It all starts with a dream.
That dream might manifest itself in different ways. For some, it’s about one day playing in the big games. For others, it’s about one day scoring that dream goal. It can be as simple as just getting out there and smelling the freshly cut grass on a Saturday morning, or as complicated as wanting to study the nuances of tactics in the sport.
At the end of the day, however, no matter what you want to do in the sport of soccer, it’s all about dreaming big, and then going out and making those dreams come true.
And over at the TSS Rovers, one of the founding members of British Columbia’s new semi-professional league, League 1 BC, they’re daring to dream big with the launch of their public shares program earlier this year.
It’s a bold step for the club, as while having clubs sell shares is actually common practice in a lot of leagues around the world, it hasn’t really been a thing in Canada, where centralized ownership rules the day.
But despite that, when the Rovers and their supporters, the Swanguardians, came together to put together the idea, they had no fear of that unknown, instead finding themselves willing to dive headfirst into the venture.
“We always had a keen group of people and a couple of others in our Supporter’s Trust,” Colin Elmes, co-founder of the Rovers, told BTSVancity. “And we met a couple of times to go ‘okay, how do we do this?”
From there, what started years ago as a dream became a reality through several discussions, and then thanks to the parent of one of the club’s players, Michael Stevens, who is a lawyer, they brought it all together on FrontFundr, the platform used to launch the shares.
And with that, they were able to launch ‘Rovers Football Club Limited’, the club’s company, and now, that’s allowed fans to properly buy shares in the team, with prices ranging from $265 as a minimum investment, to as high as $2650.
“Then, the process really started to get traction,” Elmes continued. “And Mike (Stevens), along with our help, started to steer and pull it all together. Some people thought ‘oh, I’m going to click this link and throw my credit card down and spend a couple of hundred bucks and walk away’, well, no, this is a real company that we’ve started called Rovers Football Club LTD, these are real shares in a real company.”
And with that, they were able to get the ball rolling on a dream they’ve long had for many years.
It technically isn’t a fully fan-based ownership, much as with the 50+1 ownership model made popular in Germany, but their goal is to make it as close to that as possible (BC Soccer wants to make sure that they’ve got stable ownership, limiting them to a maximum of 49% fan ownership for now), they’re hoping to give as much power to their shareholders as they can.
But that’s just been what the Rovers have been all about since the beginning. They’ve long had a dream to be a community club where players can dream of kickstarting their soccer fantasies since they launched, and that dream has become a reality for many players who have passed through the club.
So when Julia Grosso scored Canada’s gold medal winning penalty at the Olympics, or when Joel Waterman made his CONCACAF Champions League debut back in 2020, and with every other big achievement that has come along the way, it’s come back to those two things that were fostered during their time with the Rovers – dreams and community.
And through this latest initiative, the shares program, they hope that can foster the next step in that journey, giving the next generation of Grosso’s and Waterman’s an opportunity to dream as big as they once did.
It’s been something that they’ve wanted for a long time, and finally, they’ve got it at their disposal now.
“They were good to their word. When we started showing up to support the team in 2017, it was obvious that they were interested in community,” Chris Corrigan, Rovers supporter and co-founder of the Swangardians said of the initiative. “And I’ve been supporting soccer for a long time, but I’ve never had a team reach out in quite the same way,”
“And it’s not just like the team reached out and it was a small thing, this team is really committed to community, like there’s charitable work that happens here, there’s a dream, there’s an inspirational origin story behind what’s happening.”
Long before they sold their first share in the club, the Rovers always looked to dream big.
Having been founded as an academy exactly 25 years ago, they’ve become entrenched in the soccer community in British Columbia over the years, finding themselves as a fixture of youth sport in the Lower Mainland.
With both men’s and women’s programs, they’ve long looked to provide an opportunity for local kids to continue their progression and development as players throughout their time at the club.
But while they certainly succeeded at that goal, they often saw players leave the club by the age of 18, when they’d age out of the Rovers. That’s just the reality of running a youth academy, of course, but they’d always wondered if they’d be able to provide that space for them to continue their development into their young adult years.
