How CFL attendance has changed over the past fifty years (with a close look at B.C. and Toronto)

The CFL’s business model has been a subject of debate recently with concerns being raised regarding the age demographics of the league’s fans.

With attendance playing a large role in the viability of the CFL, I decided to do a full analysis of the league’s attendance over the past fifty years. Here is what I found.

West Division

B.C. had excellent attendance in the 1980s and enjoyed a nice resurgence in the late 2000s. Things have since taken a negative turn, which we’ll discuss more below.

Calgary’s attendance has remained pretty consistent outside of an awful year in 1985 during which the team finished 3-13. The Stampeders enjoyed their best decade of attendance in the 2000s before a slight drop-off in the 2010s.

Edmonton has had the best average ticket sales in the CFL over the past fifty years, prompted by five back-to-back Grey Cup wins from 1978 to 1982. Aside from a few spikes in B.C. and some recent competition from Saskatchewan, Edmonton’s attendance is almost always the best in the West.

Saskatchewan has seen positive growth over the past five decades, starting in the West Division’s basement and finishing on top. Rider Nation has become an economic juggernaut on the prairies, which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.

Winnipeg’s average attendance is the most consistent of all nine CFL teams, only once dipping below 20,000 (1970) or surpassing 30,000 (2013) over the past fifty years.

East Division




Hamilton has recently enjoyed strong attendance relative to the 1980s and 1990s, though sales remain lower than the 1970s. The two-year dip in 2013 and 2014 occurred because the team played in Alumni Stadium at the University of Guelph while Tim Hortons Field was under construction.

Toronto’s line has a downward trend and has bottomed out since 2015. We’ll discuss the Argos further below.

Ottawa’s line is relatively flat with two gaps (1997 to 2001 and 2006 to 2013) during which the team did not exist. The Redblacks have the best average attendance in franchise history (23,751) with the Rough Riders at 22,209 and Renegades at 22,173.

Montreal had extremely volatile attendance from 1970 to 2000, averaging 59,525 fans in 1977 before folding a decade later. Things have remained relatively flat over the past twenty years, though ticket sales have slowly decreased over the past decade.

CFL Total

This is what average CFL ticket sales look like league-wide over the past fifty years. Things have recently tailed off, though not to the extent they did in the 1990s. Below are the average attendance figures per decade since the 1970s.

1970s 26,689

1980s 27,390

1990s 24,183

2000s 27,050

2010s 25,571

One thing to consider is that the CFL didn’t go to an eighteen-game regular season until 1986. This means that while attendance in the 2010s was down 4.2 percent from the 1970s, more tickets were sold because 11.1 percent more regular season games were played.

Now let’s do a deep dive on the two teams whose attendance figures are currently the lowest — B.C. and Toronto.

B.C. Lions

Attendance on the west coast has some pretty clear trends when considering the history of ownership since the club’s inception in 1954.

John Hodge

As a community-owned team, B.C. averaged attendance of 25,816 from 1954 to 1982 with a low of 16,873 in its inaugural year and a peak of 32,505 in 1964.

Ticket sales skyrocketed in 1983 with the opening of BC Place Stadium, jumping to a record 45,550 per game. Strong attendance carried through to 1989, finishing the decade with an average figure of 34,997 — second-highest in the CFL.

The team was then sold to private ownership in 1990 due to its high popularity. Outside of a brief attendance spike in 1991, owners Murray Pezim, Bill Comrie, and Nelson Skalbania proved incapable of sustaining the CFL’s boom in Vancouver.

Attendance plummeted to 20,765 by 1997 when the team was sold to David Braley. Ticket sales the following year were the worst in club history (16,217) and remained relatively low until Bob Ackles came on as president and CEO in 2002.

Ackles steadily built B.C.’s average attendance to 34,083 by 2008. The club finished second in league ticket sales in each season from 2005 to 2008, reestablishing itself as one of the CFL’s strongest markets. Over that same time frame, the Roughriders had an average attendance of 27,199 — 20.2 percent less.

The Lions’ attendance dropped 30 percent in the two years after Ackles’ untimely death in 2008 and has fallen for seven consecutive seasons following a mini-peak of 30,366 in 2012. The club’s average attendance figure of 17,803 in 2019 was the third-worst in team history.

Interestingly, winning the Grey Cup didn’t have a significant impact on attendance. B.C.’s first championship in 1964 didn’t improve ticket sales the following year, while attendance nosedived following a title in 2000.

Numbers improved briefly following Grey Cups in 1985, 1993, and 2006 but then underwent steep drop-offs. This was also true in 2011, though the reopening of a refurbished BC Place Stadium helped account for the spike in 2012.

In summary, B.C.’s attendance was respectable under community ownership and thrived when it had a new/refurbished building or a brilliant CEO. Without invested ownership, the Lions floundered.

Toronto Argonauts

In Toronto, attendance has generally been on a downward trend since the heydays of the mid-1970s.

Ticket sales improved dramatically under the early ownership of Etobicoke’s William R. Hodgson, the founder of Hodgson Hotels Corporation. Carling O’Keefe was brought on as a partner in 1976 and became sole owner in 1979.

Attendance plummeted from 1982 to 1988 under Carling O’Keefe’s sole ownership until the Rogers Centre — known then as the SkyDome — was opened in 1989. Tickets sales fell again during the infamous ownership of Bruce McNall, John Candy, and Wayne Gretzky. McNall pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud in December 1993 and Candy passed away in March 1994, leading to a sale.

Figures remained relatively low until 2004, after which Toronto’s average attendance improved to 30,135 from 2005 to 2008. The club never averaged fewer than 25,813 fans during the six-year ownership of Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon.

The Argos won the 100th Grey Cup at home in 2012, which briefly helped ticket sales. By 2015 — the last year of David Braley’s ownership — Toronto had the worst average attendance in team history at 12,432.

Sales improved in 2016 as the team moved to BMO Field but have fallen since under the ownership of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, including an average figure of 12,493 in 2019.

Attendance in Toronto did not generally improve in seasons following a Grey Cup victory. Ticket sales fell after championships in 1983, 1991, 1996, and 2012, and grew only slightly following titles in 1997 and 2017. The Grey Cup in 2004 resulted in a big jump, improving by 21 percent the following year.

Conclusion

In general, community ownership has resulted in the most consistent CFL attendance numbers. Strong ownership and/or team leadership has produced spikes in ticket sales, while neglect from ownership has resulted in downward spirals.

Attendance league-wide dropped 5.5 percent from the 2000s to the 2010s, which is unfortunate but not debilitating. If ticket sales continue to fall at the same rate, however, the 2020s would produce an average attendance figure of 24,165 — almost the exact same figure that caused the CFL’s financial crisis of the 1990s.

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