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Thomas Gilbert and Diana Matheson in Toronto on Nov. 29.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Women’s soccer in Canada is set to get a boost with the creation of a domestic professional league in the coming years, backed by star players from last year’s Olympic gold medal-winning team.

Project 8, a company founded by retired Canadian national-team player Diana Matheson and her business partner Thomas Gilbert, will announce plans Tuesday for a women’s pro league to launch in 2025 with eight teams across the country.

Project 8 has already secured owners for clubs in Vancouver and Calgary. Plus it has CIBC and Air Canada on board as league sponsors. It aims to repatriate some of the 110 Canadians playing in women’s pro soccer leagues in other countries, plus attract international players and promising young Canadians.

Still, there is a massive to-do list before the proposed kickoff in the spring of 2025. That includes naming the league, securing a broadcast deal, hiring a commissioner, signing more sponsors, and finding ownership for six clubs.

“Reception to the idea has been very warm. The timing is strong for a women’s professional product right now,” Ms. Matheson said a recent interview in Toronto. “I think Canadians are looking for it. Canadian companies are looking to invest in it. Finding the right owners means finding people who are as committed as we are.”

Project 8 envisions four teams in the East and four in the West, plus two big tournaments each season. It says its player salaries will be similar to those in existing women’s leagues, such as in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League. In its 2022 season, the decade-old NWSL had a minimum salary of US$35,000 and a maximum of US$75,000, plus allocation money beyond its US$1.1-million salary cap, to spend on select superstars.

Owners will pay a franchise fee of $1-million. Project 8 estimates each ownership group will need $8-million to $10-million in working capital total to operate a club through the first five seasons. Project 8 will own 20 per cent of the league, while teams own 80 per cent.

An alternate way to bring pro women’s soccer to Canada would be to pursue an NWSL franchise for the country. However, Project 8 wants to build a Canadian league to maintain control of the product, keep the investment at home and create more games and more soccer jobs. Ms. Matheson hopes its teams could some day take on NWSL clubs in Champions League-style competitions.

“Our talent pool is incredible in Canada. Why would we limit ourselves to 20 jobs for women professional players when we could have eight teams and 200 jobs?” she said. “Let’s grow the whole ecosystem – more jobs for women coaches, for referees, women GMs, the magnitude would be much larger. That’s how we change soccer here.”

Project 8′s plan is independent of Canada Soccer, although the league will need to be sanctioned by this country’s governing body for soccer.

The founders anticipate different kinds of ownership groups. For example, the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer will own the club in Vancouver. The Calgary Foothills Soccer Club, a popular local association that runs soccer programs from youth to semi-pro, will have the club in Calgary.

“We want to inspire and push for other clubs and other organizations to step up and be a part of it as well,” said Stephanie Labbé, the Canadian Olympic gold medal-winning goalkeeper recently hired by the Whitecaps as general manager of women’s soccer.

“We’re going to compete with the top leagues around the world in terms of average player salaries. We’re not going to have these players take a pay cut to come home to Canada,” Ms. Labbé added. “Plus, when playing abroad they aren’t able to maximize endorsements and marketing opportunities here in Canada.”

Christine Sinclair, Canada’s most famous female soccer star, has played professionally in Oregon since 2013, recently winning a championship with the Portland Thorns. Before that, she played pro in New York and California in early U.S.-based leagues that eventually folded. Canada is the only country in FIFA’s rankings of the top-20 women’s national teams that doesn’t have a domestic league.

“We’ve always wanted the option to play at home,” Sinclair said. “I think Canadians have shown they fully support and love our women’s national team. We have realistic expectations and the league has to grow, but I envision excitement and one massive step for women’s sports in our country.”

Ms. Sinclair reached out to Ryan Reynolds about the possibility of owning a franchise. The Canadian movie star already owns Welsh men’s soccer team Wrexham AFC and has publicly stated his interest in buying the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.

“He’s a good guy,” Ms. Matheson added. “I’m sure he’ll get back to us.”

Ms. Matheson is best remembered for her winning goal in the bronze-medal game against France at the 2012 Olympics. She studied economics at Princeton University and played professionally in Norway and the U.S. and was active in player associations. She retired 18 months ago, and got into UEFA’s exclusive executive-master program, which trains retired international players to be business leaders in soccer, with a 20-month program that takes them inside operations of top clubs around the world.

“I knew I needed some more street cred if I was going to try and get in some rooms to get some things done,” Ms. Matheson said.

Ms. Matheson and Mr. Gilbert are fellow MBAs at the Smith School of Business in Toronto.

Mr. Gilbert points to the federal government’s promise of $25.3-million to target gender equity across sports by 2035 and hopes the league may qualify for some of that.

“We’re hoping that the Canadian government is going to start putting their money where their mouth is,” he said. “Actually start investing in some sport infrastructure specifically for the women’s game.”

This league plans to play in stadiums that seat between 6,000 and 8,000 people, with tickets starting at $15. The first season will include a mix of home and road games and tournaments, including a kickoff event in Vancouver.

CIBC and Air Canada are on board as founding sponsors, and more of corporate Canada will need to get involved.

“As a founding partner of Canada’s first and only professional women’s soccer league, together with Project 8 we will put Canada on the map as a global leader in gender equity and sport,” said CIBC’s Stephen Forbes, executive vice-president for purpose, brand and corporate affairs.

Ms. Matheson projects the league will have at least one Canadian women’s national team player per team.

Project 8 wants to include female owners, too.

“We really want some women-led ownership groups,” Ms. Matheson said. “I don’t think many women in Canada have been asked if they want to own a professional sports team, and we would like to ask them.”

Ms. Sinclair, who has two soccer-loving nieces, imagines them as fans.

“Imagine how many of those moments we could have with young kids across the country,” she said. “When I was a kid I would have begged my parents to take me to watch a league like this. Our national team believes strongly about inspiring the next generation and leaving the sport better than we found it, and what a legacy this would be for this group of players.”