NHL Losing Fans to the CFL.

The biggest upset in professional sports has just been announced: the great Canadian fan has traded favourite sports. Over the last 15 years, Canadians have become less enamoured of the NHL, major league baseball and figure skating (the NBA has maintained its meek following).

The biggest upset in professional sports has just been announced: the great Canadian fan has traded favourite sports. Over the last 15 years, Canadians have become less enamoured of the NHL, major league baseball and figure skating (the NBA has maintained its meek following). Cheers, jeers - and ticket money - have been redirected to the once-laughable CFL.

"It used to be bush league, with no intensity," says Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist who has tracked Canadian interest in sports. But since the league changed ownership and began rebranding several years ago, homegrown football has become a national passion. Now, remarkably, more Canadians (19 per cent) say they follow the CFL than say they follow the NHL or MLB (13 per cent each) or the NBA (seven per cent). "The notion that we live or die by the NHL is an exaggeration," says Bibby, explaining that last year's NHL lockout, the retirement of celebrity players like Wayne Gretzky, poorly performing teams and outright abandonment by clubs in Winnipeg and Quebec City feed the disenchantment.

The CFL is also capitalizing on its distinctly Canadian identity to attract young people - the percentage of fans between 18 to 34 has grown since 1990, while baseball and hockey fans have gotten older. "This youngest generation probably has more patriotism than any other in recent history," says Brent Scrimshaw, the CFL's chief marketing officer. "It's a definitively Canadian game that plays right across the land, and has amazing heritage."

It's also affordable relative to most other professional sporting events, and that goes a long way with busy, money-conscious Canadians. "There's so much competition for our time, our entertainment dollar and our interest. These teams are all fighting so hard," says Bibby. Unfortunately, "some of them just aren't winning out."

The research for this editorial package was provided by Reginald Bibby, professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge. His book, The Boomer Factor: What Canada's Most Famous Generation Is Leaving Behind, will be published by Bastian Books this fall.

Maclean's July 1, 2006