Why the CFL is integral to Canada’s sporting identity

We asked Canadians what sports do you watch most often with your kids?

For much of my life I’ve felt like a CFL evangelist — a missionary trying to speak the gospel of Canadian football.

But it turns out that despite how it may often feel a majority of Canadians are actually already on my side.

According to results in the recently conducted Canada Project survey, 63 per cent of respondents said the CFL is an integral part of Canada’s sporting identity. Among immigrants that number is as high as 68 per cent, which to me means it is not just solely based on Canadian nostalgia.

In the same survey, football also finished as the second-most-popular sport to watch with friends, behind only hockey.

This post is part of The Canada Project, a representative survey of Canadians from across the country.

That said, there is a generation gap. Less than half of millennials (49 per cent) said the CFL was an integral part of our identity, compared to 74 per cent of boomers and 59 per cent of Gen Xers.

And if I’m being honest, many of my sports-fan friends profess allegiance to the NFL, not in concert with the CFL, but instead of it.

I acknowledge I’m biased. I grew up with the league. The saddest day of my childhood was when my mother withheld tickets to the CFL East Division Final between the Alouettes and the Argonauts because I forgot to bring home a textbook that I needed in order to study for a test. Best believe I never made the same mistake again.

People who have played in, coached in, covered and purchased season tickets for the CFL were at my wedding. Argos cat calls were answered by Hamilton Tiger-Cat Oskee Wee Wee chants. I was even forced to wear a Hamilton Tiger-Cats hat during the proceedings by my father-in-law in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

I’m abnormally connected to the CFL, especially considering I’m a millennial, which makes me an anomaly. But it shouldn’t.

There is nothing wrong with the NFL game. I love it. I just watch it knowing that much of what I see on Sundays has a precedent in the Canadian game. The current replay and challenge system in the NFL — plus the end-zone celebration rules — were adopted based on a framework that previously worked in the CFL.

The zone running scheme you hear so much about, the spread offences you track via your fantasy team — those all have roots in the Canadian game.

Black quarterbacks? Yeah, we were the first to do that, too.

I’m also not buying the idea that the NFL is a better product — the best football game I saw last year was the Grey Cup. But, by the same token, I reject the notion that we have to choose one or the other.

Nobody ever says, “In order to appreciate Drake, you can’t like Kendrick Lamar” or vice versa. Yet that’s what happens so often these days with the two largest North American football leagues in this country, with the CFL often on the losing end.

I remember outgoing commissioner Jeffey Orridge, who is American born, venting to me at the Grey Cup.

“Why so many who claim to love the country are quick to tear [the CFL] down I’ll never understand. You’re hating on yourself.”

I’d argue there is no single sports institution more Canadian than the CFL. The league itself has existed since 1958, but the Grey Cup has been awarded nearly every year since 1909. When our population was much smaller in the early days of the now-famous trophy, title games could draw in excess of 10,000 fans.

The Alouettes averaged over 59,000 in attendance in 1977 when they went to Olympic Stadium after the Montreal Olympics. Saskatchewan was 3-15 two years ago and they led the CFL in attendance.

Toronto may not be as invested in the CFL as other cities, but don’t let that fool you — the game moves the needle elsewhere.

A recent IMI brand study found the CFL to be the third biggest sports brand in Canada with one in two Canadians following the league at some level.

In the NFL, most of the teams were formed in the same way: They got a franchise granted by the league for a fee. The only two teams like that in the CFL are the BC Lions and the Ottawa Redblacks, the latest to enter the league. The rest were already part of the community by the time they joined the CFL. They grew from high school and junior football teams to become amateur club teams and then eventually paid players.

Our professional teams pre-date the American pro game and the NFL. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, then the Regina Roughriders, date back to 1910.

What’s more, many of the teams remain community-owned.

Bob Young doesn’t call himself an owner: His official title in the organizational chart of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats is Caretaker. That’s a cultural clue as to what that team means. He’s taking care of a tradition that he feels in some way created him and defines the community he enjoys.

Like it or not, as a Canadian the CFL is something that is yours. It’s part of your history. It’s played by, run by and increasingly coached and managed by Canadians. It creates Canadian industry. Other than in Toronto, the entire complexion of our major cities would be altered if not for the presence of CFL franchises.

Look at the return of CFL football in Montreal, for example. There is a direct correlation to the popularity of football in Quebec at the high school, CEGEP, and U Sports levels to the Alouettes coming back to the province.

French-speaking schools like Laval, Montreal and Sherbrooke investing in football all followed the popularity of the Als, and those three teams now make up half of the most dominant conference on the collegiate level. The halo effect has impacted thousands of French-speaking kids who have since garnered scholarships, gone on to university, and lived vastly different lives because of the program’s existence.

Plain and simple, the CFL has an impact on people. It’s important to people. It’s important to me.

I love unlimited backfield motion. I love hot tubs in the end zone. I love unabashed end-zone celebrations. I love Pinball Clemons. I love fans with melons on their heads. I love players in the community that are actually part of the community.

I love that Angelo Mosca isn’t one to play with. And that he went on Dr. Phil to talk about it. I love the absence of fair catches. I love the Grey Cup fan march. I love that the Atlantic Schooners don’t have a team but they have a fan base. I love bare-chested fans in minus degrees. I love that Russ Jackson is more popular in Ottawa than Stephen Harper.

I love that Grey Cup Week isn’t corporate — it’s parties and the Calgary Stampeders giving away free pancakes. I love a wider field and bigger end zones. And yes, I do like the rouge.

And most of all I love a league where “O Canada” is the only pre-game anthem.

The CFL has been on life support on several occasions, but despite changes in our economy, demographics and infrastructure, it has somehow always found a way to survive. Because like it or not it is part of our identity.

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