Is Canada becoming "Soccer Country"?
Canadian Soccer Fans Leading the Charge
It may not look like one from the outside, and it may not always feel like one, but it most definitely is one.
The “beautiful game” is nothing new to Canadians. Canada is, after all, a nation of immigrants. Almost everyone here in the major Canadian markets is either directly from or is a descendant of someone from a soccer-loving country. Italy, Greece, England, Portugal, France, Brazil and the Caribbean islands all have huge followings because of the ancestry of our country. If soccer fans weren’t born into soccer rich nations, they have grown up as children or grandchildren of soccer fans. Sunday mornings are often reserved for watching soccer with your grandpa or catching a game at a local café or soccer club. While many of these fans wear Blue Jays hats or hockey jerseys they also grew up watching Chelsea, Sporting Lisbon, AC Milan, Liverpool, and Olympiakos.
While it is easy to view the country of Canada as a hockey mad nation full of bonafide puck heads, this country is home to some of the most passionate soccer fans in the entire world as evidenced in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
The MLS venture into Canada back in 2007 was a bit of an experiment at the time. Sure Toronto FC had solid ownership, a brand new stadium, and support from multiple levels of government, but would it work? Would the game of soccer be a draw in Canada?
Toronto FC quickly became known as one of the most lively and passionate fan bases in the entire league and one of the hottest tickets in town. While their record on the pitch wasn’t good enough to secure a playoff berth for over 8 years, the excitement and passion of the fans endured. Toronto became known as one of the best atmospheres in all of the MLS. Season ticket sales in the first year of existence were huge and continued to grow in each successive year. The fan experience and the stadium atmosphere became a major reason to go to games. Supporter Groups like The Red Patch Boys, Inebriatti, Tribal Rhythm Nation, and U-sector are all mainstays at BMO Field and are at the center of the energy you find in the stadium.
Before the MLS Cup Final last year commissioner Don Garber had this to say about Toronto FC and the influence of its passionate fan base and supporters sections on the entire league.
After Toronto’s expansion in 2007, there were just 13 teams in the league. MLS was still finding its identity and hadn’t yet figured out how to differentiate itself from other leagues like the NFL, NHL, and NBA. There are now 22 teams in the league with talk of more being added. Toronto FC with its rabid fan base, singing and blasting drums throughout every match, showed North America that the European brand of soccer could exist and thrive in North America. They helped the league figure out what it was and how to sell the sport in other big North American markets. TFC’s early success solidified that North America was a great untapped market.
Paul Beime, senior director of Business Operations for Toronto FC told Jonathan Paul of Strategy Online in 2009.
The success of the MLS in Toronto helped give birth to other big market expansion teams hoping to follow a similar business model. San Jose, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, New York, Orlando, Atlanta and Minnesota all followed Toronto into the league and benefitted from the blueprint TFC created. The MLS also expanded to Vancouver in 2011 and Montreal is 2012, proving it had faith in the success and profitability of the game in Canada.
Those franchises have not disappointed. Vancouver and Montreal have followed the model that made Toronto so successful back in 2007, namely smaller downtown stadiums, supporter groups, and tapping into the rich history of the game in this country.
In Vancouver, a strong foundation of soccer loving fans exists, just like it does in Toronto and Montreal. The passion for the game is strong. The fans at Whitecaps games have become the reason to go to games, just like they did in the early days of the Toronto franchise. According to Carling Jackson, a former NCAA Division 1 soccer player and current Whitecaps fan “the fans that go to soccer are intelligent…they know their stuff…they’re very analytical….it’s a very intelligent fan base.”
With consistently large crowds at games and increasing television numbers, the Whitecaps are giving the other franchises in Vancouver, namely the Canucks and Lions, a run for their money. The Whitecaps are also drawing in a very young following, something they hope to build on. According to Carling, “it’s a younger crowd at the games now…it’s a cooler thing to do.”
According to an article recently in the Vancity buzz, the Vancouver Canucks organization are so intrigued by the passionate young crowds at Whitecaps games they are considering putting in a supporters section in Rogers Arena much like the ones at Whitecaps games. This is due in large part to the passion and positive influence of supporter groups like Curva Collective, the Southsiders and the Rain City Brigade at Whitecaps games. The young, raucous fans in the stadium are becoming part of the reason to go to the game and the hockey market wants a piece of that action.
According to fan Carling Jackson, the Whitecaps are attracting a younger, more passionate crowd to their games and other franchises in Vancouver are looking to follow their lead.
Jackson has noticed the passion of the fan base all over the city of Vancouver, where she currently resides. “On Game Day, it’s crazy on Commercial…there’s so many people out with jerseys on…it’s great.” Before matches there are marches held along Granville and Robson ending at the stadium; another opportunity for the fans to show their passion.
Canadian soccer fans are helping to lead the way for how fans interact with their teams during game action.
The same is happening in Montreal where the Impact have played since 1993 but moved over to the MLS in 2012. Many fans of the team are long-time European soccer fans who have longed for a team to call their own. The large number of European descendants in Montreal form much of the core fans for the Impact. In the European tradition, fans are finding new and exciting ways to cheer on their team and to create a unique sporting experience at Impact games. The Impact organization paid for the installation of the North Star Bell in 2015 as a signifier of every Impact goal. Supporter group 1642 MTL chooses someone every home game to ring the bell when the team scores. It has become an iconic symbol of the team and the sport in the city of Montreal. Although the team is young, they are already developing traditions they hope will stand the test of time.
It helps that the Impact are also a good team on the pitch. As Toronto FC found out the fan excitement of having a team isn’t enough to carry a team forever. Attendance dwindles when expectations aren’t met and changes quickly follow. In Montreal, the Impact are coming off of a very successful season, one where they were minutes away from advancing to the MLS Cup Final. The incredible Conference Final match between Toronto and Montreal was one of the most watched soccer games in Canadian history. According to Waking the Red over 1.4 million viewers watched the second leg of that match. People are paying attention to this team and the league in general.
Talking with John Meagher of the Montreal Gazette a member of Impact supporter group 1642MTL, named after the founding year of Montreal, shared his feelings on the buzz in the city surrounding the Impact: “I really think there’s a big buzz here…In my opinion, the Impact have solidified second place as a sports team in Montreal… I really think this is something special.”
Montreal is home to some of the best fans in all of the MLS.
In Montreal, and the rest of Canada, people are getting really interested in soccer, fans are engaged, new fans are jumping on the bandwagon and with it, expectations are huge this season. The Impact, Whitecaps and Toronto FC are eager to build off of the excitement of last season and make Canada into the soccer nation it really has always been.
One of the greatest benefactors of this uptick in passionate soccer fandom has been the Canadian women’s national team. The women’s team put a spotlight on the sport with their back to back Olympic bronze medals in London and Rio and did a fine job hosting a successful, albeit disappointing, Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Ottawa.
Canadian cities are very competitive with each other in the MLS, but are clearly united when Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women take the pitch.
The women’s semi-final matchup against the US at the London Olympics was the stuff of legends and if you weren’t already hooked by the hardworking Canadian squad you were after that match. The back and forth tilt with a true world heavyweight cemented Canada as a soccer powerhouse.
Soccer fans in Canada who have passionately cheered for other teams around the globe have a team all their own. Just like the countries of their ancestry, Canadians have local teams to drive passionate rivalries and a strong national team to unite them. The fans are young and passionate, the drums are loud, the atmosphere alone is worth the price of admission and the talent is becoming more homegrown: There is no longer any question, Canada is a soccer nation on the rise.