Bolder Thinking Blog

The NFL is invading the CFL’s turf

January 29th, 2020 | Scott Stewart

The NFL is quintessentially American. After all, it’s called the National Football League and is home to team names like the Patriots, Cowboys, Eagles and Texans; There is no mistaking this league for anything but American. However, upcoming research from a Mintel report, Canada, Sports Media Consumers February 2020 shows that despite Canada having its own professional football league, the CFL – many Canadians follow the NFL. In fact, a quarter of Canadians follow the NFL, which matches the CFL’s following. 

NFL vs CFL is very regional

Overall, NFL viewership is similar across most regions in Canada. While Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces trail the others, Ontario, British Columbia and the Prairie Provinces have similar proportions of NFL fans. But while this suggests similar interests across these regions, a closer look highlights some distinct differences, especially between Ontario and the Prairies.

When it comes to football fandom, the Prairies outpace the rest of the country; half of consumers in that region follow the NFL and/or the CFL, compared to just one-third of consumers in Ontario. However, the NFL is much more important to Ontarians than it is in Western Canada. Among football fans in Ontario, half only watch the NFL (ie they don’t watch the CFL), compared to less than one-fifth who exclusively watch the CFL. Considering that province is home to three of the CFL’s nine franchises – and no NFL teams – these proportions illustrate how successful the NFL has been at building a fan base in Ontario. 

The story is much different in the Prairies. Roughly one in six football fans in that region watch the NFL but no CFL; whereas nearly half exclusively watch the CFL. The importance of the CFL to these fans could be driven in part by their pro sports options; across the three provinces, there are more CFL franchises than NHL and there are no MLB or NBA teams. In fact, the entire province of Saskatchewan does not have an NHL team, making Regina’s Saskatchewan Roughriders its primary professional sports franchise, which explains why Roughrider fans are often considered the league’s most passionate, regularly topping the CFL’s list of average home game attendances.

Conversely, Ontario is home to two NHL teams, an MLB team and an NBA team; Toronto has even hosted regular season games for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills on multiple occasions. As a result, its CFL franchises are often a secondary consideration on the broader sports landscape. 

This means that Ontario football fans will likely be the most excited about the NFL’s 54th Super Bowl on February 2nd, since half of them are dependent on that league for all of their pro football content. And while the Prairies’ overall love for football means that many of them will also tune in for the Super Bowl, the CFL’s Grey Cup is generally a more important game for that region.

The NFL attracts younger consumers than the CFL

A major advantage for the NFL in Canada – and a concern for the CFL – is that the NFL is much more relevant to younger consumers. A quarter of 18-44-year-old consumers in Canada follow the NFL, compared to one in six who follow the CFL. Meanwhile, the CFL skews older; three in ten consumers over the age of 45 follow this league.  

Perhaps the most illustrative finding about younger consumers is how many young football fans are watching the NFL exclusively. Nearly half of 18-44-year-old football fans watch the NFL but do not follow the CFL and only one-fifth are CFL-only fans. So not only are younger consumers more likely than older ones to watch the NFL, they are more likely to only watch the NFL when it comes to football. As a result, the upcoming Super Bowl will be particularly important for this group. 

What we think

Whether or not the US knows it, their football league is an important part of Canada’s sports landscape. While the CFL has no shortage of history in this country – the Grey Cup was first awarded nearly 60 years before the Vince Lombardi Trophy, for example – the NFL has made successful inroads into Canada. This is especially true of younger football fans and the country’s most populated province, Ontario. 

Although this shift creates some existential questions for the CFL, the fact that the Super Bowl is right around the corner means that there is reason for excitement in the Canadian sports market. According to Bell Media, the 2019 Super Bowl averaged more than 4 million viewers in Canada – and with last year’s winner already knocked out of the playoffs, the guarantee of a new champion gives fans even more reason to tune into this year’s game.