Canadian football culture versus American college football culture
By Jillian McMullen, Staff Writer
According to the CFL website, the audience for the Grey Cup championship game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders peaked during the fourth quarter to 6 million simultaneous viewers. In light of this, I was speaking with some classmates and coworkers about my plan to cover the game for this very article, but, upon mentioning the Grey Cup, I was more often than not met with questions of what exactly that was, rather than with enthusiasm. However, had I mentioned the Stanley Cup, I think it’s fair to assume everyone would know what I was talking about. This got me thinking about why the Canadian Football League might not be part of our national consciousness despite the league’s television success. Yes, you could chalk this particular instance up to personal disinterest in the game. However, I think there might be something in the US’s influence on football that prevents it from having the same cultural significance as something like hockey.
In his book Violence in Southern Sport and Culture, Eric Bain-Selbo shows that in 2015, Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools had an average of 80,000 fans in attendance per game. To put this in perspective, TD Place Stadium (where the Grey Cup was held) only sat about 36,000 people for the national championship. Bain-Selbo also quotes Michael Oriard, a former Associate Dean at Oregon State, who claimed that “what college football offered fans that professional and high school football could not was a local team competing in the national arena.” College football fans are attracted to particular teams because their players reflect the regions they play for, and subsequently represent that region on a prestigious, national scale. This helps to establish the college football team as a source of regional pride for their fans.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a Canadian football fan who had the same amount of ferocious devotion to a team as what you see in leagues like the SEC. So why doesn’t a similar kind of identity-building translate to the Canadian football scene? Perhaps it’s because it lacks the same regional referents as with American football. If you look at the Argonauts’ active roster, only about 35 per cent of the players are from Canadian universities, with the Stampeders around the same figure. There has always been cross-border athlete drafting amongst sports. Just under half the players of last year’s Stanley Cup winner, the Pittsburg Penguins, are Canadian-born. However, it is interesting that one might be able to question the “Canadianness” of what one could consider an innately Canadian league. It is difficult to organize that kind of societal devotion to the sport when the region receiving the prestige for superior athleticism is located anywhere other than the society itself.
Despite the pervasive Hockey-loving Canadian trope, the Grey Cup’s large audience is testament to our more basic motivations for watching sports: Ultimately, it’s just about the enjoyment of the game.