Why the Grey Cup matters

The Grey Cup, the CFL and its teams (as seen on commissioner Mark Cohon's jacket) matter a lot to a large proportion of Canadians thanks to the trophy and event's history, uniqueness and fan-focused atmosphere. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press.)
The Grey Cup, the CFL and its teams (as seen on commissioner Mark Cohon's jacket) matter a lot to a large proportion of Canadians thanks to the trophy and event's history, uniqueness and fan-focused atmosphere. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press.)

According to an Angus Reid Institute online poll made public Friday, 47 per cent of a sample of Canadians surveyed agreed that "the Grey Cup is an important part of Canadian culture and identity,"  and a further six per cent said it "defines Canadian culture and identity." While all polls should be taken with a grain of salt, those are reasonably good numbers for the CFL, but they do come with some caveats. For example, only 39 per cent of those between 18 and 34 agreed the Grey Cup was important, and only 24 per cent of all survey respondents said they had definite plans to watch the Grey Cup Sunday.

So, why does the Grey Cup matter so much for some, and why should people watch it?

One of the most powerful things about the Grey Cup and the CFL in general is the way it represents Canada. This is a rare professional league that's completely based in Canada, one where (apart from the 1993-1995 U.S. expansion era) the championship game will always involve two teams from Canadian cities. It's a league that allows for the on-field expression of intraprovincial rivalries, such as Edmonton-Calgary and Toronto-Hamilton, and interprovincial ones, such as Saskatchewan-Winnipeg. Moreover, it's a league that reflects Canada's immigrant-friendly approach; the CFL gives plenty of starring roles to Canadians, especially these days, but import players are also essential and welcomed. The Grey Cup is also one of the few big sports events that's completely full of Canadian content and pageantry; the Stanley Cup finals, the Super Bowl and others have plenty of appeal, and they often feature Canadian players, but they're not an event that's solely focused on Canada. The Grey Cup is, and it's unapologetically Canadian.

The unique storylines around this game are a valuable presence as well. This is a league where best friends who grew up together can wind up facing each other in the championship game, a league where Ivy Leaguers and 153-pound kick returners can get the chance to shine, a league where the commissioner takes questions from Reddit and reaches out to his parody account. The CFL features amazing stories throughtout the year, but those intensify even more around the Grey Cup. That's a big part of its appeal. 

Another big part of the passion around the CFL and the Grey Cup comes from the fans, especially the incredible numbers who make the trek to the Grey Cup every single year. This is a championship game that has fans there from every team in the league (and some no longer in the league, such as the Baltimore Stallions, plus some that never managed to produe an on-field team in the first place, such as the Atlantic Schooners); that's pretty rare to see. Grey Cup week itself is a remarkable event, with fans able to hang out with each other, current players and coaches and even Hall of Fame members, and that's what leads to many coming back year after year. The fans' passion helps attract others to the game and make it an enjoyable event to experience and-or watch.

The history is also a key selling point. This is the 102nd Grey Cup, which is amazing; this trophy has been competed for since 1909 (with years off from 1916-1919 thanks to the First World War and a rules dispute) by a variety of community, university and eventually professional teams. Moreover, seven of the league's current nine teams can date their franchise continously back to at least 1954 (when the B.C. Lions were formed; the other teams are even older, with the Toronto Argonauts taking the crown by beginning operations in 1873), and the other two (Montreal and Ottawa) are reincarnations of older teams. Most of these nine cities have battled for Canadian football supremacy for over a century, and all of these teams have roots dating back at least half a century. That's pretty cool; there isn't much else in sports that's remained so constant over that amount of time. 

For those reasons and others, the CFL has tremendous appeal on the Canadian sports landscape. Sure, not everyone will watch it, but last year's game saw over 11.5 million viewers (close to a third of the Canadian population) tune in at some point, with an average of 4.5 million watching on TSN. That was a drop from the impressive 5.4 million average that tuned in for the historic 100th Grey Cup in 2012, but last year's Grey Cup still was the most-watched sports event of the year in Canada and the fourth-most-watched Grey Cup ever. It's not just about the Grey Cup, either; even in a down ratings year, the CFL is still consistently the second-highest-drawing sport in Canada (behind only the NHL and Hockey Night in Canada in particular; CFL games often outdraw weaker NHL games), and is miles ahead of the Blue Jays, Raptors or Major League Soccer. As CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said at his state of the league press conference Friday, "We're second only to the NHL in this country." In hockey-mad Canada, that's pretty good.

Yes, Canada's about much more than just Canadian football, even in just the sports realm, and the CFL isn't a perfect representation of Canada on some levels (for example, the lack of a team east of Montreal). The CFL and the Grey Cup are also never going to be everyone's cup of tea. They do matter to a large number of people, though, and some of the undecided should give the big game a try. It's a unique experience, and one that's a lot of fun.