Where are our kids flocking? Not to hockey, our national obsession and official national winter sport. Not to lacrosse, our official national summer sport. Not even to basketball, invented by James Naismith of Almonte, Ontario.
We have Statistics Canada and its numbers-driven reality check to thank for the revelation that indeed, soccer is Canada’s No. 1 youth sport — and it’s closing in on hockey as the top team sport, overall.
All the information comes from a 113-page report published in 2013 by Heritage Canada that analyses statistics from the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS) on sports.
One in four GSS respondents reported having at least one child (5 to 14 years old) living in the household playing soccer on a regular basis. The next two most popular sports are swimming (24 per cent) -— not a team sport — and ice hockey (22 per cent). However, when you narrow the pool to “kids who do sports”, the distinction is much sharper: soccer “is the sport of choice for Canadian boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14.” In 1998, 32 per cent of boys and girls who played sports were part of a soccer team: that increased more than 10 percentage points in the 2005 and 2010 surveys.
Soccer, currently no. 3 behind golf (again, not a “team sport”) and hockey, is gaining in the adult world, too. The 2010 survey showed that while team sports participation overall, including in hockey, is on the decline among grown-ups, soccer had a nearly one-per-cent uptick, compared with the overall decline of two per cent participation.
The decline in adult sports-team players can be attributed to an aging population: we tend to move away from games and more into fitness (classes, gym, walking, jogging) as we age, assuming we move our bodies, at all. The increase in childhood soccer interest gets pinned to two factors: an increase in children from families who come to Canada where soccer — elsewhere called football —is hugely popular; and the fact it costs little, certainly compared to expensive-equipment-heavy hockey, to outfit a kid to play.
Participating is not the same as watching and, despite all those reams of kids who play soccer, professional soccer in Canada until recently has been a poor cousin to the lavish devotion fans give to the National Hockey League (with seven of 24 franchises in Canada: Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks) or even our small toeholds in professional basketball (Toronto Raptors) and professional baseball (Toronto Blue Jays).
Soccer / football fans here often turn to world soccer competitions, Europa League, or Britain’s Premier League for their fix: I remember one journalism colleague who preferred working evening shifts because then he could watch his beloved football live-broadcast from England during the day. My partner is a Manchester City FC nut although I found it odd he could be so interested in a sports team that he had actually never seen play in person.
That changed in 2015, when I was driving on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and caught the tail end of a flashing billboard message. “MANCHESTER CITY”, was all I could read. Could it be the football team? Indeed it was: after some searching, we discovered it was coming for an exhibition game against Toronto’s pro team, Toronto Football Club, which plays at BMO Field.
To know me is to understand that I’m not really a fan of things involving balls or sticks, or both. You’ll not find me amid those who crowd into the Rogers Centre or the Air Canada Centre or every other sports temple in Canada, and beyond. However, once in awhile you have to stretch your interests, so we got tickets to the Toronto FC/ManCity exhibition match.
I’ve seen pro football matches onscreen (see Manchester City nut, above) but that in no way prepared me for seeing in person the balletic elegance of top-notch footballers in flight. The game flew by. I was enthralled with what I saw on the field.
The crowd, however, was something else, which is why the photo with this post features “Kelley in sour lemon face mode.” Bands of young men, who the Brits would call “lads”, at first were screaming unabashed love odes to their favourite players: but should that favourite player do something they didn’t like, or miss a particular opportunity, the valentines turned to vitriol on a second’s notice. It was ugly, violent, and unnerving. In a penny-drops moment, I realized that these “lads” were treating the footballers like this kind of man treats women: as objects created for their amusement and who become enraged when the object doesn’t return the love.
I want to see more Toronto FC matches in person. I never want to be amid that kind of crowd, again. If only there could be referees amid the spectators able to red card the louts, I just might become a fan.
Main photo: Chris Moorehead.