The origins and experiences of the Canadian NFL fan

The origins and experiences of the Canadian NFL fan
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In Canada, being an NFL fan doesn’t happen by accident and it’s not inherited. It’s a conscious and intensely personal choice.

In a muggy Ontario summer, I was working a landscaping job when one of my coworkers told the crew that he was ready to take the leap, that first step every burgeoning Canadian NFL fan needs to take.

In between shovelfuls of soil, he said to us, “I need to pick my favorite team.”

The established NFL fans on the crew started making their cases, hoping to recruit a fellow Canadian to their favorite team’s fan base. The Indianapolis Colts’ fan of the bunch sold a talented roster with a bright future. The Philadelphia Eagles’ fan, fresh off a Super Bowl win, let the team’s recent success do the talking, and I, a downtrodden Atlanta Falcons’ supporter, half-heartedly outlined reasons why the broken Falcons would bounce back in the upcoming season.

Eventually, he wrote down a handful of teams, threw them in a hat, and blindly chose where his loyalty would lie. He reached in and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. The New Orleans Saints.
He began that day as an NFL agnostic. Now, he asks “Who dat?,” waxes poetic about the energy on Bourbon Street, and will make an impassioned case for Drew Brees as the GOAT. Such is the ethereal life of a Canadian NFL fan.

In Canada, the NFL is second only to the NHL in terms of popularity amongst professional sports leagues and yet, unlike the rest of the Big Four – the NBA, the MLB, the NFL, and the NHL — the NFL does not have a Canadian franchise. Southern Ontarians may make the case for the Buffalo Bills as the “hometown team,” much like those in British Columbia might do for the Seattle Seahawks, but it is a loose connection, recognized by only a handful of Canadian fans.

The bulk of fans north of the border establish their fandom in their own, personal manner. Any of the NFL teams are up for grabs. If you waltzed into a Canadian sports bar before the pandemic, you could ask 32 fans their favorite team and get 32 different answers (except maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars. To this day, I have never met a Jags fan).

How do Canadian NFL fans find their favorite teams?

That being said, the typical story is less, well, randomized than literally picking blindly.
Patrick O’Brien, 23, of Oakville, Ontario started watching the NFL in 2011. When looking to establish his fandom, his first goal was separating himself from his dad’s favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys. You’ll find in talking to Canadians that virtually every fan over the age of 40 roots for, ironically enough, America’s Team or the Pittsburgh Steelers, no doubt a result of their historical success. Their children, however, often look to carve out their own path in fandom.

Although this was far from a bandwagon pick by O’Brien, he showed a knack for excellent timing, choosing the Seattle Seahawks the year before they drafted Russell Wilson, one of the few quarterbacks in the NFL who guarantees a baseline of competency for their team. When talking about the early stages of his support for the Seahawks, he recalls a delightfully mediocre team, with the late Tavares Jackson at quarterback.

Since joining the 12th Man, he has made the pilgrimage to Seattle three times, all to watch his favorite team play. Football was the clear focus of the first trip and O’Brien admits to knowing very little about the city prior to the trip. Upon arriving, however, that was quick to change. The laid-back feel of Seattle as well as the progressive atmosphere created a sense of familiarity for him.

“I love the city of Seattle,” he says, “It has a cool vibe to it. To me, it feels like a part of Canada.”
He was also quick to offer up tips on the “overrated” Space Needle and has gotten caught up in Seattle’s vibrant music scene, citing not only the grunge-era groups like Soundgarden and Nirvana, but also taking it even further back to Heart and Jimi Hendrix when discussing the city’s culture. A Montreal Canadiens fan, O’Brien even mentioned he would have a hard time not supporting the Seattle Kraken, the city’s new NHL team.

Now, an obvious question when discussing Canadian NFL fandom is – what about the Canadian Football League?

Photo by John E. Sokolowski/Getty Images

Jake Sudac, a retired father of three, notes that his love for football started with the CFL, but bizarre decision-making by the league drove him away. Starting in the 1950s, the CFL blacked out the local team’s home games from television in a misguided effort to drive gate revenue. For a kid like Jake Sudac in the early 1970s, who didn’t have the money for tickets, the solution was obvious. He would turn his attention south, as so many did, to a more polished product in the NFL. The CFL missed that opportunity to establish their fanbase, which is at least partially responsible for the NFL’s dominance in Canada.

Sudac did not hesitate for a second when asked what drove him, from that point, to root for the Miami Dolphins.

“Christmas day, 1971,” he said definitively. “That hooked me to be a Dolphins fan.”