And then, at the end of 2016, that changed.
First, it started when they made the jump up to semi-professional soccer when the option to purchase Washington Crossfire’s spot in the PDL (Premier Development League), where they spent 3 seasons before the league merged into what we now know as USL League 2 giving them a men’s team in that league for the next 2 years.
And not long after they began that journey on the men’s side, they then made a similar splash on the women’s side, joining the US’s Women’s Premier Soccer League in 2018, giving them two programs at a good level.
Motivated by what has come to be commonly known as the ‘BC Problem’ in soccer, which is the reality that among Canada’s two National Teams, BC is hardly represented anymore despite once being a hotspot of the sport in the country, they viewed this as a chance to create a pipeline for BC players, helping chip away at that issue.
Considering that one of the hallmarks of the club was that it consists of only Canadian-eligible players and coaches, they felt that by doing their part to give opportunities to BC players, they could look back and sit among the catalysts of fixing that ‘BC Problem’.
“When we did this back in 2016, that was right in front of our faces, we were like ‘we need to fix the BC problem’,” Elmes noted. “And that’s one of the reasons we started the term ‘Canadians for Canadians’, so every single one of our players up to this point have been Canadian players that are eligible to play for Canada, all of the coaching staff involved have been Canadians.”
And that’s been something that really blends into other aspects of the club.
Just look at the Swanguardians, for example.
In a city with the Vancouver Whitecaps also sharing the soccer scene, some might wonder why many might have chosen to support a team that many haven’t heard of, especially with the presence of a ‘major league’ franchise next door.
But by doing so, they’ve gotten a chance to follow along as young Canadians chase their dreams in a community setting, which for Corrigan, makes it a no-brainer for him and his fellow Swanguardians to get involved in the club.
“This is a real dream to support women and men moving into the professional ranks and to improve BC’s quotient, which is not hard to do, because it’s currently zero on the men’s national team, (there was 4 on the women’s national team at the Olympics),” Corrigan explained. “And to (also) up the number of players that are coming out of this province and region, and to bring the quality.”
Not only that, but that dream of supporting the club’s quest to develop talent extends off the field, too, which he notes is just another reason why it’s been so fulfilling to be part of this journey.
“But it’s also beyond developing players,” he continued. “But it’s about developing coaches, too, and also an opportunity to develop media people, for people who want to get into creating companies, this is a perfect opportunity, that’s what we’re doing right now, selling shares, so it’s development all around, it’s all about lifting people in the community, and there’s something to be behind, and that’s what I think that’s what really knitted together all of the supporters in the club”
But that’s what the ‘Spirit of the Rovers’ is all about. Any time you can hit a game at Swangard, that is a key part of the experience, as everyone in the club is connected by it.
In a world where ‘community’ is often just a corporate buzzword, one used to demonstrate something that many believe can be artificially created, you can really see the grassroots sense of the word when it comes to the Rovers.
And it’s through that sense of community where the club feels they’ve been best able to support their players. Beyond just coaching, facilities, and training time, community is as crucial as those aspects to the Rovers experience, giving players a chance to feel a part of a second family every time that they don the red and white of the club.
“Community is key, players are developed by families, by clubs, by communities, support is everywhere for them,” Corrigan noted. “And we know the results of what happens when a player is supported, and when a player is supported in the community, so the evidence is in front of you, and like sport is one of those things where the evidence is presented in front of you, you can see the result of when a person is supported by the community.”
Because of that, they feel that it’s allowed them to create a true club atmosphere from the youngest kids to those playing on the semi-professional outfits.
While the goal is to push players to the highest levels of pro soccer, they want kids to be able to dream of doing so while taking full advantage of the Rovers pathway that’s available to them.
So to help enhance that, they look to make it clear that everyone in the Rovers family is connected, in whatever way possible.
One such example? All of the Rovers youth team’s training is canceled when the first teams play, giving kids a chance to go out and support those teams, giving them easy access to that next level of soccer.
