TORONTO — A new national survey indicates many Canadians don’t want the NFL here at the CFL’s expense but may also reinforce the biggest challenge facing the Canadian league.
The survey of 1,512 Canadians was conducted Nov. 19-21 by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, in partnership with Maru Public Opinion. Bibby has been tracking national sports trends since 1990.
In the survey, 34 per cent of respondents said they either didn’t want the NFL in Canada or wanted it only if the CFL also survived. But while 11 per cent said they’d welcome the NFL’s arrival even at the expense of the CFL, a majority (55 per cent) didn’t care much either way.
That could illustrate the general malaise that currently plagues the CFL.
On a positive note, the CFL continues to have a slightly higher following in Canada than the NFL (21 per cent compared to 20 per cent). But in recent years, and 2021 in particular, some concerns have emerged.
“The fact 21 per cent of Canadians say they follow the CFL — on par with the NFL — but almost 50 per cent have thoughts about the NFL possibly coming to Canada suggests considerable interest in the issue,” Bibby said. “It’s higher than the 30 per cent or so in 1995.
“If we asked how people felt about the possible demise of the CBC, I suspect a large number would likewise say they ‘don’t care much either way.’ What is disconcerting is that interest in the CFL, while still impressive given the league receives virtually no publicity via U.S. media, has been decreasing slightly in recent years. That needs to be addressed.”
The league resumed in 2021 after skipping the ‘20 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the level of play has been slow to return following a year off, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (23 offensive points per game) being the top-scoring team and Montreal Alouettes (371.8 yards per game) boasting the top-gaining offence.
Compare that to 2019, when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats led the CFL in scoring (26.1 points per game) and offence (393.7 yards per game). That’s prompted suggestions the league has an entertainment problem, which could partly explain why the average attendance this year is just 19,164 while two years ago it was 22,917.
Playoff games Sunday in Hamilton and Regina weren’t sellouts. A gathering of 21,892 was at Tim Hortons Field (capacity over 23,000) for the Ticats 23-12 East Division semifinal win over the Montreal Alouettes, while 24,001 spectators watched the Saskatchewan Roughriders nip the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 in overtime in the West Division contest at Mosaic Stadium (capacity over 33,000).
In 2011, the CFL’s average attendance was 27,767.
Nowhere are the CFL’s attendance woes more pronounced than in Toronto, its largest market. The Argos (9-5) finished atop the East Division but averaged just 8,603 fans per game, a figure that’s somewhat skewed by the season-high BMO Field gathering of 10,851 that watched the club clinch first with a 31-12 home win over the Ticats on Nov. 12.
Toronto hosts Hamilton in the East final Sunday. Saskatchewan is in Winnipeg for the West final, with the Bombers having sold over 29,000 tickets for that contest.
The survey asked respondents, “How do you feel about the NFL expanding into Canada?” Sixteen per cent didn’t want that to happen (compared to 20 per cent in 2013 and 13 per cent in 1995) while 18 per cent were good with it only if the CFL survived (20 per cent in 2013, 11 per cent in 1995).
The 55 per cent who didn’t care was up from 51 per cent in 2013, but still down from 67 per cent in 1995. That suggests the issue has been of interest to about half the Canadian population for some time.
Not surprisingly, pro-CFL sentiment was evident in Western Canada. Respondents in B.C. (19 per cent), Alberta (26 per cent) and Saskatchewan-Manitoba (35 per cent) didn’t want the NFL in Canada.
Those numbers decreased if the NFL came north and the CFL still existed (16 per cent in B.C., 20 per cent in Alberta, 21 per cent Saskatchewan-Manitoba). And only nine per cent of B.C. respondents would be happy to have the NFL here if it meant the end of the CFL (11 per cent in Alberta and nine per cent in Saskatchewan-Manitoba).
CFL sentiment in Eastern Canada wasn’t as strong. Fourteen per cent of Ontario respondents wanted the NFL in Canada, while that figured dipped in Quebec (eight per cent) and Atlantic Canada (11 per cent).
Twenty-one per cent in Ontario would support the NFL in Canada if the CFL also survived, with 17 per cent support in Quebec and 11 per cent support in Atlantic Canada. The numbers fell to 11 per cent, 13 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively, regarding happiness to see the NFL come north at the expense of the CFL.
But again, the overwhelming number of respondents didn’t care either way (54 per cent in Ontario, 62 per cent in Quebec, 68 per cent in Atlantic Canada). And the age demographic really didn’t matter, either, as 56 per cent between the ages of 18-to-62 said they didn’t care compared to 55 per cent in the 35-54 class and 54 per cent in the 55-plus class.
The CFL has acknowledged it wants to get younger with its fans and Bibby feels the survey is good news for the league on that front.
“Nationally, the proportion of adults, 18-to-34, who follow the CFL is 21 per cent — identical to that of the NFL,” he said. “What makes the CFL fan base look older is the league has a larger proportion of fans in the 55-plus category — 28 per cent versus 19 per cent for the NFL.
“Total up all CFL fans and they look older; focus on football fans who are 18-to-34 and they’re just as likely to be following the CFL as the NFL.
But Bibby said with entertainment competition everywhere, the CFL needs more flair.
“It must highlight the talents and personalities of its players,” he said. “Add more excitement and entertainment to its telecasts, make each home game an event and draw wisely on its long and unique history.
“That includes its stars and events from its past, to underline its important place in Canadian culture.”
Hockey continues to be the sport of choice among Canadians with 38 per cent of respondents saying they closely follow the NHL. However, that’s down from 40 per cent in 2016 and 46 per cent the year before.
Pro football is solidly in second (30 per cent) but similarly interest is down from 32 per cent in 2016 and 34 per cent in 2015. Major league baseball is followed closely by about 20 per cent of Canadians, ahead of the NBA (15 per cent) and Major League Soccer (10 per cent).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press