city. Not so.
Ironically, OSEG as operators of TD Place will benefit greatly from women’s soccer. Their developer partners will have crowds of tens of thousands on several days in June pour out of the stadium and into the stores. The atmosphere for the World Cup will be electric and will help to legitimize a controversial project.
It is hard to mention the end of the Ottawa Fury Women’s team without engaging the discrimination the sport faces in general. Elsewhere, the Women’s World Cup has gained attention because of its plastic pitches. An Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case was launched by several top women’s players against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association claiming discrimination, naming the use of synthetic fields at all the stadiums as a discriminatory practice. Practically I think many Canadian supporters of the Women’s World Cup are annoyed by the case: founded on some dubious claims, it is creating a negative image around a tournament that we know will be very well supported by Canadians. We see the potential: growing recognition of the women’s game.
Yet more true to the point, the women’s game is being discriminated against in terms of resources. In this city, the women’s game will suffer from the lack of vision and dedication by people who have the financial means to make an impact. As a supporter of soccer I have to say I am very frustrated and disappointed. Young women who will be inspired to reach beyond the competitive heights on display next year at TD Place have just lost an important stepping stone in this city to achieving that goal.