Aubrey J. Lovery, Director, Growth & Strategy
Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you probably heard about the unexpected upsets around the 2018 FIFA World Cup. France claimed its second title, one of only eight nations ever to win any World Cup, but the headlines belonged to the upstarts. What did Iceland and Croatia do that Italy and Germany did not? Some believe an investment in infrastructure or coaching made the difference, others will tell you that you just need to play with the best to beat the best. The results on the pitch offer at least some validation to the analysis, but before Canada can learn what it takes to qualify for a World Cup, a more fundamental issue first needs to be addressed: can soccer become popular enough in Canada for us to want to make those investments into the game?
To understand that possibility, first indulge me with a quick thought experiment:
What’s your favourite sport?
Now, make a (short) list of the reasons why it’s your favourite sport.
If you were raised north of the 49th parallel, there’s a good chance your favourite sport is hockey. More importantly, your list of reasons likely include features like fast-pace, low scoring or high scoring games, athleticism or physicality. The perceived features of a sport are the most common answers people cite to explain their interest in it.
But those reasons are mostly wrong.
Fast-pace of play is no more a factor in hockey’s Canadian dominance, than the comparatively slow-pace is a factor in cricket’s religious-like fervor in India, a nation of over one billion people. No, your favourite sport is far more likely a product of Saturday evenings on the couch watching Hockey Night in Canada with your mom or dad, than the speed of the average slap shot. Sports take root in a community, a region and ultimately a nation following many of the same emotional and cultural patterns. It usually begins with the influence of family and friends- your grandfather was a fan and introduced your father to it. Your father raised you around the same influences. Your friends’ families likely did the same, and you all played the sport together because that’s what everyone else in the neighbourhood was doing. Those same experiences play out in communities across the country. Sport brings people together, makes us laugh and cry together, scrape knees and break bones together. The emotions around those experiences build powerful associations to the sport. But because we define a sport as a product with a set of features, our conscious minds can more easily deconstruct the features that we see on the field, rather than the innumerable emotions generated because of it.
There are more factors than familial preference, of course. Unexpected or outsized success for an athlete or team often drives spikes in interest for sports that lie, “outside the norm”. Just look at what Vince Carter did for basketball in Canada, or what the ’92 and ’93 Blue Jays did for baseball. But the common thread is the collection of emotionally-charged experiences we’ve had with a sport, and the effect those emotions have in cultivating our interest in it. So, with hockey capturing the majority of hearts across Canada, could a sport like soccer ever loosen that grip? The pieces for change certainly seem to be there.
Canada’s demographics are changing: 1 in 5 Canadians are immigrants today, and by 2036 more than a third of the population are projected to be immigrants. Those new Canadians are more likely to import their interest in sports like soccer, if for no other reason than its connection to positive memories and emotions from back home. Indeed, the multinational car flags adorning the streets throughout any World Cup are already proof of that imported and sustained interest. Soccer is also comparatively cheaper to play recreationally, making it an appealing social outlet for new Canadians and their children. And now Saturday nights on the couch can be easily shifted to Saturday or Sunday mornings with the English Premier League thanks to on-demand access to the world’s best leagues, teams and players that we all enjoy on our TVs, computers and phones.
We’re also starting to see some of the unexpected successes that generate buzz and capture the casual fan. The last two seasons of MLS were dominated by Toronto FC, who tallied two MLS Finals, one MLS Championship and a CONCACAF Champions League Final that went down to penalty kicks. The MLS Vancouver Whitecaps or Montreal Impact could turn similar results in the coming years. If they don’t, the Canadian Premier League, set to launch in 2019, will crown a new champion somewhere in Canada every single year, creating the requisite emotional highs and lows that can build footy fans for life.
A stand-out Canadian soccer star, that wants to play for Canada, is still a work in progress, but progress is unquestionably there. Christine Sinclair is an idol to millions of young Canadians and her young compatriot on Team Canada, Kadeisha Buchanan, plays professionally for Olympique Lyonnais in France. On the men’s side, Jonathan Osorio of Toronto FC won the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League. And Alphonso Davies of the Vancouver Whitecaps is being billed as a young prodigy as he gets ready for his first MLS All-Star Game this year, at only 17 years of age. The hope is that the Canadian Premier League will help fill that pipeline too, creating a ladder for Canada’s most promising athletes to move up and play increasingly better competition.
Which brings us back to the biggest stage of all: the senior men’s FIFA World Cup. Canada is eight years away from co-hosting the biggest event in soccer, and possibly the biggest sporting event in the world, in 2026, along with Mexico and the U.S. It’s likely, but not guaranteed, that Canada will earn automatic entry by virtue of its host status. Eight years is a short period to turn around Canada’s collective soccer fortunes on the pitch, but at a minimum, it represents a marquee emotional moment. A generation of Canadians may see not only their team, but the best teams in the world, compete for the sport’s biggest prize for the first time on Canadian soil. This will be Canada’s third FIFA World Cup event, including the 2007 Men’s U20 tournament, and the 2015 Women’s World Cup. But the prestige of hosting the senior men’s event should generate enough attention to buoy national pride and interest in “the beautiful game” like nothing before it. The 1994 World Cup, hosted solely by the U.S., was not the culmination of soccer fanship in America, but it was inarguably a catalyst for its growth in popularity. The modern MLS is a product of that event, and that league had a direct influence on soccer overtaking hockey as America’s fourth most popular sport. That said, no sport is close to dethroning football as king in America- not basketball, not baseball and definitely not soccer.
So, can soccer become Canada’s favourite sport? In short, it will take a decent amount of time- probably more than eight years- and unquestionably a healthy dose of luck, on and off the pitch. But the pieces are in place. Whether soccer can claim the Canadian sports fans’ crown will come down to how the sport connects with fans’ hearts in the years ahead.