Bibby survey shows football thriving in Canada

A new national survey has found fan interest in pro football to be remarkably robust as the 101st Grey Cup game approaches this Sunday in Regina.

While hockey continues to be followed by a nation-leading 46% of Canadians, 33% now say that they are close followers of the CFL and/or the NFL – well above the 20% who indicate they follow Major League Baseball. Just under 10% of Canadians report that they closely follow either the NBA or Major League Soccer.

The on-line survey of 1,505 Canadians was carried out in early November by sociologist Dr. Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge and pollster Angus Reid Global, as part of their joint research on The Future of Life in Canada.

What will surprise many people is the finding that 26% of people across the country say that they follow the CFL, compared to 21% for the NFL. Of these fans, 14% follow both leagues, while 12% follow only the CFL and 7% have eyes for only the NFL.

Combined with Bibby’s earlier Project Canada national surveys, the latest poll shows that, since 2005 and the end of hockey lockout, interest in the NHL has jumped from 30% to 46%. In the past decade or so, both the CFL and NFL have seen their fan bases increase by about 10 percentage points. Key factors influencing the growing interest in all three leagues would seem to include accelerated coverage, led by television, print media, and Internet-related platforms. The CFL’s resilience is particularly remarkable and unexpected, given the massive media exposure and corporate support that the NFL receives on both sides of the border.

Major League Baseball had a following of some 25-30% of Canadians when the Blue Jays were winning World Series in 1992 and 1993. The fan base dropped to below 15% by 2005 but, fuelled perhaps by expanded coverage and new hope for the Jays in recent years, now stands at 20%.

The NBA had a following of 4% of the population in 1990. With the arrival of the Raptors and Grizzlies in 1995, that figure increased slightly to 6% and then nudged up to 8% by 2000 – the same year Vancouver lost its team to Memphis. Today the NBA’s national fan base remains at 8%.

Major League Soccer, in Toronto since 2007 and now in Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012), is followed closely by 9% of Canadians – about the same percentage of fans as the NBA.

Regionally, west of Ontario and in Quebec, interest in the CFL is second only to hockey. In Ontario and in Toronto specifically, hockey reigns and interest in Major League Baseball is
considerably higher than in the rest of the country and there is slightly more interest in the NFL than the CFL. That said, combined interest in pro football is slightly higher than baseball – even in Toronto (35% versus 32%). In Toronto and the rest of Ontario, NBA fans number under 15%, with the figure under 10% for Major League Soccer. In the Atlantic region, hockey is no. 1 with baseball and football close to even but a distant no. 2.

These survey findings offer a reading on the interest in professional sport in Canada that help to clarify reality.

Contrary to rumour, not everyone is a wild-eyed hockey fan. Nonetheless, close to 1 in 2 Canadians are closely following the National Hockey League.

Enthusiasm about the Canadian Football League is not limited only to Grey Cup week; some 1 in 4 people across the country follow the league closely all season long.

The massive media exposure and corporate support of the National Football League has contributed to growth in interest in the NFL. But, as something of a cultural miracle, the CFL nonetheless has a greater national following. Ironically, the intense marketing of American football may be helping to “sell” football, Canadian-style.

Major League Baseball, as with the NFL, has a fan base that consists of about 1 in 5 Canadians. To a large extent, the popularity of MLB will undoubtedly rise and fall with the success of the Blue Jays. But its following of some 30% in the early 1990s will be difficult to match, given the increasingly crowded sports marketplace and the growth of fan interest in both the NHL and pro football. Losing all our Triple-A clubs, along with the Expos, hasn’t helped.