Nigel Aplin on sports fans

The changing face of Toronto sports fans

Image: Graphic showing logos of Toronto's professional sports teams, via TML Forum.

NBA has a certain 'cool' missing from hockey and baseball

By Nigel Aplin
Sports Editor
True North Perspective

I’ve been doing some informal polling during the past few weeks. Although my sample size is small, I have uncovered an unmistakeable negative correlation between fans of the Canadian Football League (CFL) and fans of the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association (NBA). From the responses I’ve gathered, I see virtually no cross-over between the two. The only exception I know of, is myself.

As May recently turned to June, the NBA season is nearing its end with the Finals underway (as of this writing, the Raptors are playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals with little chance of advancing past the powerful Cavs, led by LeBron James) and the Canadian Football League is preparing to kick-off its 2016 season with training camps underway in nine Canadian cities and the regular season set to open on June 23. My theory is that fans of one of these leagues have virtually no interest, knowledge or even awareness of the other. Young basketball fans in Toronto who I’ve spoken with know nothing of the CFL, its long history or what makes it uniquely Canadian and the typical CFL fan, usually older than 45 and white, has not developed any taste for professional basketball at all.

When I was a teenager growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, in the 1970s, the CFL was big. My mom took me to a sold-out game at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton in 1977 where the Toronto Argonauts shredded the Tiger-Cats 43-2. My dad took me to a game at Exhibition Stadium the following season where the Argos lost to the Montreal Alouettes before a crowd of more than 50,000. On the back of the ticket stub (which I still have), I wrote the score and “coach Cahill fired”, referring to long-time CFL coach and broadcaster, Leo Cahill, who lost his job as head coach of the Argos after the game. When the Argos won the Grey Cup in 1983, their first since 1952, it was still a big deal within my cohort but throughout the rest of the 1980s, the league began to lose its appeal to younger fans – something which it still struggles with today.

I attended the very first Toronto Raptors regular season game in November, 1995 at Skydome (as it was then called) and I have been a fan of the team ever since. In the 20 years which have followed that game, the NBA and the Raptors have grown the fan base in Toronto by capturing the interest of millennials, hip hop fans and artists, women, people of colour, new Canadians and even a few older white men like me. Fast forward to the current NBA season and the Raptors have become a flagship franchise for the league with both on-court success and regular sell-outs at the gate. The Raptors reached the final four for the first time in their history this spring and Toronto’s daily newspapers have featured front page, above-the-fold coverage of every playoff game. The NBA offers a certain “cool” factor which hockey and baseball never have. Outside the Greater Toronto Area however, Raptor support is very thin, as evidenced by surprisingly low television ratings for this season’s games despite the team posting a franchise record 56 regular season wins.

Some fans of the NBA are surely also NFL football fans but, in my informal survey, I could not find any Raptor fans who have even a passing interest in three-down Canadian football. Is the CFL destined to appeal only to what Stephen Harper called “Old Stock Canadians” — and older ones at that? If so, its long term future could be bleak — at least in Toronto where us Old Stockers represent a dwindling share of the population. The CFL has historically been strongest in Western Canadian cities, in Hamilton and to a lesser extent, Ottawa. The Montreal Allouettes, a team that has folded and been revived twice, most recently in 1996, has enjoyed considerable on-field success in the small confines of Molson Stadium, a 20,000 seat facility on the campus of McGill University. The Toronto Argonauts have suffered from miserable attendance figures over the past decade in the cavernous Rogers Centre but the team’s owners are hopeful of reversing that trend this season which will be their first at the newly renovated and expanded outdoor BMO Field with a capacity of about 30,000 for CFL football.  

A new venue for the Argos will be a novelty for the first season (with this year’s Grey Cup — the 104th — also set to be played at BMO Field in November) but the team and the league will need to come up with a strategy to attract some of the same fan demographic that the Raptors have. Unless the CFL and the Argos can find a way to offer a “cool” factor with a Canadian flavour, the league could remain close to invisible in Canada’s largest city but still carry on with modest but limited success as a regional, almost semi-pro league with strongholds in cities like Regina, Winnipeg and Hamilton.

I’d be happy to see the Argos succeed but I haven’t ordered any tickets yet. My investment in football tickets is dedicated 100% to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills (I’m a season ticket holder). Despite attending many games over the years (mostly corporately funded one way or another) and watching regularly on television, I have never purchased a ticket to a Toronto Raptors game.    

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