Survey shows CFL is Canada's Number 2 sport, and growing in the U.S.

When the CFL opens its 2015 season Thursday, it will be Canada's second most popular sport.  (Peter Power/The Canadian Press.)
When the CFL opens its 2015 season Thursday, it will be Canada's second most popular sport. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press.)

A new survey indicates that interest in the Canadian Football League is surpassed only by hockey in this country and that the league is gaining traction from both young Canadians and Americans. That should give the league a good feeling as it prepares to open its 2015 season on Thursday.

A survey of 4,000 Canadians and 4,000 Americans, conducted online by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby through Vision Critical, shows that 26 per cent of Canadians say they follow the CFL either "very closely" or "fairly closely." That compares with 46 per cent interest in the NHL, 23 per cent in the NFL, 22 per cent in Major League Baseball, 12 per cent in the NBA and 9 per cent in MLS soccer.

Scroll to continue with content

"Despite the massive exposure that other sports and leagues receive from both sides of the border, the CFL has been able to hold its own –- something of a cultural miracle," Bibby wrote. "Many other corporate and cultural 'things Canadian' have not been able to withstand the might of American competition.

"These survey findings show that the CFL continues to know considerable vitality. Given that the Internet is giving it unprecedented visibility, the league is now on the verge of an unexpected and extraordinary opportunity to increase its brand exposure well beyond Canada – beginning with the U.S."

The survey also shows that 10 per cent of Americans say they follow the CFL, which may surprise a few people considering the league's lack of presence south of the border.

Equally satisfying to the league is the revelation that the game is attracting younger followers. In the U.S., for example, the strongest interest comes from those under the age of 35. In Canada, the proportion of those aged 18 to 34 who follow the CFL (18 per cent) is only slightly lower than the proportion who follow the NFL (21 per cent.)

"It is widely believed the CFL lacks for young fans in Canada, compared to the NFL," Bibby wrote in his report. "That’s not true. ... It’s just that the CFL has a far larger proportion of fans in the 55 and over cohort than the NFL (33% versus 23%). If the CFL has a problem attracting younger adults, so does the NFL. A devil’s advocate analyst could rightfully make this audacious claim: the NFL is having difficulty attracting older fans in Canada."

The survey has more than its share of surprises:

Almost one in four Americans who say they closely follow NCAA football, also say they closely follow the CFL. Among NCAA fans under 35, 45 per cent say they follow the CFL, too.

Over the past 25 years, Canadian interest in the CFL has increased from 16 to 26 per cent and the NFL from 11 to 23 per cent. The NBA has known a gradual increase from its low interest levels of 4 per cent in 1990, but still stands at only 12 per cent.