It’s -15 C in October. You’re huddled up with your friend on one side and a man wearing a watermelon on his head on the other. You’re clutching a bag of nearly frozen Twizzlers and the most valuable last few drops of a large hot chocolate. Behind you an old man is screaming down at players who cannot hear him. And you … well, you are having the time of your life.
To experience the Canadian Football League is something so truly unique and specific to this country, yet the majority of people outside of Prairies and Hamilton probably couldn’t tell you a single thing about it.
The CFL has long suffered in some of the biggest Canadian markets. According to CFLdbStatistics.com during the most recent 2021 season, Toronto’s team, the Argonauts, was one of only two teams in the league to not fill 50 per cent of its building, with only an average 41.82 per cent of BMO Field’s maximum capacity being filled throughout the season. The next-smallest average percentage was in Edmonton with 47.13 per cent.
To make matters worse for the Argonauts, Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium is considerably larger than BMO Field so while it didn’t have much higher of a proportion of fans in seats, it still averaged 26,210 attendees throughout the season while also being one of the worst teams in the league. Toronto, on the other hand, saw an average of 8,603 attendees per game.
It’s also worth noting with the data above that BC was somewhat of an outlier this season as their attendance was severely restricted due to restrictions in 2021. In 2019 they only had an average 64.74 per cent of their arena capacity filled which put them in third last that season.
So why is it that the team in the city with the largest population in Canada, which also happens to be the longest-running professional sports team in North America, seemingly struggling the most to get fans engaged with the CFL? Unfortunately for the Argos and the rest of the CFL, this has been a question that some Canadians have been pondering for decades.
It’s gotten so bad that recently one of the Argonaut Dejon Brissett even complained to Twitter about the lack of hype for his team.
Diagnosing the problem
We reached out to MLSE for comment, but have yet to hear back. But plenty of other people are thinking about the issue.
One of them is veteran journalist and lifelong Toronto Argonauts fan Paul Woods, who has authored two books on the team’s history.
“My daughter and I are big fans. We share seasons tickets to the Argos,” he said in an interview. “I’ve got a couple of neighbours who follow the league pretty closely, but the vast majority of people that are sort of in my sphere I would say don’t follow the league.”
Part of the issue might be that Toronto has so many activities to choose from, Woods suggested. The city is home to professional baseball, hockey and basketball teams, as well as world class theatres and music venues. “The competition the CFL faces as an entertainer is just too great,” he said.
Joseph DeBenedictis never considered himself a football fan until he started working with the CFL from 2010 and 2013. On his YouTube channel, he often compares American and Canadian things with his friend Jason Holler; they’ve also made a few videos focused on the CFL.
“My family wasn’t football related. Like we didn’t watch a lot of football,” said DeBenedictis, who grew up in Pickering, Ont., said in an interview “It was hockey or soccer or baseball.”
Would rule changes help?
So what are some ways that the CFL might be able to get around this issue? In the past few months it’s been reported by many sources that the league has considered changing the rules so that the CFL uses the same four-down rules that the NFL does as opposed to the three-down rules they have always used.
But following months of speculation, TSN reporter Dave Naylor recently reported the CFL will be continuing to play three-down football in 2022.
Woods thinks that while the CFL should be considering some rule changes, it shouldn’t be most focused on the three or four down debate.
“In 1991, every game averaged 64 points scored between the two teams, this past year it was 38 points. That’s a 40 per cent decrease in scoring,” he said.
“We’ve got this thing called the 20-second clock and a lot of fans still cling to the belief that it makes our game faster than the NFL. Well, guess what? It doesn’t. There are more snaps per game in an NFL game than there are in a Canadian football game,” said Woods.
According to his research, there were an average of 125 plays per game in in 1991. In 2021, there were only 108.
In the NFL, the clock is 40 seconds long, but it starts the second the whistle is blown and the play is called dead. Woods proposes the CFL take a similar approach but make it a 30-second clock that starts as soon as the play is called dead, so that more plays will happen in each game and the product that the CFL will put out will then be more active and will also result in more scoring, which is what will excite new fans the most.
What are other Toronto sports fans looking for?
While expert voices are one thing, plenty of other people also have ideas about what would work.
WATCH | Raptors fans weigh in on Canadian football:
Focusing on families
A lot of Twitter users interested in sports suggested the CFL should be working to engage more at the grassroots level with kids at schools, or on youth football teams.
More emphasis on the younger levels. Have some good memories as a kid meeting CFLers in person while learning the sport that stuck with me. And added attention to USports/CJFL to get them more exposure
— Mack Chapman, Coach 🦁 (@SnapChap94) March 16, 2022
Woods also mentioned making family-friendly deals as a way for the CFL to build a better relationship with fans who could follow the team for life. He reminisced of a program they had when he lived in Edmonton where the team had a deal where you could get one free children’s ticket with the purchase of one adult ticket to the Labour Day classic game.
“They would get between 55,000 and 60,000 people in Commonwealth Stadium on the Saturday after Labour Day because of this great deal. And you got to figure some of those people grew up and became fans and ticket buyers themselves,” he said.
Elk family packages are good. One of my best little kid memory is sitting with Dad in Bomber north end zone. Tampa Bay NHL team offers university students very discounted all available game day tickets and put on a great pregame.
— Ken Datzkiw (@KDatzkiw) March 17, 2022
Market the leagues star players
Many fans on Twitter also recommended that the CFL work to better market its star players such as Bo Levi Mitchell, either through using social media to bring out more of their personalities like the NBA has masterfully done. Or through finding a way to get CFL teams into the EA Madden NFL video games. Some fans also recommend the CFL look at ways to get more involved in the realms of Fantasy Football as that will also be a way to get fans more invested in individual players. DeBenedictis also recommended that the CFL should lean into social media platforms like TikTok that are appealing to younger audiences in the current day.
Get the league on EA Sports. Promote its players and have them much more accessible to fans, especially kids. Stop signing one/two year contracts. It’s hard to cheer for players on your favourite team when they don’t stick around very long. Advertise Adverise Advertise
— John Palmer (@Twillick10) March 17, 2022
I would have to say that player engagement is major key for this. The years I was drawn in more was when I knew a player personally or they were in my atmosphere. Fantasy sports and drive to survive have helped other leagues because it connects the fan to the player.
— Gordon Sinclair (@SoSinclair21) March 16, 2022
Not all fans think the idea that getting the CFL onto a Madden game will fix the problems people think it will, but to the point of fantasy football being something that’s missing from the CFL experience, many fans also feel that the CFL could do better at regularly updating stats and making the game time experience more accessible for fans on various platforms.
Full disclosure, I am a 43 year old man who was born into his CFL fandom but one thing that’s bothered me lately is the lack of real time stats and live scores available during the games. Whether it’s via the CFL website, TSN, The Score app, etc.
— Paul Edwards (@PaulLikesSports) March 16, 2022
Get CFL games available on TV to cord cutters. TSN only has so many subscribers, I believe it’s less than 10M.
If you’re kid growing up without cable, a university student, or a young professional, it’s not even on TV for you.
NHL/NFL are on CBC/CTV more accessible
— John Bender (@johnw_bender) March 17, 2022
Hopefully, things can change for the Argonauts going forward, so future generations of Torontonians will get to have memorable experiences watching Canadian football with friends, family, and strangers in watermelon helmets for years to come.