TORONTO (CP) - Hockey remains king in Canada but a national survey shows pro football is the No. 2 sport among Canadians and the CFL is favoured by more people than the NFL.
Reginald Bibby, a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, conducted the survey that was completed in November 2005. It showed 30 per cent of Canadians follow the NHL - unchanged from 2000 but a drop from just under 40 per cent in the 1990s. Interest in professional football, however, was at 24 per cent, an increase of four per cent over the past five years.
Nineteen per cent of Canadians said they follow the CFL, compared to 13 per cent for the NFL. That's a surprising finding, considering the CFL has routinely found ways to shoot itself in the foot over the years while expanding television coverage has resulted in more NFL games being broadcast, thus making it easier for Canadian fans to tune in.
"I think we underestimate the extent which the CFL is imbedded in Canadian culture," Bibby said. "The thing that has really surprised me has been that one would simply expect the CFL to be overrun by the NFL.
"The fact that it has been able to hang in there I think goes back to having really underestimated the extent to which the CFL is much more than football. The interest was still there even when the league was floundering in the 1990s."
Increased interest in pro football has been due primarily a significant jump in the number of CFL fans in Quebec - from four per cent in 1990 when the city was minus a pro franchise - to 17 per cent presently. While the relocation of the Baltimore Stallions to Montreal in 1996 has helped boost football interest in Quebec, the province has also experienced a real boon at the grassroots level, meaning more youngsters are playing the sport and developing a love for it.
Bibby doesn't expect football will ever overtake hockey as the sport of preference among Canadians. But he said another reason for its popularity nationwide is accessibility. Fans have a much easier time getting tickets to CFL games than they do for NHL contests.<
"In cities like Calgary, the NHL games are sold out and it creates the sense that people are more interested than they ever were," Bibby said. "But the reality is unless you have a corporate ticket coming your way, you really can't afford to get to many games.
"The fact of the matter is hockey has become much more of an exclusive sport than we really thought, whereas the CFL is something people can readily access. Someone who has a couple of kids who wants to go to a Calgary or Edmonton (CFL) game out here has no problem doing that."<
Bibby's survey also found interest in major league baseball - at just under 30 per cent when the Toronto Blue Jays were winning World Series titles in the early 1990s - has dropped to just 13 per cent. Even figure skating, long a sport with a strong national following, has seen its fan base drop to 13 per cent from 20 per cent in 2000.
Canadian interest in the NBA is currently at seven per cent nationally and six per cent in B.C., down from 12 per cent in 1995 when the Vancouver Grizzlies were in operation. In Ontario, where the Toronto Raptors are based, 10 per cent say they follow the NBA, unchanged from 2000.
The survey was conducted by mail with 2,400 Canadians participating. The sample provided results that are accurate within approximately three percentage points of the population figures, 19 times in 20.<
Bibby, an Edmonton native, has been monitoring Canadian social trends since the mid-1970s. He has written 10 books with his most recent, titled The Boomer Factor: What Canada's Most Famous Generation is Leaving Behind, due to be released later this summer.
The decline in interest in the NHL has been most pronounced in Quebec and western Canada, with Bibby suggesting that's a reflection of the departure of both the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets. However, interest remains very high in Calgary and Edmonton (around 40 per cent) as well as Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa (over 30 per cent each).
The survey provided a surprising revelation that the NHL's fan base in Montreal is the lowest of the six Canadian-based NHL cities at around 20 per cent.
The decrease of interest in major league baseball since 1990 has been pronounced in both Quebec (six per cent from 36 per cent) and Ontario (16 per cent from 36 per cent). The loss of the Expos and relative mediocrity of the Blue Jays would seem to be obvious contributing factors, according to the survey.