How the English Premier League is scoring with Canadian soccer fans
Arsenal faces off against Aston Villa in this weekend's FA Cup final
The English FA Cup final on Saturday between perennial soccer powerhouse Arsenal and underdogs Aston Villa is expected to draw a sizeable audience in Britain.
It will also attract millions of viewers elsewhere around the globe, including thousands of Canadians.
London-based Arsenal is one of several English teams with an ardent following in Canada, and this fandom reflects a growing trend as passionate supporters find more ways than ever to follow far-off teams that have really become global brands.
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Jarred Tokarek is among those looking forward to tomorrow's FA Cup match-up. Born in Vernon, B.C., the 33-year-old has been an Arsenal fan since he was 12.
"I started playing a soccer video game and got hooked by [the team's] name itself," he said.
He's since travelled to London to see Arsenal play live, joined the Vancouver supporters club when it formed in 2012 and owns more than 20 replica team jerseys.
"My wife kind of hates it. I have more jerseys than I have clothes," he says.
Arsenal enters Saturday's final as not only the heavy favourites, but also as defending champions. Tokarek expects more than 300 fans (including himself) to pack a downtown Vancouver pub ahead of the kickoff, which takes place at 9:30 a.m. Pacific time.
Seeing Arsenal win last year's FA Cup final flanked by fellow fans was "one of the best atmospheres I've been in for watching a sporting event."
Changing viewing habits
Like many Canadian soccer fans of his generation, Tokarek fell in love with the game at a time when it was more of a niche sport in Canada and live matches were a rarity on TV.
Meeting in bars or clubs with high-end cable or satellite dishes was more than a way for fans to watch the games — it became a social event.
"Sports is very tribal," says Aziz Rajwani, a marketing professor at the Langara School of Management in Vancouver. "It provides [fans] a sense of belonging to something bigger than them: 'I'm up at 6:30 in the morning, I'm a die-hard fan.'"
Now, it's easier than ever to attract new fans to the beautiful game and the sport's biggest European clubs.
For Canadian audiences, hockey remains by far the top TV attraction. But English Premier League (EPL) matches are televised on two national all-sports networks and are also available through online streams, both legal and otherwise.
Published ratings figures show that EPL games on TSN and Sportsnet routinely attract more than a hundred thousand viewers, with headline matchups between popular teams sometimes mustering upwards of three times that.
The variety of platforms matches the niche demand of soccer fans who embrace the early morning match start times.
This content "has become very valuable," says Rajwani. "There's not any other competition for sports television at that time of day."
It's a similar story in the United States. In 2012, NBC paid $250 million US for EPL broadcast rights through the end of next season. It was more than three times the amount paid by the previous rights holder, Fox.
The investment looks to be paying off.
Marquee EPL matches — involving big-money teams such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea — top a million viewers on NBC and routinely outdraw most NHL games on the same network.
EPL clubs are happy to capitalize on this attention from North American soccer fans, even if that means a cross-Atlantic trip less than a week after the end of a grueling domestic season.
That's certainly been the plan for star-laden Manchester City, which travelled to Canada this week to take on Toronto FC in an exhibition contest. More than 23,000 fans turned out despite reported minimum ticket prices of $50 a seat and the anticipated absence of star players on both sides. (Manchester City played Houston Dynamo the night after.)
Such tours abroad have become a staple brand-building strategy among bigger EPL teams. This summer, Arsenal will play a so-called "friendly" in Singapore, Liverpool is bound for Australia, while both Chelsea and Manchester United are scheduled to tour the U.S.
For Major League Soccer (MLS) squads like Toronto, it's worth interrupting the season to get a moment in the spotlight against a global titan, not to mention the premium price tag team owners can attach to tickets to games versus big-name opponents.
Since 2005, the annual MLS all-star game has been a match-up between the North American league's best and an in-demand European challenger.
Last year's match saw German powerhouse Bayern Munich travel to North America. Other well-known European teams with global fanbases, including AS Roma, Manchester United and Celtic FC, have appeared in the match in previous years.
This year, EPL mainstay Tottenham Hotspur is the featured opposition in the July contest.
It's a means of international expansion that some European clubs are willing to literally buy into. Manchester City is a partial founding partner – along with baseball's New York Yankees – of the Big Apple's second MLS team, New York City FC.
"The more exposure soccer gets, the more willing people will be to watch the best teams," said Rajwani.
Jarred Tokarek is proof that soccer fans don't necessarily have to choose between a European mega-team and their local club.
Aside from being an Arsenal supporter, he's also a season ticket holder for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS.
That means that on some weekend days, Tokarek spends the morning in a pub watching one team and then in the afternoon heads to BC Place to see his other team play in person.
But when asked to choose between watching a televised Arsenal game and taking in the Whitecaps from the stands, he has a firm preference.
"Arsenal is one, Whitecaps is two," he says. "They're close, but it'd be Arsenal over the Whitecaps any day of the week."