Unlike its American counterpart, professional Canadian football has never managed to become a truly coast-to-coast sport. Although hugely popular from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Canadian Football League (CFL) has no actual teams in provinces east of Quebec. Indeed, there are no pro sports of any kind in Canada’s eastern-most quarter – not even hockey or curling. This has resulted in both pent-up fan demand and a raucous provincial rivalry out east to one day secure that lucrative first pro franchise.
Now it appears as if the province of New Brunswick is emerging as Atlantic Canada’s pro-sporting front-runner with the arrival of the region’s first regular CFL season game this September. The match – between the Toronto Argonauts and Edmonton Eskimos – will be held in Moncton, New Brunswick’s largest city and the geographic centre of the Maritime region. Kicking off in a new CFL-standard stadium debuting in July, the game is a victory for modest Moncton (population 126,000) over nearby Halifax (population 375,000), its far larger (and stadium-less) neighbour across the border in Nova Scotia.
“This will be the largest sporting event in Atlantic Canadian history,” says New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham. “Moncton has always pulled above its weight and this game will help put it on the map.”
Built to host this summer’s IAAF World Junior Championship, Moncton’s new $17m (€12m) stadium may have just 11,000 permanent seats but its small size has emerged as its greatest asset. Nearly finished – and expandable to 20,500 seats – the stadium arrives on time and on budget.
As for Halifax, it hinged its stadium bets on an ambitious (and subsequently abandoned) bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a $1bn (€751m) effort ultimately won by Glasgow. With no major infrastructure schemes currently in development, the city’s largest stadium at St Mary’s University comes in at a scant 4,000 seats.
Moncton’s new stadium is “finally giving us the right kind of venue”, for Maritime games, says CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon. “The city is trying to brand itself as the entertainment capital of eastern Canada,” Cohon continues. “The September game sold out in 32 hours, so they’re clearly pulling fans from across the region.”
And it’s not just the region. According to the City of Moncton’s Ian Fowler, both the upcoming September CFL game and previous concerts by the likes of the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and the Eagles have drawn fans from every Canadian province, up to 16 US states and nine other countries. Indeed, an 85,000-seat Rolling Stones concert in Moncton was the largest in the band’s entire 2005 North American tour. Fowler says such numbers confirm Moncton as the logical location for an eventual CFL franchise, while Premier Graham adds that the September game’s rapid sell-out has “proven Moncton is a city that can indeed fill seats”.
With New Brunswick’s first casino and more than 2,000 IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) athletes and sporting officials also arriving in town this summer, Moncton is clearly aiming to become Atlantic Canada’s full-service leisure hub.
Yet CFL officials concede it will take more than a single successful game to lure a permanent pro-football team to Moncton – finally transforming the sport into a truly cross-Canada pastime. “One game does not make a season,” Cohon cautions. “We must ensure there’s a fan base that can support 10 home games a year.”