Football fans count — but count them

It must be a long time ago, but the number of people at sports events used to be important. In every Canadian Press story the attendance was required reporting, as much as the score was. Always.

Maybe the size of the crowd was not always exact, but it was always close, for better or for worse. Teams announced — many times during the game — how many fans were there. It was an audit of honesty. Over the years, teams have increasingly tried to control the narrative (limiting media access, team-produced videos, injury secrecy…take your pick). Attendance figures are more or less obsolete.

I was once told, or maybe I just read, that a TV network in partnership with a league was instructed not to allow its cameras to focus on sections with hundreds (or thousands) of empty seats. This is always particularly sensitive with the Canadian Football League, which traditionally has a perceived weak sister or two among its member clubs. CFL teams don’t want the crowds to go away, just the reporting of crowds, because it’s a sign of weakness or disinterest, or both.

Perception of small crowds may be crucial, again, as the nine CFL teams this month head into what is hopefully their first complete season since COVID turned everybody’s world upside-down. Will the fans return in numbers large enough to make that new agreement between the CFL and its players financially viable?

As one of the attendees at the biggest crowd ever to watch a Grey Cup game, and as a long-time fan of Canadian football, I hope so. I’ve witnessed the highest of interest in this most national of sports (sorry hockey, curling and lacrosse). On a wintry Sunday in 1977, despite a dump of snow, icy streets and a transit strike, there were 68,318 fans in Montreal’s then-new Olympic Stadium. Only twice had more people watched a CFL game, both of them before that Grey Cup game, both in The Big O — home for 10 of the 11 biggest crowds in CFL history. These gaudy figures will likely stand forever in a league that has survived many decades of the ebbs and flows of fan interest.

Arguably the greatest judge of football crowds was the late Annis Stukus, who quarterbacked the Toronto Argos to a pair of Grey Cups 85 years ago, then launched a lifetime career promoting mostly Canadian football. As head coach and chief promoter, he ushered two CFL teams into existence (Edmonton, B.C.). He dabbled in basketball and hockey, and was key in convincing Bobby Hull to leave Chicago for the Winnipeg Jets.

Above all else, Stuke was a master promoter. He talked to everyone and anyone, even me on many occasions, and he always had an opinion. The one he had about fans stuck with me.

“Never,” he’d say, “let the fans know that they can get along without you.”

That’s why attendance is important, even today, as a yardstick. Whether it’s COVID recovery or rules that continue to make the CFL less unique, how many fans can get along without Canadian football?