Sunday, November 21, 2010

How to increase support for the national team?

A lot of people like to think that Canadian soccer has really turned the corner with the arrival on the scene of TFC and their regular 20,000+ crowds. Unfortunately, there have been definite signs in recent weeks that Toronto has not suddenly turned into a hotbed of fanatical support for the game domestically (even if spectacular ratings during the World Cup demonstrate that plenty of people follow the game overseas) and that things are not necessarily as different from twenty or thirty years ago as people like to think. Recent crowds for CMNT and CWNT games at BMO Field were disappointing from that standpoint. Only 10619 showed up for the Peru game with many being recent immigrants from Peru supporting the visitors, while the women's team game had what has been described by some as a very generously announced attendance figure of 5000 against China.

The question that clearly needs to be explored is why even with 20,000 crowds showing up regularly for TFC games, the CMNT is lucky to be able to draw 5,000 supporters to a home game in a metropolitan area with over 5 million within an easy travel distance of the stadium for what was a reasonably attractive international friendly? It isn't a lack of interest in the sport. Nobody can sensibly claim that any more. Ratings during the World Cup and for club level games played overseas show that there is a vast level of interest in the sport in the GTA. The problem is clearly that a very large number of avid soccer fans in Canada still do not take the sport seriously in the land where they live and work and are only interested in what happens overseas. I've always been puzzled that the CSA doesn't do more to market its team to the post-WWII immigrant portion of the population to try to break down this cultural barrier that still seems to stop people from identifying with soccer in a forward looking Canadian context rather than as something associated with the "old country". Personally speaking when I watched the Olympic hockey gold medal game I was happy Canada won, don't get me wrong, but I honestly can't really say that I felt a huge emotional connection with the team or saw it as some kind of "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" type moment because hockey isn't something that is central to my experience of Canadian life no matter how often people in the mainstream media try to tell me that it is or it should be.

Canada 2 Colombia 0, February 27, 2000
{Forrest, Stalteri, Brennan, Hastings, DeVos, Menezes, Fenwick, Watson, Clarke, Nash, Corazzin}

When Canada won the Gold Cup back in the year 2000, however, having had considerable direct involvement in soccer at a grassroots level I found it much easier to identify with the team's achievement because it was accomplished by a portion of Canadian society that has been much more central to my personal experience of Canada. For example, I watched Jason Devos play for the London Lasers and have played at the Croatian Club in London where he had his first senior level soccer involvement. Now that is a minority type of outlook in Canadian society but I suspect it isn't so hugely out of step with the outlook of the people who are most fanatical about soccer in a Canadian context, who are most likely to pay to go and watch a game if they can be persuaded to make the emotional investment in the national team in the sort of numbers that are now being attracted to pay for season ticket packages in an MLS context in Toronto and Vancouver. I have often wondered what would happen if the CSA and their broadcasters started to market upcoming national team games with short professionally made commercials targeted specifically at people who watch MLS games and games from the top overseas leagues on channels like Rogers Sportsnet, TLN and the digital speciality channels like Setanta, Gol TV and Fox Sportsworld, appealing to people to actively support the CMNT on the basis that it represents their kind of Canada? The culture of urban Canada of the youth soccer registration boom and of senior level soccer teams representing ethnic social clubs in other words rather than the rural Canada of the frozen pond beside a wheat field in Saskatchewan that seems to be central to marketing hockey any time I watch HNIC.

With the emergence of TFC, the Whitecaps and the Impact there is a huge opportunity for the CSA to finally make a major breakthrough in this area. Since the demise of the original CSL in the early 90s national team players have tended to play for relatively obscure teams over in Europe and only a few dedicated national team supporters have regularly followed their exploits closely in that regard on the internet. It was understandable why many people found it difficult to identify with the national team to the same extent that hockey fans can identify with Team Canada in other words. Now with players like Adrian Cann, Nana Attakora, Dwayne DeRosario and Julian DeGuzman playing for a D1 level team based in Canada (with many more to follow in Vancouver and Montreal with the focus being placed on developing youth academies), there are high profile national team players playing regularly in games that are being broadcast on basic cable and mentioned by the mainstream media during sports news roundups. It should be possible for the CSA and their broadcasters to do much more than could be done previously to get the vast numbers of people in urban Canada who know and love the sport to embrace the CMNT as their own and to support it passionately. I suspect given the shambolic amateurism of the CSA that nothing much will happen in this regard during the 2014 World Cup qualification cycle but by 2018 positive changes should start to be obvious no matter what they do. Hopefully, with some much needed reform in the way they operate they will get their act together in the next couple of years, however. The existing CMNT fanbase and the growing domestic soccer media have an important role to play in pushing for change.


  1. This issue is very near and dear to my heart. And that is the only reason I ask you this dickish question. Are you coming at this as someone who's parents support another country?

  2. I'm coming at this as someone who was born in another country and is a naturalized citizen.

  3. Why then is support for the national team so weak? People involved in soccer in Newfoundland (probably the least ethnic province in Canada) watch the EPL, or Champions league ALL THE TIME, but hardly do they talk about the Europa league. Why? Because it is second-rate. This is how they view their own national team as well.

    It is all about perception, and the case of Man City should be interesting as they are in Europa league this season. Observe how many "casual" soccer fans will talk about their EPL results, while being unaware of their Europa league results. Mabye this will change when they play bigger clubs in the later stages, we'll see.

    So how does the CMNT change this perception? To be realistic, they have to qualify for the World Cup at least twice in a row, because the first time people are going to consider it a fluke (and rightly so, because at best we are on par with Honduras and Costa Rica, who are the doormats of World Cup when they get there).

    But herein lies the problem, to qualify you need fan support, which won't come unless we regularly qualify. I think for qualifiers (friendlies will never be seen as important until the national team is mainstream) we have to take advantage of the MLS fanbases. This is why Toronto was more successful than Montreal last round in my opinion.

  4. Toronto was more successful than Montreal last round? Are you kidding? Out of the 10,000 attendance against Peru in TO, maybe half at MOST (5000) were cheering for the CMNT. In Montreal, out of the 7500 attendance, 5000 at LEAST were cheering for the CMNT. That's the same support, but TO has MLS, no political issues and twice the Montreal population...

  5. Anonymous, I was at both games and there were nowhere NEAR 7,500 people in Montreal. My guess would be around 2,800. And I'd say the support was divided pretty much down the middle, just as it was in Toronto (where the acutal attendance was also significantly less than what was announced). For pure numbers cheering for Canada, Toronto won easily (I'm not from Toronto!).

  6. I question the idea of CSA "amateurism" and instead remind everyone that they not only have limited resources to work with, but have signed on with Sportsnet, who do a terrible job of promoting the games, coupled with a contract with some marketing firm from the boonies who are hopeless. Yes, there is lack of knowledge and underperformance from CSA staff, but it takes away from the point of the entry to just lay out the "CSA are garbage amateurs plain and simple" card like that. If the organization had as many resources pouring into it as Hockey Canada, and if the efforts to promote the games were still just as bad, then we could go burn down Metcalfe St. Until then, we've got to keep in mind the brutal lack of resources.

  7. one word: marketing