The past couple of years have been rough for professional sports in North America. Social distancing guidelines made it impossible for every scheduled game to be played in 2020. Organizers were forced to enact shortened seasons, some of which featured new regional rivalries in an attempt to minimize travel.
Research Co. and Glacier Media recently asked Canadians if they consider themselves fans of six different professional sports leagues. A majority (55%) say they are fans of the National Hockey League (NHL). The National Football League (NFL) is a distant second with 36%, ahead of the Canadian Football League (CFL) (32%), the National Basketball Association (31%), Major League Baseball (MLB) (also 31%) and Major League Soccer (22%).
Since the start of the pandemic, almost one in five Canadians (19%) acknowledge that their interest in the NHL has increase – a proportion that rises 22% among Quebecers and to 24% among respondents of East Asian heritage.
No other professional league matches the positive momentum of the NHL across Canada. The NFL is at 10%, with the CFL, MLS and MLB all at 8%. The NBA does slightly better at 12%, aided in great part by 16% of Ontarians who had a Toronto Raptors championship to celebrate recently.
The professional sports leagues that operate primarily in the United States had an easier task adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation was more complicated for the CFL. The 2020 season was cancelled, and this year outlined a vastly different schedule with the Grey Cup being played in December for the first time since 1972.
The Grey Cup, a spectacle that has been around for more than 100 years, is not captivating the country as much as it used to. Across the country, 40% of Canadians say they will “definitely” or “probably” watch the CFL’s final game of 2021 on television this weekend, while a majority (52%) do not plan to tune in. As expected, men are more likely to say they will pay attention to the Grey Cup (46%) than women (39%).
When we ask a similar question about the Super Bowl, which will be played on the second week of February, half of Canadians (50%) say they will watch, while 44% do not intend to do so. Once again, men are more likely to mark their calendars for this particular Sunday (56%) than women (44%).
The gender gap on a professional sporting event is not shocking. It is the age difference of those who are enthused about the two professional football finals that is eye-catching.
Interest in the Super Bowl drops as people age, with 53% of Canadians aged 18 to 34 saying they will watch, compared with 47% of those aged 35 to 54 and 49% of those aged 55 and over. In stark contrast, the Grey Cup finds its largest audience share with Canadians aged 55 and over (45%), falling to 36% for those aged 35 to 54 and to 39% for those aged 18 to 34.
On a separate note, the CFL became a pioneer in the quest to eradicate the use of expropriated Indigenous imagery. The NFL is still waiting for a new name to be introduced for the Washington Football Team, and the MLB – if a season is indeed played next year – will feature the recently renamed Cleveland Guardians.
When we asked Canadians about the name of the Edmonton Eskimos in 2019, 67% of respondents thought it was “acceptable.” At the time, Canadians aged 18 to 34 were more likely to question the franchise’s moniker than their older counterparts.
In the end, the name was changed to Edmonton Elks, and the reaction was positive on most fronts. In our survey, almost half of Canadians (46%) agree with the decision to change the name of the CFL franchise, while 26% disagree and 28% are undecided.
While only 46% of Canadians of European descent are in favour of the name change, the proportion rises among respondents of First Nations (50%), East Asian (53%) and South Asian (64%) heritage. In Alberta, where the Edmonton Elks play their home games, there is more resistance than in any other region of the country: 40% of Albertans think the franchise made the right decision, but 47% do not.
We know that some Canadians will be following the Grey Cup this weekend. The long awaited expansion of the CFL into Atlantic Canada should change the status quo, as the level of interest in the Grey Cup across this region of Canada is particularly low. Still, the biggest challenge for the CFL will be to connect with younger Canadians, who are currently more likely to be enthralled with hockey and four-down professional football. •
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from November 20 to November 22 among a representative sample of 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.