He then went on, quite impressively, to list off details about the now-famous game between Miami and the Kansas City Chiefs on that day; that it went to double-overtime, that it was the longest game in history, and that players like Bob Griese and Larry Csonka caught his eye. Of course, the Dolphins had to win the game to secure his fandom. If not, perhaps Sudac would be enjoying the prime of Patrick Mahomes right now as a Chiefs fan.

Where he and O’Brien differ, however, is in their relationship with their team’s host city. Whereas O’Brien knew very little beforehand about Seattle, the reputation of Miami as a vacation destination preceded it for Sudac. As a result, Miami isn’t necessarily a special city in his heart. He looks at the Dolphins and the city of Miami as two separate entities.

In no way, however, does that diminish his fandom. With specific detail, he recalls the legendary hook and ladder that the Dolphins ran against the San Diego Chargers in the playoff game. You can hear the pain in his voice when he talks about Dan Marino’s career, referencing both the lone Super Bowl that the famous quarterback made where he was stymied by the 49ers and the Achilles tear that effectively ended the prime of his career.

Like both Sudac and O’Brien, Liam Whalen-Browne, a 26-year-old med student from Eastern Ontario, reached the point where a decision had to be made and like those two, it was one game that he considered a turning point in his fandom.

On vacation with his family in San Francisco in 2011, Whalen-Browne attended what was an inconsequential Week 17 game between two non-playoff teams in the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park. From that point, his mind had been made up.

“I was liking football more and more and I needed to pick a team, so I went with the 49ers,” Whalen-Browne said, “It was somewhat arbitrary.”

Arbitrary or not, Whalen-Browne has not wavered on his favorite team.

He speaks glowingly about the start of the Jim Harbaugh era, singling out NaVarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, San Francisco’s star linebackers of the early 2010s, as favorites. He maintains, as is custom for a 49ers fan, that San Francisco would have won a Super Bowl in 2013 if only there were a few more minutes on the clock, lamenting the fact that the consistently mediocre Joe Flacco turned into Joe Montana for that playoff run. Whalen-Browne said that it was much easier to stomach a Super Bowl loss to the supernova Patrick Mahomes than it was against Flacco and the Ravens. Although the game was a disappointment, he joyfully recalls skiing in a red No. 52 Patrick Willis jersey the day before that Ravens-49ers Super Bowl occurred, in a simply stunning clash of Canadianism and NFL fandom.

When asked about his connection to the city, Whalen-Browne notes that the 49ers moving to play in Santa Clara has blurred the idea of the team being inextricably tied to San Francisco, but makes sure to note that “San Francisco will always have a place in my heart.”

Although each fan I spoke to has their own unique journey, there are some clear connections between all of their stories. They all remembered precise details about the early stages of their fandom, each citing the exact moments and reasons for their rooting interests. A New England Patriots fan who was born and raised in Massachusetts, for example, would have a harder time pointing to an exact moment their fandom began. They would come from a family of Patriots fans, be surrounded by friends who are Patriots fans, and be told by both local radio and television to root for the Patriots, making that fandom all they knew.

North of the 49th parallel, fans have origin stories. They have distinctive, personal moments when their loyalties became clear.

On the topic of loyalty, it would seem as if it would be easy for these fans to flip-flop whimsically, electing for the flavor of the month over longstanding loyalty. Based on an admittedly small sample, that is not the case. When I asked if they’d ever thought of rooting for another team, none of the fans that I spoke to hesitated. They are stuck with these teams, in times good or bad. Considering another team is not an option.

Just as their geographical location doesn’t diminish their loyalty, it also doesn’t hinder their knowledge of the team. The way these fans analyzed their squads and reminisced on specific moments, it was clear that they were as much of a fan as any local supporter. Stick Patrick in a Seattle coffee shop, Liam in a San Francisco restaurant, or Jake in a Miami bar and have them talk about the local football team. The only thing that would betray their nationality is the way they said “out” or “about.”

Since Canadian NFL fandom is a choice, and a lifelong one, it is pure and uniquely personal to those who embark on these relationships. It is the difference between choosing your partner and entering into an arranged marriage. It becomes part of these fans, a piece of their character that they hold dearly.

The way that relationship with the city itself plays out varies. In the case of Patrick, he’s established a real connection with Seattle, whereas Jake’s bond with the Dolphins does not extend to the city of Miami. Liam falls somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the case, Canadian NFL fandom is a fascinating phenomenon. Regional ties do not form the basis for it. Rather, an intensely personal connection is at the heart of these fans and their story, manifesting in unique ways. Whether their journey started by pulling a name out of a hat or watching a historically great game, it is always a memorable one for the Canadian NFL fan.