Aging Grey Cup fans look to the youth to carry on Canadian football traditions

REGINA — John Couture is old school.

The 71-year-old travels without a cellphone, yet manages to find hundreds of his friends at the Grey Cup every year.

They recognize him by the drinks in his hand, the buttons he wears and the beads around his neck.

This is Couture's 49th straight Grey Cup Festival, which Regina is hosting this year.

He went to his first game at 22 after hopping onto the Grey Cup Train, travelling from east to west, with free booze along the way.

As crates of alcohol emptied, more people filled the space.

"It was a lot of fun," said Couture, who is from Winnipeg.

He's hoping his hometown team, the Blue Bombers, will beat the Toronto Argonauts at Sunday's game.

The train has since gone, along with his youth, but it's the traditions that lure him back to the playoff game every year.

"It's the camaraderie and meeting friends from across the country," Couture said.

Couture is one of many diehard Canadian Football League fans who worry their traditions will die out as they look to younger generations to help grow the league and carry out the Grey Cup party.

"I wish more young people would get involved in the Grey Cup. The Canadian Football League really has to inspire people to support it," Couture said.

Plus, who else will teach them to pace themselves? Younger fans appear more inclined to double-fist beers and wear out their shoes to rock music during the early days of the festival — a point greying fans like to joke about.

"You can't get too far gone," said David Blackmore, a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan from London, Ont. This is his fifth Grey Cup festival.

"You want to be able to enjoy the next day and the next day and the next."

The CFL doesn't compile the average age of its fans, but it's the kind of data it wants.

"We've had team databases, and we're looking to build one CFL database for it to be housed," commissioner Randy Ambrosie said Friday.

It's part of the league's marketing and technology strategy aimed at growing the fan base. Ambrosie said other strategies include adding a 10th CFL team, switching semifinal games to Saturdays starting next year so they don't compete for TV viewership with the NFL's Sunday Night Football and connecting players with communities.

"I actually think we're doing a much better job, teams are doing a much better job, than people might think of growing that fan base, but boy are we just getting started and we need to do more of it," Ambrosie said.

Some Grey Cup Festival fans plan their whole year around the event, and they'll spend just as much time talking about ways to fix what they find is lacking.

Blackmore said halftime performers could appeal to younger people. He recommends Toronto singer The Weeknd.

"In Winnipeg, younger people are attending the games, but I'm not sure how they make that switch to Grey Cup," said Martin Shaff, who is attending his 10th Grey Cup. "Hosting the Grey Cup does a lot to turn fans onto it. It worked on me."

For Jay Diamond, who lives in Middle Park, Calif., keeping the "C" in the CFL is imperative.

"The CFL keeps changing the rules. They can't try and become the National Football League. If they become the NFL, we'll lose to the NFL," said Diamond, who is also attending his 10th Grey Cup game.

"This is a very different, more exciting game, and if they continue doing that, they're going to continue to pull more fans in."

His friend Daisy McCallum agrees. The American became a CFL fan in 2019 and this year is her second time at the Grey Cup.

"It's a nicer game. The ball travels faster. More plays happen," said McCallum, who is from San Jose, Calif. "In American football, they play to the refs."

Other fans want more pizzazz during games and would like to see several broadcasters carrying them. Others want the Grey Cup to be played in warmer weather.

On Thursday, the free outdoor festival had more staff than people, as temperatures felt like -21 C with the wind chill.

At a state of the league address, Ambrosie assured worrying fans that growing the organization is a priority.

"We want to be the funnest, fastest brand of football in the world," he said. "We should want to be the best, more entertaining product."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press