“One of the communities is actually the club itself, the youth club,” Brendan Quarry, a Rover’s co-founder, said. “So one of the things we’re trying to do as well is to make the men’s and women’s teams something to aspire to for the younger players, so one of the things that we do is whenever those teams are playing, training is always canceled on most nights, because we want our young male and female players to come out and support the first team and aspire to play on those teams.”
Through initiatives such as that one, they want to make sure that everyone who’s involved in the club feels connected, finding ways to manifest that idea of community.
So now, the club is getting set to take an important step in their journey this spring.
That, of course, is when we’ll see both the Rovers men’s and women’s sides take the pitch in the brand-new BC League 1 for the first time, which as mentioned earlier, is BC’s new semi-professional league.
After seeing Ontario and Quebec profit massively from the creation of similar leagues in League 1 Ontario and the Premiere Ligue de Soccer du Québec (PLSQ), seeing many top players emerge from those leagues recently, many have wondered when a similar model would make its way out west.
And after years of talk, the time was deemed to be now, as the groundwork was laid for BC League 1 to mark its debut campaign this summer with 7 clubs competing in both the men’s and women’s divisions.
With many more expected to be on the way in the coming years, it’s hoped that it can grow into the sort of circuit that can be a hotbed of local talent, further helping solve that ‘BC Problem’.
Not only that, as noted by Corrigan, there’s hope that it can be a way for those who are catching soccer fever across the province thanks to the recent success of the National Teams also have clubs where they can go support the stars of tomorrow locally, much like the Swanguardians have been doing with the Rovers these past few years.
“It’s super important that we have a strong soccer community around this league,” he said. “That it’s not just a league that happens on some spare pitch somewhere and the only people that go are scouts and development geeks, this is our league, this is how we’re developing people from our region and throwing them into the game.”
And speaking of that strong soccer community, there is one area that the Rovers are hoping that this league can make big inroads for – the women’s game.
BC has a rich history in the women’s game, finding itself as home to legends such as Andrea Neil, Sophie Schmidt, and, of course, the top all-time international goalscorer, Christine Sinclair, but thanks to the ‘BC Problem’, they’ve fallen behind a bit there in recent years.
There are some very talented players from BC on the National Team still, such as Grosso and Jordyn Huitema (who also fittingly played for the Rovers), but there’s a feeling that the province could be doing a lot better in that area.
But that’s where the women’s side of the BC League 1 is hoped to be a big difference-maker.
And the Rovers are betting on that. By bringing in head coach Chelsey Hannesson to pilot their team, who has almost a decade of experience with BC Soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer, they’re looking to double down on the work that they’ve done so far with that program.
It’s no secret that Canada has some big work to do in the women’s game, finding itself as the only country among the top 10 FIFA Nations without a national professional domestic league, much less a professional club, making their recent gold medal triumph at the Olympic games much more impressive considering that lack of infrastructure at that level.
This league won’t change that, of course, but it will certainly provide more opportunities for players to continue their soccer journey further along than they might’ve before, hopefully buying time for them to one day play in a professional league, be it in Canada or elsewhere.
So while the talk of needing a professional league is real, and is something that Canada desperately needs to change, it’s nice to see opportunities such as this one emerge, and the Rovers are proud to be a part of that process.
“The support that they had going into that was there well before the gold medal,” Hannesson said of providing opportunities despite that ‘gold medal bump’. “And that’s where we miss the boat sometimes in North America, it’s saying things like ‘oh, it’s too bad that we don’t have a professional league for the women’s game, well, there’s not enough investment or interest in the women’s game, it’s that same old thing of there is an investment, there is interest, there is support, there is people that want to get behind it, and it’s just a matter of putting stepping stones in place to get there.”
“And this is the exact reason, on top of working with talented players and against talented opponents in a quality league, that I was on board into stepping into this role with the TSS Rovers, with the idea that there was this stepping stone for the women’s game, it’s a semi-professional league that’s going to support these players that are currently in post-secondary teams and looking to continue to develop in the offseason, or for players that are just maybe recently graduated and still have a long career ahead of them but the opportunities just aren’t there.”
