Sports participation in Canada: How does it impact sponsorship?

Adam Mitchell
  • June 16, 2023
  • Adam Mitchell
Photo by Steven Abraham on Unsplash
Only 61% of Canadians participate in sports, and the sports may surprise you.

There’s been growing chatter of changes in sport participation levels, and the evolution of sports that Canadians actively participate in. The pandemic certainly impacted indoor, team-based sports - and drove some to explore outdoor, socially-distanced alternatives - but how much has participation in sport changed overall since pre-pandemic levels?

Here's why it matters:

  • A healthy society:

    It goes without saying, sport participation is an important indicator of a healthy society for its physical, psychological, and interpersonal benefits. How are we trending coming out the other side of the pandemic?

  • Immigration growth:

    Canada’s economic growth is driven by immigration, and the federal government has committed to increase its target to 400,000+ immigration admissions per year through to 2024. How have (and how will) interests and passions change?

  • Momentum swings:

    The composition of sport participation over time can be telling of how society is evolving and where interest may be growing, waning, or stagnant. Where should government, sport federations / leagues / teams, and marketers focus?

  • The 'Pickleball Effect':

    New sports, or hobbies-turned-pro-sport, are seemingly storming onto the scene and getting a disproportionate amount of hype in the sponsorship industry. How many Canadians actually participate in these hyped up sports?

  • Sport Participation vs. Sponsorship:

    Although there isn’t a direct correlation between sport participation and the strength of sport sponsorship properties in Canada, there are certainly some interesting indicators that highlight a relationship worth being aware of. 

Here's what's actually happening:

🏅Sport participation in Canada rose modestly from pre to post-pandemic

Canadian participation in sport grew modestly at ~1% per year from 2019 to 2022. In 2022, 61% of Canadians aged 13-64 actively participated in at least one sport. The good news is that we're trending upward, but the scary news is that leaves 39% of the population relatively inactive. Through our ongoing tracking of participation in sport, we’ve broken down who’s up, who’s down, who’s new, and who to keep an eye on in 2023 and beyond. We've used the absolute population participation change to identify the biggest swings.

Canadian's Sport Participation Growth

📈 Who’s up?

🏀 Basketball (+0.52M people active):

Basketball continues to grow across the nation with solid Canadian performances across the men’s and women’s national teams, the arrival of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, and star power through the likes of Kia Nurse, RJ Barrett, Andrew Wiggins, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, just to name a few. If ticket sales of the first ever pre-season WNBA game to be hosted in Canada are any indication, I'd say there's more fuel coming to the sport.

⚽ Soccer (+0.34M people active):

Soccer has never been more front and centre in Canada. Unfortunately, that's true for both positive and negative reasons. The Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was one that rallied the nation, while the Women’s National Team continues its fight for equality on the road to the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup beginning, July 20, 2023. The Canadian Premier League continues its plans to expand the league, while the launch of a domestic female professional soccer league is taking shape through Project8. With Canada playing co-host to the 2026 FIFA World Cup, there's reason to believe that soccer will continue its upward trajectory.

Top 10 Sports Canada

📉 Who’s down?

🏒 Hockey (-0.55M people active):

Hockey saw the largest decrease in absolute participation from 2019 to 2022. The NHL is humming along as the top sponsorship property in the country, with some Canadian teams in contention for the Stanley Cup; one drawing global celebrity attention (we see you Ryan Reynolds👀); and a few others vying for the Connor Bedard lottery. That said, could this dip in participation be a sign of Canadians growing tired of major lapses in judgment and leadership within Canada's hockey system at all levels? Or, maybe a sign of deeper shifting interests to more financially accessible sports? Perhaps both. This is one we'll be keeping a close pulse on.

⚾ Baseball (-0.42M people active): 

Whether you're playing or watching baseball, it can be quite the time commitment. Although it offers participants an opportunity to connect in a team environment, a game doesn't guarantee much in the way of physical activity (this may just be me). Are Canadians opting for more guaranteed physical activity in hopes of breaking a sweat? We'll see if the rule changes to accelerate the pace of play at the league level will reignite interest with participants of the sport.

🌟 Who’s new?

🥒 Pickleball (0.71M and new to our tracking in 2022):

I'm a pickleballer (that's a word, right?) and love the sport, but the hype and attention that it's getting across the sponsorship landscape is reminiscent of the dawn of esports – ‘a new Olympic sport’, ‘celebrity investors’, ‘new facilities being built’... The number of people who participate in the sport is significant, but it's too early to tell if it'll continue on this growth trajectory, and certainy early to call it a major sponsorship opportunity. It can be great to get in early, but be ready for the inevitable ups and downs.

💿 Disc Golf (0.46M and new to our tracking in 2022):

It may come as a surprise (it certainly did to me) that Canada is ranked the 3rd best country in the world for Disc Golf, and that we have over 700 Disc Golf courses from coast-to-coast. The professional side of the sport continues to expand its exposure and sponsorship portfolio, but has a ways to go to become mainstream.

Bottom 3 sports in Canada

👀 Others to keep your eye on

🎾 Tennis (2.4M total and +0.1M people active):

Canadian content in tennis has been gaining momentum for some time. Individual performances by Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Leylah Fernandez, and Bianca Andreescu have built great profile for the sport, inspiring young canadians, and attracting brand partnerships. On the court, Canada claimed its first ever Davis Cup title in November, while off the court Felix was among the stars featured in Netflix's 'Breakpoint'. We'll see if performance and exposure drive greater interest.

🏏Cricket (0.55M total and flat vs. 2019): 

Have you watched 'The Test' on Amazon Prime? I’m still not confident I fully understand the sport, but it was a hell of a watch and fascinating to learn. I was surprised to see that participation in cricket has been flat over the past 4 years, but this is likely fuel for major projects being proposed that will drive greater access to the sport, like the potential new world class cricket facility in Brampton, Ontario.

Opportunities revealed

Beyond the changes we’ve seen over the past four years, 39% of Canadians, or just under 10 million people between the ages of 13-64, don't identify as participating in any of the 23 sports or activities measured. That's a big opportunity to drive meaningful change.

Improving access to sport facilities (Kraft Hockeyville), promoting healthy active living (ParticipACTION Commnunity Better Challenge), and funding athlete development (RBC Training Ground) are a few successful examples that provide a blueprint for community and brand impact. The evolution of the sport participation landscape highlights many opportunities to reach, connect with, and add value to Canadians, and we'll continue tracking how this evolves.

All data presented was collected by SponsorPulse between 2019-2022, based on a sample of 10,035 Canadians aged 13-64. All respondents were asked the following question: Which, if any, of the following sports do you participate in? They were provided a list of 23 sports to select one or more responses to, and a selection of None of the above. Populations have been estimated based on Statistics Canada Population (ages 13-64).