Soccer Is Winning Hearts & Minds Of Young Fans: What Sport Falls First?
It was a stark image for fans of the CFL. Fewer than 12,500 filled the stands at newly renovated BMO Field in Toronto for a match between the Argos and their Ontario rivals, the Grey Cup runner-up Ottawa Redblacks. For years the contention had been that all the raggamuffin Argos needed was their own smaller space away from the cavernous Rogers Centre. A venue that seats under 30,000, a stadium that can create scarcity for tickets— always a desirable promotional gambit.
Then this. Yes, it was blisteringly hot. Yes, the traffic was a snarl around the site on Toronto’s Exhibition Grounds. Yes, there was plenty of competition in the area for the entertainment dollar.
But when you have a hot product none of that matters. Blue Jays fans fight through the same gridlock in downtown Toronto. So do Maple Leafs fans. Raptors fans, too. Even the fans of Toronto FC, the soccer club that (grudgingly) shares BMO Field with the Argos starting this year, survives the gauntlet.
When you’re hot you're hot. When you’re not… you’re drawing 12,373. This may not be the end of the CFL as we know it— a league boasting a valid franchise in Canada’s largest market— but you can see the end just over the horizon.
It’s more than simple coincidence that the Argos are sputtering while FC— a team that, until recently, had a largely inept history— still packs the compact stadium by Lake Ontario. Put simply, the CFL is being passed over in southern Ontario by soccer. The Double Blue can take comfort in knowing they’re not alone. Recent research from ESPN shows that soccer is surpassing almost every sport in North America (except football) in the 12-24 age group. With Latino Americans it’s No. 1.
A sport that 20 years ago was considered an ethnic pastime, about as cool as wide lapels and paisley ties, is now the thing to do if you’re a young person. The formation of Major League Soccer and the cool of David Beckham/ Lionel Messi/ Cristiano Ronaldo have made soccer hip.
Also spreading the magic dust on soccer in Canada and the United States has been the popularity of the women’s game in the Olympics and the World Cup. Stars such as Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach have attracted a generation of young women to the sport. No wonder 52 percent of fans for MLS are aged 18-34— the highest such percentage of any team sport in North America.
What can soccer teach the CFL and those other sports about attracting the coveted young cohort? Participation numbers and a North American league alone don’t explain it. The romance of the “beautiful game” isn’t the big hook either.
Put simply, soccer is soaring because it has maximized its reach as an entertainment vehicle. Knowing that its international stars sell its product, soccer has increased its outreach. North American now has more live soccer on TV than the rest of the planet. Fans who aren’t crazy about MLS can sample live broadcasts of the greatest club and national teams in Europe, South America and Asia.
The jerseys and logos of the reams are hot sellers online. Thus, kids want Didier Drogba Montreal Impact jerseys or Paul Pogba’s kit from Juventus instead of the sweater of the CFL’s MVP. Or the jersey of Brazil’s Neymar instead of a Sidney Crosby Penguins sweater. Young people who’ve been playing the sport from an early age are translating into fans of the sport as they watch soccer 24 hours a day on cable and digital sources.
Soccer is not obsessed with diluting the elite level of its sport. It creates World Cup tournaments, super-league tournaments and play-down formats such as the FA Cup that provide a constant stream of television/ online events. Even the relegation fight is much-watch content— a far cry from NHL and NBA teams tanking togged a draft pick.
When the just-ended Euro 2016 tournament was on, its online presence soared among the 18-34 year olds. That fandom is increased by the enormous transfer fees for the biggest stars as they head to Barcelona, Chelsea or Bayern Munich.
So far the legacy sports don’t seem interested in the formula. With its enormous gambling following, the NFL feels a smug confidence that allows it to resist change. But the other sports with their bloated inventories of regular-season games don’t have that luxury. The NBA’s 12-man rosters give the league a star power. But they, too, are losing support among younger fans, says ESPN.
Perhaps no sport is more vulnerable than the NHL. Saddled with its reliance on postseason revenues, the NHL lives in a straight jacket it created to sell to medium and small markets in North America. In spreading its number of teams to 31 American cities it’s missing out on creating the international TV footprint.
The CFL? It’s still a regional phenomenon supported by medium to small markets in Canada. TSN keeps it alive for now, but the product both on and off the field has gotten stale— especially for a city like Toronto where fashion changes every ten minutes. If 15-24 years olds outside Saskatchewan have heard of it it’s likely from their parents or grandparents.
The CFL can survive for the time being on TSN’s money. But with empty stands and young fans deserting the product, big changes will be on the way.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).