IN CANADA, FOOTBALL (which means the Canadian version of the American variety) is way below ice hockey in general in terms of the emotions it generates. The latter occasionally triggers riots by insane young fans; The former is mainly watched by a dedicated but older audience huddling with thermos flasks in cold stadiums. But it is not due to the lack of commitment on the part of its sponsors. In the 1990s, the Canadian Football League (CFL) marketers tried to attract American football fans with the slogan “Our balls are bigger”. Last year the pandemic completely stopped the league, but this year the games have resumed and they are trying again. October 11th, Canadian Thanksgiving, is going to be a big day of sports. It’s a chance to strengthen the fan base.
Canadian football differs from the American version in that its teams consist of 12 instead of 11 players and the playing field is slightly larger (the balls used to be larger, but have been the same size since 2018). The rules are also slightly different. The season usually starts in June when the NFL, America’s League, is down. The sport has been in decline for years, especially beyond the inner levels, its heartland. The BC Lions, a Vancouver-based team, drew an average of 18,000 fans to their games at BC Place in 2019. 15 years ago they routinely had twice as many. Derek Mager, a data analyst who advises CFL teams, describes the fans as mostly tough old-timers: “They have been doing this for as long as they can remember and as long as their grandparents can remember.”
Leaders like Amar Doman, the new owner of the BC Lions, are hoping for offspring. In 2019, before the pandemic brought things to a standstill, the league recruited players from Europe and Mexico in hopes of attracting audiences outside of Canada. It has also signed television broadcasting contracts in the United States and Mexico to broadcast Canadian games simultaneously. Earlier this year, the CFL announced that it was in talks to partner with the XFL, an alternative American football league owned in part by Hollywood star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Nothing came of it.
Years ago the NFL and CFL battled for talent, especially in 1991 when Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, a star player for Notre Dame, an American university, gave up a spot in the NFL and cost $ 26 million to go to Toronto play instead. Nowadays salaries in the NFL are over 30 times higher than further north. Canadian football not only has to compete with other sports, but also with Netflix and Co. It will take more than an Ave Maria pass to turn it around.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print version under the heading “Shrinking Balls, Shrinking Interest”