Q&A: LSSE Principal Alan Simpson on supporters, stadiums, and the CPL in Saskatchewan

The Canadian Premier League announced on Friday that professional soccer is coming to Saskatchewan, sending ripples across the Canadian sporting community.

The agreement in principle between the CPL and Saskatchewan-based company Living Sky Sports and Entertainment Inc. is contingent on a soccer-specific stadium being built in Saskatoon.

Founder of LSSE Alan Simpson, who will be leading the CPL project in Saskatoon, sat down with the Newsroom to discuss the news, and answer some important questions about bringing soccer to his home province.

Discussing everything from supporters to stadium ideas, Simpson offered plenty of fascinating information on the CPL’s newly-revealed expansion side.

The following is’s full Q & A with Simpson.

(Note: this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

What does it mean to bring professional soccer to Saskatchewan and Saskatoon?

Well as you might expect we’re very excited to have signed an agreement in principle with the CPL to be able to bring the Canadian Premier League to Saskatoon. We look forward to working with the folks in Saskatoon and the great group of soccer supporters — Bridge City Firm, the Wheatpool in Saskatoon and a bunch of others. There’s a real foundation in Saskatoon of soccer supporters who we’re gonna count on to help us get this launched and get a team on the pitch in Saskatoon.

Overall, a great thing for Saskatoon, a wonderful thing for Saskatchewan, and our next thing is to get to work on a place to play.

For people who don’t know you, what’s your background? 

I’m born and raised in Saskatchewan, lived here all my life. I’ve done a few interesting things in business that I’ve met with, I’ll say, moderate success. I’ve always been a sports fan, not so much soccer specifically but just generally enjoyed all sports. One of the things that has been lacking in Saskatchewan forever is I guess what I would call the vision for kids who are playing soccer recreationally here at the club level, to really be able to aspire in a meaningful way to playing at a professional level.

When I was growing up, I played hockey, I played football, I loved them both. If I wasn’t playing hockey on a Saturday night, I was watching Hockey Night in Canada. And so I could develop the dream, as could many kids, to aspire to play at a professional level. You have that with NHL hockey; of course this is Rider Nation and Saskatchewan Roughrider football here is pretty dominant, so you can have the dream of playing pro football because of the Riders, but never that ability to step your way through as a kid and say this is how I can get to the pro soccer level, especially in Saskatchewan.

I was just drawn to the fact that there seemed to be a real opportunity and a gap, and as I followed what the CPL was doing, it was a great opportunity for something to  happen in Saskatchewan. I contacted CPL, and things started to progress, and here we are today.

How did this process come together? How long did it take? 

I came to the process back in, I’m gonna say, 2017, where I actually read about the Canadian Premier League online with our local newspaper here the Regina Leader Post. I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s really interesting.’ I started to follow the story a little bit and I actually picked up the phone and called the CPL office, and they asked me what my aspirations were, how I would like to be involved. I told them I’m a sports fan, and my involvement would be to try and get something going here in Saskatchewan.

There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into doing what we’re trying to do. I’ve been part of a couple businesses that have interests Canada-wide, and I can honestly tell you this is one of the most intricate and complicated things I’ve ever been involved with. There are so many moving pieces.

It’s really easy to say at 60,000 feet, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna do soccer.’ But here in Saskatchewan we don’t even have a pitch to play on yet. So that involved bringing in other groups. We’ve signed recently a Memorandum of Understanding with Prairieland Park in Saskatoon, it’s an exhibition agriculture non-profit organization, but they sit on 136 acres, about five or six minutes from downtown Saskatoon, and they’re really interested in redeveloping some of their land for a soccer stadium. They can see that some of the businesses they’re in right now are changing, so just bringing them on board has been a long process — a good process, but a long one.

I would say if there’s 10 steps to this, what we’re announcing today is step two.

What kind of vision do you have for that stadium?

Just before I start on that, we will over the course of the next two, three weeks begin posting our concept drawings and such, and let everybody know as our stadium project progresses. But at Prairieland Park right now, they’ve had thoroughbred racing at Marquis Downs since 1960. Prairieland Park has decided that they’re no longer going to be in the thoroughbred racing business, but would like to repurpose that entire facility for a professional soccer stadium.

