Canadian and American coaches cite funding, attendance and youth growth as reasons why U.S. trumps

Watching a college football game in the United States is a much different experience than watching one in Canada.

Americans flock to the stadium or the TV to watch games. It’s like the whole town stops, said Dave Johnson, head football coach at Simon Fraser University.

“Football is a religion,” he said.

McMahon Stadium, home of the U of C Dinos and Calgary Stampeders football teams, often attracts small crowds during Canadian Interuniversity Sport games.

Photo courtesy of Sandra Wigg

Johnson’s school competes in the NCAA Division II, playing American schools in smaller towns. He said that while “it’s not as crazy as what you would find in Alabama where they get 100,000 fans, when we go into a town to play, the entire city shuts down.”

Attendance

Blaine Bennett, head coach of the Central Washington University Wildcats, said that students see watching football games as part of the overall college experience.

He said, “It’s a small campus with 10,000 kids in a town of 20,000. Being on campus and watching the football game is something they do look forward to.”

But what could be causing lower interest and attendance up north?

Canada’s cold temperatures might be keeping the fans away, suggested Blake Nill, the University of Calgary’s head football coach.

“The weather here in Calgary, when you get into November and it’s – 20 C out, makes the games not a very attractive option for people to spend money and go sit in the stands,” he said.

Growth in Canada

But Nill said that the advancement of football in Canada is improving, especially the standard of competition.

“Over the last 20 years, the level of football played in Canada has grown substantially. While the U.S. programs are marketed like no other team in Canada is, the athletes here play very good football.”

– Blake Nill, University of Calgary head football coach

“Over the last 20 years, the level of football played in Canada has grown substantially,” he said. “While the U.S. programs are marketed like no other team in Canada is, the athletes here play very good football.”

Brandon Bridge, who is quarterback for the University of South Alabama and hails from Mississauga, Ont., said that he has seen the rise of football in Canada, but believes the sport will always be overshadowed by hockey.

Starting young

Football is a sport common for kids to join at a young age in the United States, while most Canadian players don’t start playing until junior high.

Arne Ferguson, head coach of the Western Oregon Wolves football team, said that starting kids in football early leads to better skills.

Central Washington’s Bennett agreed the grassroots aspect of the game of football is what really helps put the game ahead in the United States.

“The whole reason American football talent is so much better is because the talented players get involved in football at an early age and continue to stay strong all the way through high school,” Bennett said.

Skilled players

Ferguson noted that Canada produces top recruits every year for the NCAA, which could lead to growth in the game up north.

There are various speculated reasons for the popularity of football in the United States compared to that in Canada, but according to Simon Fraser University’s head football coach Dave Johnson, “At the end of the day, people need to buy tickets and put butts in seats. The game is one component. The tailgating and being able to buy a T-shirts of your favourite team in Walmart doesn’t exist.”

Photo courtesy of Sandra Wigg

Nonetheless, the United States has more high-talent players than Canada has schools that play football, according to Johnson.

“There are about 58 high schools in B.C. that play football,” Johnson said. “In the state of Washington, there are around 360.”

Bridge, who played his first two years of college football at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, said he believes the talent level is dropping off in Canada.

“Before, there used to be a handful of guys with good talent. Now it’s just a certain player here or there,” Bridge said.

However, Calgary’s Tyler Winchester, currently a Grade 12 student at Bishop McNally High School, said he’d like to play football in the United States and dispel that notion.

“I’ve been approached by a couple of American schools, but I haven’t gotten any offers,” Winchester said.

“I do understand the differences between the two country’s games. You can still get offers to go play in the U.S. after playing in Canada, like during the college years here.

Money

Nill said that the American NCAA Division I has a massive amount of money coming in.

“Whenever you go to a U.S. football game or camp, you always see cranes around the football field,” Nill said. “That’s because they have to keep building infrastructure and buildings to attract recruits. If they attract recruits then they’ll get 100,000 at the games, which means lots of money.”

“The big difference between the U.S. and Canada is in the U.S., college football is a billion dollar industry,” he added. “A lot of times, when you look at the smaller Division II programs or Division III programs, they’re a lot like what you see in Canada.”

SFU’s coach Johnson said he believes that fans need to watch games more often, but the marketability is not big enough in Canada.

“At the end of the day, people need to buy tickets and put butts in seats,” Johnson said. “The game is one component. The tailgating and being able to buy a T-shirts of your favourite team in Walmart doesn’t exist.”

nhilts@cjournal.ca