TORONTO Even in the CFL's rocky times, there has always been a sense that three-down football and the Grey Cup matter to Canadians.
Now we have proof.
On the eve of the 95th contesting of the oldest professional championship in Canada, Canadian sports fans have spoken loudly and clearly and have done so in the form of a wide-ranging survey, a comprehensive analysis of Canadian fans' views of professional football.
The survey results show that Canadians have a strong and deep identification with the CFL, which they do not want to part with, even though many of them would welcome an NFL franchise to Toronto.
An overwhelming 80 per cent of those surveyed think it's important for the CFL to survive, while a strong majority believe the league provides a great alternative to the NFL and has a bright future. Just 9 per cent of those surveyed say they would not care if the CFL shut down.
The Strategic Counsel conducted the 19-question survey this week for The Globe and Mail.
"It shows there is tremendous pride about the CFL, a tremendous attachment to the culture institution that the CFL represents," said Tim Woolstencroft, the managing partner of the Strategic Counsel. "Even Quebeckers have a strong sense of association with the CFL. In fact, it's one of the very few institutions on which English-Canadians and Quebeckers have a common view.
"So the old adage about the Grey Cup being the most unifying symbol in the country, that's still true."
The survey indicates the CFL is strongest in Western Canada, while the appeal of the NFL resonates most in Ontario and Quebec, where a majority of people say the arrival of an NFL franchise in Toronto would be positive, even though similar majorities understand it would have a negative impact on the CFL.
"It's clear that the NFL has made big inroads in Canada in the last 20 years, especially within Ontario and Quebec," Woolstencroft said. "With its marketing dollars and promotion, it has clearly penetrated this market as opposed to the West, where the CFL is dominant. [In Toronto] the CFL is facing very formidable competition from the NFL, and in Ontario and even Quebec, they want to see an NFL franchise in Toronto. But regardless, they want the CFL to exist."
Most compelling is the revelation that Canadians' attachment to the CFL as a distinct cultural institution outweighs their affinity for the CFL game itself. Canadians care deeply about the CFL, but don't necessarily consider it a more entertaining option than the NFL, with roughly one-third expressing a preference for NFL football, one-third for the CFL and one-third preferring both.
It has long been believed that what defined the CFL to most people was the distinctiveness of its rules when compared with the American four-down variety. Instead, the CFL's most compelling quality seems to be rooted in its identity and the notion that being a CFL fan or supporter is in some small way an expression of being Canadian.
Football is unique as the only sport defined so clearly as either Canadian or American by its rules and the history of two games that have evolved separately. That history, along with the CFL's rivalries and its regional representation, seems to resonate most with fans.
"An institution like the CFL is unique," said Steve Bunn, a doctorate history student at York University and devout member of argos-suck.com, a website for Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans. "There is, of course, [NHL] hockey, but the Americanization of that is well known. In regard to finding anything comparable to the CFL in Canada as a Canadian cultural and historical institution, you have to go outside sport and look at something like the Hudson's Bay Co. Like the CFL, it's something that in its best years turned a meagre profit, but the value of it isn't measured in dollars."