'Make the Canadian Football League cool' again to re-connect with younger fans: CFL expert

At the Tim Hortons Field concession stand, Will Kish sells fresh tacos, sliders and drinks. He notices that, at Hamilton Tiger-Cats games, very few of his customers are anywhere close to his age. 

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup on Sunday in Hamilton

Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive back Adonis Davis (37) makes a catch over Hamilton Tiger-cats defensive back Cariel Brooks (26) during a practice at Tim Hortons Field during the CFL's Grey Cup week in Hamilton, Friday, December 10, 2021. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 108th Grey Cup on Sunday. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

At the Tim Hortons Field concession stand Will Kish sells fresh tacos, sliders and drinks. He notices that, at Hamilton Tiger-Cats games, very few of his customers are anywhere close to his age.

"I do work at Tim Hortons Field, so I do know a little bit about the Tiger-Cats," said Kish, a 15-year-old student at Westmount Secondary School in Hamilton. "When serving the fans, I mostly serve adults. Not many people under the age of 13 come up to order. However, I do serve teenagers now and then."

Even with the Grey Cup, one of the oldest trophies in North American sport — due to be awarded on Sunday in a game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — Kish says the young people he knows don't care all that much.

"I think a lot of young people aren't very interested in the sport, and even those that are, mostly pay attention to the NFL rather than the CFL," Kish said. 

A 2018 study conducted by Angus Reid said that the age group most likely to prefer the CFL to the NFL are "men over the age of 55."

In Canadian sports the Grey Cup and the CFL are special. The Grey Cup was first awarded in 1909, before World War I. On Sunday, it will be awarded for the 108th time. You can track how Canada has changed by watching Grey Cup finals for over a century. And for most of that time it's been a place where Canadian football players can play in front of Canadian audiences and connect fans from B.C. to Quebec.

That's the CFL that the football coach at Westmount Secondary knows. Thomas Pain says the CFL is "a fantastic game and I am pumped that Hamilton is playing this week" but "I do not think my players watch or follow the CFL as much as they should... They do not watch the game or talk about it as much as they watch the NFL." 
Will Kish is a Hamilton high school student who works at Tim Hortons Field. (Supplied)

Improve the stadium experience, Naylor says

That's true of Ali Ahmad. He plays for coach Pain on the Westmount Wildcats in Hamilton. He loves the game but can't name three players on his hometown team.

"I can't. Sorry, I'm not a Tiger-Cats follower," he said. "I'm more of an NFL fan and I watch their games much more, (but) I would love to get to watch the CFL more."

Journalist Dave Naylor says it wasn't always this way.

Naylor is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and TSN's "Football Insider". Much like coach Pain, Naylor grew up a fan of the CFL. 

"I was a young person who was attracted to the CFL, as people my age were at that time," he says.

And he has an idea why the game isn't as popular with young people right now.

"I think it has to do with the glitz and glam of other major league sports," he says. "A lot of people look at it (the CFL) as sort of the poor cousin of major league sports — when you compare it to the NBA, the NFL and the NHL."

Naylor says the league needs to improve the stadium experience for younger fans. 

"There's a 'how do you make it cool' factor that somebody smarter than me has to figure out," Naylor says. "Kids like stuff that's cool...make the Canadian Football League cool."

Over at the concessions stand, the CFL might have won over at least one young fan.

"Considering I'm working at one of the biggest events in Canadian sports history, it's a pretty cool feeling." Kish said. The league is "pretty cool and entertaining to follow and I think not only would (young people) enjoy it if they started following it, but it would also help the league grow." 



Arjun Ram

CBC Kids News reporter

Arjun Ram is a reporter for CBC Kids News and a high school student in Hamilton.