FC Edmonton: Dead or Alive?

The City of Edmonton says it "anticipates" the club will continue to use the field and facilities at Clarke Stadium in the future
Tom Fath in 2018, at an FC Edmonton fan event.

The City of Edmonton expects to have FC Edmonton playing at City-owned Clarke Stadium for the 2023 Canadian Premier League (CPL) season but, at this point, there’s no guarantee.

The team, owned by Tom and Dave Fath, played in the North American Soccer League from 2011 until the league folded in 2017.  It re-emerged in 2019 in the new Canadian Premier League but, faced with crowds sometimes numbering fewer than 1,000, the CPL took over operation of the team for the 2022 season. The Faths, who built their wealth through O’Hanlon Paving, Brookwood Camps & Catering and Hi Signs, among others interests, retain ownership of the team, but have put it up for sale.

“There have been some interested parties over the last little bit,” said Fath. “But, nothing has culminated at this time.”

He said he could not comment on whether any of those interested parties are still kicking the tires on the club.

With a roster selected by the league and a budget well below the salary cap, the Eddies finished in last place at the end of the 2022 CPL campaign.

The league issued this statement on Thursday.

“The issues with FC Edmonton are well-documented. CPL continues to explore all its options to find a viable solution for what we believe can be a great CPL market under the right conditions.”

But, is one of those options not to play at all in 2023?

When asked if FC Edmonton has picked up next year’s option on its lease for Clarke Stadium, the City of Edmonton said in a statement that it “anticipated” that the team will be playing there.

“At this time, the City of Edmonton is aware of some of the operating challenges and difficult decisions that are facing FC Edmonton and the Canadian Premier League,” the City said. “The City of Edmonton is not aware of any outstanding issues regarding the use of Clarke Stadium by FC Edmonton for the 2023 season and will continue to work on scheduling and availability with the team and the league.”

Edmonton’s failed bid to host FIFA World Cup games means that it won’t get hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal and provincial dollars to upgrade its soccer facilities, some of which would have surely benefited the professional soccer club.

While the Faths have never confirmed how much they’ve sunk into the club over the years, they paid for upgrades to bring seating capacity at Clarke Stadium to over 4,000, for a mobile scoreboard and replay screen and for an academy program to give high-school-aged players the chance to develop and possibly move up to the professional club. Included in that program were showcase trips for those youths, including to one of the most famous youth tournaments in the world, held annually in Northern Ireland. The CPL pressed the Faths to close the academy to save money, and they quietly ended it before the 2022 season.

There were also years where the club made expensive pre-season trips to Florida, Arizona and even the United Kingdom.

All of this on top of player salaries and travel, based in a stadium where it may be impossible to turn a profit.

In 2015, when FC Edmonton was in the NASL, Tom Fath said that, even if Clarke Stadium was to be sold out every game, the team would still lose money. The hope was that a full stadium would lead to a bigger venue and better sponsorship deals down the road which would lead the team towards “in the black” status.

“In the long run, assuming we get the corporate, assuming we get the corporate sponsorship support we need, we’d need 8,000 to 9,000 (fans) a game to make it work,” said Fath at the time.

CPL salaries are lower than they were in the NASL, but travel costs remain high in a league that stretches from Vancouver Island to Halifax.

The Faths thought they had a revenue stream coming through M31 Design Group, their video production and broadcasting arm. It broadcast FC Edmonton games throughout its years in the NASL, and was initially meant to keep those rights when the team joined the CPL. They upgrading their broadcast technology ahead of the kickoff of the inaugural CPL season, in 2019.

That scheme would have allowed FC Edmonton to keep its broadcasting rights, while the other CPL teams signed on with OneSoccer, the Canadian arm of Spanish-based, Chinese-owned broadcast giant, MediaPro. That plan was aborted shortly before the league began play and FC Edmonton became part of the MediaPro deal.

Now that revenue seems to be at risk. MediaPro has a 10-year-deal with the CPL, but the company flirted with bankruptcy during the pandemic, and asked the Spanish government for 230 million Euros worth of bailout money. Orient Hontai, the Chinese owner, injected 620 million Euros of new money into the company in 2021 to save it from creditors.

It’s not all bad news for the CPL. A new expansion side, Vancouver FC, begins play next year (bringing the league to nine teams), and last year’s final in Ottawa drew 14,000+ ticket-buying fans.

The league has not yet announced its schedule for 2023.

(Disclaimer: Steven Sandor was the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts from 2011-17, and has also done freelance broadcast work for OneSoccer, the rights holder for the CPL.)