CFL attendance up 13 percent from 2021 but falls short of pre-pandemic levels

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

The CFL’s regular season came to a close this past week, giving us an opportunity to analyze how well teams did in attracting fans to games. This was the first season played without COVID-19 restrictions since before the pandemic, giving us an opportunity to view how attendance numbers have evolved since 2019.

It’s worth noting that the media has no way to confirm the accuracy of attendance figures, allowing teams to exaggerate numbers that might otherwise be unflattering. As such, some of the numbers below should be taken with a grain of salt.

Graph: 3DownNation/John Hodge

The Blue Bombers led the CFL in attendance for the first time in league history this year, averaging 28,652 fans per game. It was their best average attendance since 2013 when they opened IG Field and their third-best average attendance since the mid-1980s. Fans in Winnipeg are clearly buying not only into the team’s on-field success but the stadium’s party-like atmosphere.

Saskatchewan finished second with an average of 27,431 fans per game, failing to reach the 28,000 mark for the first time since 2006. Edmonton finished third with an average of 23,787 fans per game, though this number appears dubious at best. Anyone who watched a game at Commonwealth Stadium this year knows that crowds appeared small compared to previous years, though it’s unclear how many tickets had been sold.

Calgary, Hamilton, and Ottawa all finished in the middle of the pack, though attendance decreased significantly in each city from 2019. This was especially true in Cowtown where ticket sales dropped 13.3 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The crowds also didn’t always pass the eyeball test as McMahon Stadium appeared half-empty at times during the season.

Toronto finished distantly in last place in attendance, averaging only 11,874 fans per game. This number is up 26.5 percent from last year when capacity was limited due to COVID-19 protocols for a portion of the season, though it’s down 5.0 percent from 2019.

This means the Argonauts are still trending in the wrong direction, unlike their two big-market counterparts. Attendance improved modestly in Montreal from 2019 to 2022, while it grew an impressive 12.7 percent in Vancouver. New owner Amar Doman has shown in a short period of time that investing in a team properly can produce immediate results.

Below is a chart showing how each team’s attendance has changed dating back to 2010. It should be noted that the drops in Hamilton’s attendance for the 2013 and 2014 seasons came as a result of playing at Alumni Stadium in Guelph while Tim Hortons Field was being constructed.

Graph: 3DownNation/John Hodge

Not counting the 2021 season that was affected by pandemic protocols, this year was the second-worst for CFL attendance since 1970 with an average of 21,746 fans per game. The lowest attendance over that timespan came in 1997 when the league’s average attendance was 21,307, which remains 2.0 percent lower than this past year.

Below is a chart of the average attendance per game league-wide dating back to 2010.

Graph: 3DownNation/John Hodge

It should be noted that ticket sales aren’t the be-all and end-all they once were. The landscape of professional sports is changing and tools like television, streaming, social media, gambling, and fantasy have created and enhanced revenue streams for professional sports teams to monetize their fans.

With that said, it is still critical for teams to draw fans into their buildings. Concessions, parking, and merchandise are key revenue streams that are predicated on first getting fans to buy tickets. Clearly, a number of teams have work to do this off-season to ensure ticket sales improve for 2023.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.