Because of that, when the chance to take the Rovers job came up, it was a no-brainer for Hannesson, as she’s seen what the Rovers has been able to do for the women’s game over the last few years.
“So as far as taking this role, it was an easy one to be a part of this culture,(one) that not only understands what it’s going to take to get where we need to be, but also is willing to put that investment, and the understanding of the culture behind it,” she noted. “So we’ve got the Swanguardians, and the response from the fans and people that support the club has been phenomenal.”
“And (then) we’ve got the shareholder concept and you can see that the numbers are showing that there’s support behind it, and you’ve also got the people that are putting the roles into place, supporting the players and giving them a platform, putting a female coach into the mix that knows what she’s doing and is capable and just having the faith and the trust behind all of the little areas to make it work is a massive reason to be a part of it.”
So even though the Rovers are committed to providing a platform for all of their players that come through to a higher level, be it through men’s coach Will Cromack’s side, or of course with Hannesson’s charges, they are especially proud of their efforts in the women’s game.
It’s an area where they feel that they can make a difference in the sport, and have been committed to doing what they can to continue setting a foundation for change in that aspect.
“It’s just getting the players prepared and ready for their next destination,” Hannesson noted. “So we talked about it a bit whether that’s the National Team, Post Secondary or playing professionally, we just want to get the players prepared and ready so we can say ‘we don’t ever want to see you again’ (because you’ve moved on to a higher level)”
“It’s a perfect time,” Corrigan added. “We’ve got our National Women’s Team coming back from Tokyo and are asking for investors in the game, and it’s like, hey, we have a platform, you can invest in the game, you might not be able to bring an NWSL team to Vancouver right now, but if you’ve got $265, you can invest in the women’s game right now, and make this a sustainable and powerful beginning like we’re starting in BC, which is exciting as it’s the beginning of something that’s going to be a long journey in the next stage of development and the Canadian Soccer pyramid.”
But for all of the dreams that the Rovers and their players have had, it’s worth noting the elephant in the room in terms of a potential obstacle in chasing those dreams – money.
It’s not something that people want to talk about, but it’s a big part of the soccer landscape at the moment, unfortunately, as it isn’t cheap to run soccer programs.
And that’s where their new shares program comes in. By offering that, the Rovers are looking to offer folks a chance to invest and play a role in the growth of the sport, while making their project more sustainable.
Having lost money in making this project work so far, it hasn’t been easy at times, and they noted as much when asked, saying that this is just a way to get some funds directly into the operating budget to make this something that can still exist 5, 10 and 20 years from now.
“We’ve never dreamed to make money doing this,” Elmes noted. “We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose money, and the reality is that in our first three seasons of USLL2 and WPSL we lost money.”
“So we have skin in this, and we’re not asking for it back, we’re just saying hey, from this point onwards, can we run this thing, make it work, employ a bunch of people, produce a whole bunch of soccer players and have some fun at Swangard.”
But then, the question has to be asked – why a shares program? Why not try to get a majority owner, or do a fundraiser?
And as they made sure to note, while those are certainly options, they want to also use this as a chance to keep building on the community model that they’ve fostered at the club, allowing those fans to just become an even bigger part of the process.
It’s a model that’s popular in Europe for a reason, as that sort of community model is a lot more rampant there, compared to the more corporate nature of North America, but even here, as seen with the success of the Green Bay Packers shares program, it’s not as if people aren’t willing to throw themselves into these sort of initiatives.
So for the Rovers, when it became a possibility, it was one that they hopped on immediately, as it allows them to both work towards their goal of financial sustainability, all while giving their members a chance to be even more involved than before.
“This isn’t a model that people are used to,” Elmes said with a smile. “So there’s a bunch of education that goes along with this, and funnily enough, when you use the example of the Green Bay Packers, people right away know that stuff, when you talk about Bayern Munich, they don’t know that, right.”
