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Canadians Losing Interest in Hockey: Report

According to a report by Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, interest in the National Hockey League has dropped off among Canadians.  In an Edmonton Journal article this morning, Bibby says 'his findings debunk the myth of "hockey-mad" Canadians, and call into question the game's endurance as our national winter sport.'

My favorite quote:

"It's one of the few Canadian myths we have, this alleged (nationwide) love of hockey," says Bibby. "So, these results will annoy some people, and initially we'll see some questioning of reality."

Well now, I wouldn't want to be one to question reality, but it seems to me that Bibby's making statements that aren't supported by his findings.  His numbers are as follows:

  • Between 1990 and 2005, the percentage of adults who "very" or "fairly" closely followed the NHL dropped from 36% to 30%
  • Between 1992 and 2008, the percentage of teenagers who were fans fell from 45% to 35%
  • In the 2008 study, country of origin played a strong role in who followed the game.  Hockey fans made up 40% of children of Canadian-born parents, 33% of children who were Canadian-born but had one (or more) immigrant parents, and just 20% of children born outside the country.

The immigrant factor in particular is one worth looking at.  The percentage of Canadians who were foreign-born has increased dramatically over the years Bibby compares; in 1991 immigrants represented 16.1% of the population while in 2006 that number had increased to 19.8% - a 3.7% shift; or just under two-thirds of the drop in hockey interest between 1990 and 2005 (which, combined with the 3% margin of error, 19 times out of 20, puts the drop nicely in the irrelevant zone)  A new immigrant coming to Canada likely will never have been exposed to hockey to the degree that he would be in Canada, and naturally cannot be expected to have the same affinity for it as a natural-born Canadian.  The teen study strongly hints at this - taking some liberties with the numbers, it would seem that a recent immigrant (a teen born outside the country) has a 20% chance of being a hockey fan, while his children would have a 33% chance, and his grandchildren a 40% chance.

In other words, for Bibby's prediction about the demise of the sport to come true, he would need either a) a continual sharp increase in the total percentage of the population made up of immigrants or b) a lack of assimilation on both immigrants and their children and their grandchildren.  Neither seems likely, at least not in the numbers required to make his conclusions accurate.  In point of fact, Bibby explicitly argued against (b) back in March of 2008.

It's also rather interesting that Bibby calls Canada's love of hockey a "myth" and says that his findings "call into question the game's endurance as our national winter sport."  I call it interesting because Bibby's primary field of study is actually religious data.  Last year, Bibby talked about how organized religion in Canada has known "relative health" based on data showing weekly/monthly attendance in the 25/34 percent range.  How organized religion can be healthy with 25% weekly attendance while hockey can have it's endurance as Canada's national winter sport questioned with 30% of the population either very or fairly closely following it is beyond me.

It's also interesting to note that this supposed decline of the sport has not been a straight line.  Bibby acknowledges on his blog that in 1995 the number increased to 38% (he acknowledges this while complaining that hockey has morphed from a seasonal to a year-round sport) - numbers that would seem to support the point of view that hockey will experience an ebb-and-flow in interest based on any number of factors (like any other complex system, for that matter - body temperature constantly fluctuates, stock prices bounce up and down from hour to hour, etc.).

In other words, I think a lot of Bibby's findings can be rather easily explained away, and I find it rather more likely that his conclusions about the demise of the sport stem from either a) personal feeling or b) the desire to generate some publicity for his work.  Regardless, the data certainly isn't firm enough for the sweeping generalizations that he makes.