So our conceptual plans are to, in part, refurbish the old grandstand. It holds, outdoors, about 800 people and then there’s an indoor viewing area of about another 400. So it holds about 1200, we’ll try and refurbish that. And then we’ll further develop around that, seating for, I’m gonna say ideally 4,000. We hit the ground running with a 4,000-seat stadium at that location, with the opportunity to expand as required.

Have you taken any inspiration from other CPL venues, like Spruce Meadows or Wanderers Grounds? 

You take a little bit of everything, and take input from people who have done it before. Part of getting to where we’re at with the stadium was being able to go out and visit the folks in Calgary and take a look at what they’ve done at Spruce Meadows, how they’ve built the grandstands, their lighting systems. Talked to them a bit about whether or not you go Field Turf or grass, the pros and cons of irrigation on grass versus Field Turf. There’s just so many things that go into it — the common area, what you’re gonna do with concessions, and food and beverage and those sorts of things. We’re at the conceptual stage right now, and I don’t want to get into too many details because I’ve got partners in this — where we go is certainly subject to change as we work our way through this.

But right now, we see a little bit of what the Wanderers have done, a little bit of what they’ve done out in Calgary. Westhills has been interesting as they’ve developed their stadium out there (on Vancouver Island). We’ll draw a little bit from that; we’ll take the best of what we think the league has done so far, and try and give the folks in Saskatoon a real good experience. At the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business.

If you come to the stadium, of course you want to watch your club play and you want to support them, but you want to feel comfortable, you want families to feel comfortable. We have to be able to build a facility that caters to not only the hardcore soccer supporter, but we need the casual sports fan to feel comfortable there, we need families to feel comfortable there. It’s gonna be a whole bunch of everything, and I know I’m being very non-specific — we have a blank page right now, and we’ll do the best we can.

We fully intend as we go through the process and develop our plans to post everything online and be transparent with the folks in Saskatoon and Canada as to what we’re trying to achieve. You could probably come back and look at our website or social media in three or four weeks and I think we’ll have the first concept design posted up there.

There’s probably no definitive answer to this yet, but is there anything you can tell us about a rough timeline for the future?

Ideally we would like to be part of the league and playing in 2023. That’s a very ambitious timeline, given what you need to do for a stadium and realistically speaking to meet that timeline we’re gonna have to start construction on the stadium, probably no later than the end of the second quarter in 2022. That’s doable, and we’re gonna try and achieve that.

We’ll try and be aggressive and assertive on our timelines rather than just sort of relax and say, look, it’s 2024. If we say it’s 2024 we know for sure we’re not doing it in 2023. We’ll be assertive but we’ll be realistic as well.

Saskatchewan has a great reputation for passionate sports fans and packed stadiums. How does that translate to soccer? Have you been in touch with local supporters yet?

We’re planning on doing some fan engagement after we get this release out into the public domain. The supporters’ groups in Saskatoon, and the youth soccer and adult soccer, are integral parts of what we’re trying to achieve, and we need them onside. We need Soccer Saskatchewan onside.

I took in the CPL championship in Calgary, and I walked into the stadium, and there at the far end draped over the stand is the big “We want in CPL” sign, and I’m sitting there at halftime talking to some of the guys, and the Commissioner walks by, and they’re giving him grief about no franchise in Saskatoon. All in good fun, but very passionate nonetheless.

They will be a big component to our success in Saskatchewan.

Have you put any thought yet toward the club’s name or colours?

We’ve given thought to names and given thought to colours, but we’ve got to take this in small bite sizes. The reality of the situation is, no venue, no team. We’ve got to focus squarely on getting a stadium developed that the city of Saskatoon can be proud of, that the CPL can be proud of. Once we get that behind us, we can turn more seriously to naming a team and colours and kits and that sort of thing.

But I think just to circle back to supporters and such, it would be my intent that we involve them in that. I don’t think we’re arbitrarily gonna come out and say, ‘This is the name of the club, these are the colours.’ Saskatchewan’s very community-based, and we’re gonna have to talk the talk and walk the walk, and if we want community support and we want the supporters’ groups to be behind us, I think they should get an opportunity to chime in on what the Saskatoon colours should be, and maybe what the name should be.

Look forward to that, in due course.