The two-legged series between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact was one of the most exciting playoff matchups in MLS history. Ten goals were scored over 180 minutes before another two in the final thirty helped to alleviate so many years of pain for Reds supporters. In Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a capacity crowd of 61,004 witnessed history as the Impact tied their highest-ever attendance for a match in the first leg (the record was previously set during their CONCACAF Champions League final clash against Club America).
Toronto also set an attendance record at BMO Field thanks to the recent renovations and the temporary additional seating. (Seems the Grey Cup ended up being good for something.) It is also interesting to think what the figures would have been had Toronto played the second leg at the Rogers Centre; the combined total for both matches would have easily eclipsed 100,000. Those are UEFA Champions League figures, they are NFL figures, they are MLB figures; simply put, the numbers are incredible and promising. Canadian fans clearly care about football (of the round-ball variety) and the later in the season it is, the more casual fans decide that it is worth their time to tune in as well.
This was also evident in the TV ratings. Rarely did any of the three Canadian MLS clubs crack the 100,000 average viewership figure during the regular season. That number went up to 238,000 for the first leg of the New York City FC tie - not an overly impressive figure, but a steady rise nonetheless - and the first leg of the Eastern Conference final, featuring two Canadian teams, drew 3.6 million total unique viewers, with an average viewership of just over a million between TSN and RDS. The decisive second leg saw an impressive 35 per cent increase, with a total of 4.4 million unique viewers tuning in to watch history be made.
How these numbers transfer in terms of the outlook of the Canadian Premier League is tough to determine. The attendance numbers and TV ratings are both promising for the CPL. However, it must be noted that during the regular season MLS struggles to draw large amounts of viewers.
The leagues it is chasing include the CFL and NBA. Will some of the rumoured ownership and stadium partnerships between the CFL and CPL lead to fans in the stands and televisions turned on? Will city and regional pride help to build fanbases for the CPL clubs? And has the excitement of the Eastern Conference finals and the playoffs as a whole led to more interest in the beautiful game around the country?
The answers to these questions will ultimately unfold as the first couple of CPL seasons go into the books. The big questions lie around the quality of football and the league’s financial stability. Clubs will likely need to be able to operate for at least a few seasons in the red, and if a few of the rumoured wealthy backers materialize that would certainly help. The league will not take off with teams constantly folding or moving.
The natural interprovincial rivalries that already exist out in the west and Prairies as well as in eastern Canada should create passionate fanbases, and the hope is that these fanbases will be large enough to keep teams afloat. Fans are attracted to excitement - just look at the Eastern Conference final - but with the level of play the CPL is likely to start out with, that will take time.
Being below MLS on the North American soccer pyramid, selling the CPL won’t be easy and with MLS’ respectable, but not earth-shattering, attendances and, in particular, TV numbers, this does cause some worry. Will local talent be enough to fill seats if the quality level is just not quite there yet?
Further worry comes into play for the west when looking at NASL attendance. FC Edmonton has seen their average attendance dip the last three years: 3,384 in 2014, 3,122 in 2015, and a very disappointing 2,060 in 2016. The NASL’s other Canadian club, the Ottawa Fury FC, have, however, grown their average attendance from 4,492 in 2014 to 5,164 in 2015 and 5,482 in 2016. These teams are lower in the North American pyramid and it may be these sort of numbers that we can realistically expect from the CPL.
These questions are interesting to ponder and I look forward to hearing others’ opinions in the comments section. The numbers should give some optimism to those supporting the CPL, at the very least; we can expect interest to be high when the games count, as the Eastern Conference final showed.