Even with a dozen voice recorders tracking his every word, former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly is completely at ease. Seated in front of a background emblazoned with Bills in Toronto logos, he charmingly answers each enquiry. When a reporter rephrases a previous question about permanently moving the Bills to Toronto, I expect Kelly to give a reiteration of his previous answer. But what he says next is music to my ears.
“I’m all for [Toronto] getting a franchise. I think they can definitely support it here. They’ve got millions and millions of people in this community. I’d love to see a Buffalo Bill-Toronto ‘whatever they would be called’ rivalry. Boy, wouldn’t that be great?”
As I nod in agreement, images of a Canadian NFL team dance through my head. Only later, while pondering the phenomenon of football culture, do the Hall of Famer’s words really sink in.
Professional football reigns supreme south of the border. It’s the most popular sport in America, followed by baseball, and college football. Nielsen reports that this year’s Super Bowl match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals garnered almost 99 million viewers in the United States alone.
But football is more than just an entertaining way to spend a Sunday. Kelly has experienced this first hand, both playing and living in Buffalo. “When Monday comes and [the Bills] don’t win, it’s a very disappointing start of a workweek,” he says. “Just by listening to the radio talk shows and listening to the attitude of a lot of the fans, their whole week is determined on how the Bills play—it really is. They live and breathe Buffalo Bills football.”
It wasn’t always this way. When the NFL started in 1920, it consisted of two leagues—the National Football League and the American Football League (AFL). It drew limited interest, as baseball was all the rage. Professional football simply couldn’t compete with America’s national pastime, and didn’t draw much attention from fans until the mid-1960s.
Conversely, during this time, the CFL enjoyed massive popularity in Canada. The NFL was smaller then, and with too many players for the number of available spots, many top-notch athletes were turned away from the NFL. Fortunately for Canadians, they traveled north to pursue their professional football dreams. During that time, the CFL boasted some amazing players and action-packed games. Grey Cup parties—which would go on to become the template for modern Super Bowl parties—were the norm in those days.
The 1970s marked the start of the NFL’s epic rise in popularity, and the beginning of the end of the CFL. The AFL disbanded and became part of the NFL in a 1970 merger, making the NFL more powerful and popular than ever. With the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976, there was more than enough room to accommodate players who would have been turned away in the past. The CFL’s talent pool diminished quickly, forcing teams to put second stringers in as starters. They also picked up athletes whose careers in the NFL were over, like former Oakland Raider and Montreal Alouette Fred Biletnikoff. But these players didn’t take the league or the game as seriously as they took the NFL. The CFL quickly declined into what many now view as an amateurish football league, paling in comparison to its dazzling American counterpart.
Each year, interest in the CFL diminishes, while fascination with the NFL climbs ever higher. According to the Globe and Mail, 2.439 million Canadians watched the Grey Cup last November, while CTV reported that an average 3.6 million Canadians were tuned in to this year’s Super Bowl.
“The Super Bowl is the preferred football event to watch among young Canadian males, an important demographic that the CFL needs to ensure remains loyal to the Canadian game in the long run,” says Harris/Decima senior vice president Jeff Walker.
Despite the CFL’s fall from its former glory, football culture is still strong in Canada, evidenced by the fact that Canadians—young males and otherwise—want to watch and participate in the sport.
We encourage our youth to get involved in football. Last December, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) held its annual high school football bowls. Officially titled the “OFSAA Bills Toronto Series Football Bowls,” it gave high school teams the chance to play football in the Rogers Centre, just like professional athletes. It’s a chance not many young football players get, in Canada or the United States. “I never got this opportunity, to play in a championship game in high school and to play in a domed stadium,” recalls former NFL quarterback and Hall of Famer Dan Marino. “The attention that this brings to [the players], it’s a great opportunity for them.”
Watching live NFL or NCAA-rules football games also holds considerable interest for Canadians. For the past three years, Toronto has been home to the International Bowl, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) game featuring two American college football teams. This year’s match-up between the Connecticut Huskies and Buffalo Bulls attracted 40,184 spectators to the Rogers Centre. Last year, fans paid more than triple Ralph Wilson stadium ticket prices to see the Bills in Toronto, and each football season thousands of Canadians spend their Sundays catching a game in Detroit, Buffalo, or Seattle.
While Canadian fans don’t mind cheering for teams based in American cities, most would like to back a true home team instead of the one closest to the border. Many would argue an easy solution is to support a CFL team, but it isn’t that simple. The CFL isn’t a Canadian version of the NFL, and it just doesn’t have the same entertainment value as it once did.
Days after my brief meeting with Jim Kelly, his voice still echoes in my mind and it occurs to me he’s right; Toronto can support its own franchise, and now it’s more plausible than ever before. If the NFL underwent another expansion, it’s conceivable that a Canadian team could be incorporated. Recently, the NFL has made a major push to become more international, playing regular season home games outside of the U.S. in Toronto, London, and Mexico City. All were met with considerable interest, proving to the NFL that non-American teams could generate enough revenue to be worth it.
Until then, I’ll wait patiently for the day that I can cheer on the Toronto “whatever they would be called.”