Canadian Sports Power Rankings – September 2013

Recently on Twitter, our Twitter feed (@SportsBizCanada) received a reply wondering if basketball had reached #2 status in Canada. At the time, I disagreed saying that the sport had many other sports to overcome and that there were a few factors limiting its reach in the country. However, it made me wonder, what are the most popular sports in Canada? And in what order? This caused me to examine doing a quarterly feature of power rankings for sports popularity in Canada, and here we are. I will try to use a few criteria to determine the popularity of each sport:

  • Overall popularity across the country
  • Popularity in the major markets in Canada
  • Television coverage
  • Overall buzz
  • “The mom test” meaning is somebody who doesn’t traditionally watch sports talking about it
  • Recreational enrollment

So without further ado, the rankings:

  1.  Hockey – This should come as no surprise. If the Toronto Maple Leafs think about doing something in July, it’s front page news. If the team is in a playoff position, people plan the parade. The other six Canadian teams can trend on Twitter at any moment, and land on the front page of The Globe. The day after Canada won gold in 2010, the country started picking the 2014 team. From a recreation standpoint, it is one of the most played sports in the country. It is bigger than every other sport on this list combined. Hockey is the biggest sport in Canada. Period.
  2. Soccer – This is where it gets interesting. Number 2. Personally, I think a good argument can be made for soccer. First, it’s the most played recreational sport by youth in the country. Second, the highest level of play in North America has three teams in the country. Also, soccer gets great television coverage as all the major English Premier League games are featured and various championships also get good television coverage. Finally, thanks to the Canadian Women’s National Team, soccer showed how much buzz it could generate and in turn Christine Sinclair passed “the mom test”. Soccer is as good a pick as any for number 2.
  3. Baseball – For me, baseball moved up a few notches by the amount of closet baseball fans there are. Last year, baseball would have ranked much lower for me. Recreational play is trending downward, there is only one major league team in the country, and there wasn’t much buzz. Fast forward to this year, recreational play is still soft, the one major league team has exhibitions planned for Montreal and the travelling skills camps are just finishing another year, and the team had huge buzz when they were the a World Series favorite. Sure the Blue Jays dream fizzled out, however there was still a ton of media coverage, and baseball is lingering in the 3rd place slot and ready to pounce on soccer. Either an expansion team in Montreal or Vancouver, or a Jays playoff run and there are millions of dormant baseball fans ready to explode
  4. Curling – Your reaction to the ranking of curling will depend a lot on your age, and how much you know about the demographics of Canada. However, every winter there are a few major curling tournaments that dominate TSN. There are people in Canada who think Vic Rauter is the biggest thing in sports broadcasting and are curious who Jay and Dan are. The argument for Curling being cheap programming is out the window when you get to see the astronomical ratings it pulls in. Add to that a healthy recreational footprint and you have the makings of one of the bigger sports in Canada. The buzz doesn’t really break mainstream, however for a little while when Bill Simmons called the Women’s National Team hot, that helped. And a few gold medals this winter in Sochi and it will get a boost. Nevertheless, Curling is for real.
  5. Football – CFL is very big. With 8 teams in key markets, and a 9th team coming next season, it has fantastic national coverage. The league’s TV coverage is so great it’s hard to tell where the CFL ends and TSN begins. Then we have the NFL. A ton of media coverage, lots of buzz, and Canada plays host to two NFL games a year (one preseason and one regular season). It gets great ratings. Then there’s NCAA to insulate all of this. Buzz-wise, it’ll have a healthy interest from most sports fans, however it’ll rarely crack “the mom test”, and if it does, it’s never for a good story. Recreational enrollment is also the pits, except in certain areas, and one can only assume that will trend downward. However, of sports poised to rise on this list, this one has the potential to go from #5 to #2 next time we revisit this list.
  6. Basketball – Poised for huge growth over the next 10 years, basketball is still not quite ready for prime time. Every so often we hear rumblings in the media that this could become the next big sport in Canada. Sadly, it has a few things going against it. First, there is only one team playing in Canada from the world’s biggest league, the Toronto Raptors. Second, it will have to go head-to-head with hockey to gain any foothold. Third, recreational enrollment will only see growth at the demise of hockey. However, points one and three show light at the end of the tunnel. David Stern has stated that leaving Vancouver one of his biggest regrets and enrollment in hockey is at risk. Also, aside from the recent disappointment at the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team seems ready to explode onto the scene. There are lots of young Canadian stars coming, and as the immigration trends of Canada change, there are more Canadians who think basketball first and are meeting hockey for the first time. But as we sit here today, it is safely in 6th.
  7. MMA – Tom Wright and Georges St. Pierre are responsible for this. A huge star and a savvy exec can make all the difference for a sport. However, it’s hard to be bigger than the first six if you only hold at most three events a year in this country. In addition, there is no proof that this sport would be half as big as it is without Georges St. Pierre, a guy who’s not getting any younger. Recreational involvement seems scattered, and television coverage is still largely relegated to the lesser Sportsnet. A few years ago, this looked to be trending up but I think we have reached the summit and it can only go down from here.
  8. Golf – Strong recreational involvement, young Canadian golfers ready to break through, and great television support. Golf is doing ok. A better date for the Canadian Open, and maybe some more national success and things will be looking up for golf. Additionally, the 2016 Olympics may be the perfect time for golf in Canada to breakthrough. However, entering the winter, it’s hard to rank golf any higher than 7th.
  9. Tennis – Milos. We have talked about him on this site, he had a very positive season, and he will represent Canada in the Davis Cup later this month. From there, the Canadian Open splits time between Montreal and Toronto, and is well attended. Federer, Nadal, and Andy Murray have national recognition in this country. Overall, I think tennis is a healthy sport in Canada, however it’s hard to rank it any higher than 8th right now. Next year if Milos or Pospisil can achieve greater results then maybe it’ll be more of a debate.
  10. Motorsports – There is a big F1 race in Montreal every year, almost 20 years ago we were home to the Formula One World Champion, and Nascar gets a healthy amount of television time. Finally, Indy Car has multiple races in this country. I do not see this sport gaining on any of the sports ahead of it, but it is worth mentioning.
  11. Cycling – The Tour De France still gets love in this country after everything. You can attribute this to Ryder Hesjedal. Other than that, nothing of note.
  12. The rest – figure skating, athletics (4x100m especially), softball, swimming, rowing, boxing, lacrosse, and rugby
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Those are the power rankings for this quarter. I have no doubt that there will be a debate about the rankings and I welcome all challenges on these rankings. Either tweet me @SportsBizCanada or if you really want to unload, hit me up at Jeffrey.lush(at)sportsbusinesscanada.com and I will run the emails with responses in a future piece for the site.

Jeffrey Lush

Jeffrey Lush is Co-Founder of Sports Business Canada and a weekly blog contributor. Follow @jlush709 on Twitter.