With CFL attendance down slightly, is there cause for concern?

CFL attendance is down slightly so far this season, with every market except Toronto showing at least some decline.

Through 53 games of 2018, attendance across the league is down 1.6 per cent when compared to the same period in 2017 (53 games.) And while that’s hardly a massive number – it’s a difference of just over 21,000 people – a closer look at the numbers show some softness in a number of markets.

Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and B.C. are all showing declines of at least three per cent, though the Eskimos are up more than five per cent from 2016 and are just behind Saskatchewan in average attendance.

Meanwhile, they’re hemorrhaging fans in Montreal: attendance is off almost 12 per cent this season and down more than 15 per cent from 2016. The Alouettes finished 3-15 last season and have won just three games this year. Even the presence of quarterback Johnny Manziel has done little to bolster the numbers: Friday’s crowd of 15,346 was the smallest since 1998.

In Winnipeg, the Bombers announced reduced pricing for some concessions items and parking on Monday, likely in an attempt to bolster crowds that are down three per cent so far this season. In Toronto, they reduced the capacity of BMO Field to just under 20,000 this season and while that helps the capacity percentage, the crowds in the country’s largest market remain an issue. The decline from 2016, the first year in BMO, should be taken with a grain of salt as the team routinely offered tickets at a steep discount or, in some cases, for free to corporate partners.

There is some good news: attendance is up four per cent in Toronto while Saskatchewan and Hamilton continue to operate at or in excess of full capacity. Tim Hortons Field doesn’t look great on TV, with large swaths of empty seats in the upper deck, but the stadium design allows fans to congregate in the concourses and still watch the game . They also sell “social tickets” without an assigned seat which they say accounts for a capacity number in excess of 100 per cent.

If there are meaningful games late in the regular season, that could help boost the overall numbers but that’s a double-edged sword: if teams like Toronto and Montreal fall further out of a playoff position – or are eliminated altogether – that won’t help. On-field performance is clearly a factor: both B.C. and Montreal missed the playoffs last season and have struggled early in 2018.

According to CFLDB.ca, CFL attendance has declined for the last three seasons, from a high of 2,048,157 in 2014. And while the declines haven’t been huge – the league was just a shade under the 2 million mark in 2017 – it is on pace for another slight drop this season.

Here’s a look at the 2018 attendance numbers so far this season.

Team 2018 average attendance Per cent capacity % change vs. 2017 (YTD) % change vs. 2016 (full)
SSK 32,835 98 -1.5 4.8
EDM 32,711 58.8 -3.8 +5.5
WPG 27,715 83.9 -3.0 +6.9
CAL 26,417 74.1 -5.9 -3.9
OTT 23,588 95.7 -3.5 -4.4
HAM 23,563 101.5 -0.6 -1.8
BC 19,574 71.2 – 4.3 – 7.0
MTL 17,212 73.2 -11.8 -15.5
TOR 14,192 71.0 +4.2 -13.4

The issue for the league is that there isn’t much room for growth in cities where the audience is strong, like Saskatchewan, Hamilton and Ottawa, to offset further loses in places like Montreal and B.C. And declines in traditionally strong markets like Winnipeg and Calgary is further cause for concern. Furthermore, the lure of shiny new buildings (or teams) in Ottawa and Winnipeg may have started to wane to some extent.

In order for the CFL to see a return to growth – league-wide attendance was 2.3 million as recently as 2005 – it will have to find a way to make inroads in markets where numbers are currently in decline. On the plus side, the situation is not yet dire – and there’s lots of opportunity to improve the numbers.

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