The geographical sporting lines separating the United States and Canada have become increasingly blurred throughout the years. The exploits of the Toronto Raptors in the NBA, a number of teams in the NHL and of course, Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS have all helped to advance Canadian sport.
There is however, one American sport where the impact of Canadian players has been markedly lower – the NFL. At one point last season the NFL odds were hinting that Canada could have its 20th player appearing in the Super Bowl in the Buffalo Bills Eli Ankou.
Unfortunately for Ankou and the Bills that wasn’t to be with the showpiece being played out between Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles. That does however raise the question, why in 2023 has Canada only been represented by 19 players in Super Bowl games? Read on to find out the answer to that question amongst many more.
The American Question
To lament the lack of Canadian players in the NFL feels like a fundamentally American issue. It presumes that Canada and their football fans should be actively aspiring to play American football instead of their own domestic version of the game.
Let’s not forget that the Canadian Football League, established in 1958 has its own thriving player and fan bases. Last season for example, the average regular season attendance in the CFL was 46,526 and that a packed Mosaic Stadium watched as the Toronto Argonauts won their 18th Grey Cup.
It therefore seems like a fundamentally American question to ponder why there aren’t more Canadians in the NFL.
(Highlights from the 2022 Grey Cup, Canada’s domestic equivalent to the Super Bowl.)
A thriving domestic football league is one reason that we don’t see more Canadians representing NFL teams but it is not the only reason. Another key contributing factor is the many differences between Canadian and American football.
To the untrained eye it might be easy to think that both games are broadly the same and that crossing over should be simple. After all, how long can it take for a Canadian to get used to playing with 10 teammates rather than 11?
The surprising answer is that it can take an awful long time for Canadians to adapt to the differences between the domestic game that they have grown up training and playing in to the game played south of the border.
This isn’t a unique issue confined to football either, it turns out that rugby players in England regularly experience similar problems. In August 1895 at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed which would go on to form the basis of Rugby League.
Again to the untrained eye, it would be difficult to distinguish between Rugby League and the sport that it split from back in 1895, Rugby Union. The differences, subtle as they are, have been enough though to make it incredibly difficult for players to transition between the two.
In fact, when a player successfully changes code, it usually garners significant media attention. With the example of rugby in mind, it is no wonder then that Canadians who have grown up playing their own format of football have found it tough to transition to the NFL.
Outside of the United States the most popular of all American sports is basketball, with the NBA being broadcast in almost every planet on the country. Football, whilst hugely popular with domestic fans, has thus far failed to gain the same traction as basketball with overseas audiences.
In Europe for example, it is incredibly rare to find anyone with more than a passing interest in American football. Whilst Canadian sports fans aren’t as oblivious to football as their European counterparts, they don’t quite have the same affinity with gridiron as their American cousins.
Ice Hockey and Lacrosse are two of the biggest sports in Canada, garnering the most attention from spectators and accounting for the largest amount of amateur players. Beyond that there are thriving communities of basketball, rugby, soccer and baseball fans.
All of which reduces the chances of more young Canadians dedicating their sporting ventures to football. Whereas youngster in the USA would be more inclined to gravitate towards gridiron as it is the country’s number 1 sport.
Why aren’t there more Canadians playing in the NFL? That’s like asking why there aren’t more Americans playing top level soccer? The answer, at its simplest level comes down to popularity.
Soccer isn’t popular enough in the United States to support an endless conveyor belt of top level players capable of competing in the Champions League. Likewise, football isn’t popular enough in Canada to sustain an endless supply of players capable of playing in the sport’s equivalent of the Champions League – the NFL.