“Really, what we’re trying to do is get the sort of groundswell of support of people who own the club and are more motivated to come out to games and support it,” Quarry added. “And then we’re continuing to raise money through donors and sponsors and all those kinds of things in ticket sales, because ultimately, we want this to be financially sustainable, season after season.”
And that’s made it easy for the supporters to want to be a part of that.
For Corrigan, who has been there since the beginning of the Rovers semi-professional journey, it’s a chance to keep that community spirit going, making it easy to want to stay involved in the project.
“It’s just about giving to the club,” he pointed out. “Because the club gives something back to all of us, and it gives something meaningful to what we’re all trying to do here, and it gives a meaningful doorway, it’s a meaningful pathway to players, it’s a meaningful doorway for community, and for supporters to be a part of this adventure that we’re all on in the Canadian Soccer world.”
“And at a time where community is eroded and having lived out here, almost everything that happens in the Lower Mainland feels so transactional, there are so few spaces where we can come together and experience community and support that these venues are critical to our social fabric, as well, so there’s a social mission to what we’re doing, it’s not just about a football club, but it’s about something bigger.”
Plus, now, it’ll allow a chance for more people to sit at the decision-making table, too, further increasing that idea of community, which is something he is also happy to see.
“We’re going to be talking about how to continue to build this, and to do it together, that makes the Rovers smart,” he added. “Because the more voices that we have, the more diversity of opinion we’ve got, the more ideas we’ve got, it makes us sustainable, so buying an ownership stake means that you’re in it for the long haul, it means that you’re stepping up to take responsibility to make this a go, and we’re giving people that avenue, and that’s why I did it, and why I’m doing it, and why I’m continuing to do it.”
So now, it feels like the journey is just getting started for the Rovers.
Of course, entering their third decade of this, it began a long time ago, but with what’s on the horizon, they have to be excited for what the next 5 years could hold for the club.
And speaking of which, what’s next for them now? Obviously, the main goal now is to continue to grow players and find some success with both the men’s and women’s program in BC League 1, while reaching their target number for share sales, but what about after that?
There, the club had no signs of hiding their ambitions.
Building their own home ground? Playing in a Canadian Championship? Selling a player to a higher league? Maybe even one day playing in the Canadian Premier League, Canada’s top-flight men’s professional league, or an equivalent on the women’s side once created?
No reason why none of those can be possible for the club that is already proving to be an innovator at the grassroots level.
“We would love to raise some more money and build a home ground where we train and play,” Elmes admitted. “And there are some lofty hopes and dreams, possibly who knows, maybe getting involved directly in some sort of CPL scenario, whether it’s buying shares in an environment like that, maybe not running one, because we don’t have that level of money here, but for sure, there are other things that have been attached to this share offering that reaches well beyond ‘hey, are we paying the referees today’”.
“One of our goals is to play in a Canadian Championship,” he added. “The other one is to place as many players above our standard of play as possible, one of our TSS goals, which meshes into the Rovers even though they’re different companies, is to sell a player on in five years.”
So as they continue their maiden journey of selling shares, which closes on March 9th, having already raised $114 480 (as of writing) out of their minimum goal of $150 000 (with a hoped target of $300 000), the club isn’t going to stop dreaming anytime soon.
From the dreams that the players have on the field, to what the club hopes to achieve one day, the importance of that dream remains a key part of the Rovers ethos.
It’s just that now, you have a chance to put your money where your mouth is, joining them on the ride as they chase that dream.
“Buying an ownership stake means that you’re in it for the long haul,” Corrigan finished. “It means you know you’re saying I’m stepping up to take responsibility to make this a go.”
“And we said we’re giving people that avenue and that’s why I did it and that’s why I’m doing it and that’s why I continue to do it. It’s taking an awful lot of my time and energy but it’s completely gratifying. Like I just get stuff from it every single day when I turn my mind to this project, so that’s why you should do it because it’ll just lift you.”