Scott Stewart
Scott Stewart is the Associate Director for Mintel's Lifestyles & Retail Reports.

The 2022 baseball season kicks off today and fans across the country are looking forward to Canada’s only MLB team, the Toronto Blue Jays, contending for a championship. But Canadians have a unique relationship with baseball that brands may be aware of, one that is important to acknowledge. Namely, MLB fandom is very casual in Canada.

For every die-hard MLB fan, there are two casual fans

According to the research from Mintel Reports Canada the modern sports fan report, 22% of Canadians say they are baseball fans. However, only 8% consider themselves die-hard MLB fans. When looking specifically at MLB fans, around three in 10 are die-hard while the other seven in 10 are casual; in comparison, the NHL’s fan base is split nearly 50/50 between die-hard and casual fans.

The casual nature of baseball fandom in Canada is a function of the sport itself. The majority of the season takes place during the summer when consumers are spending more time away from their TVs. A near-daily 162 game schedule dilutes the importance of each game in comparison to other sports, making it less ‘must-see TV’ than the NHL, NBA, CFL or NFL. And the slower pace of play of baseball makes it a naturally casual spectator sport compared to the higher intensity of hockey, basketball and football.

That said, the question is: How does the MLB grow in this country with such a casual fan base?

The boys of summer

It is important for brands looking to capitalise on baseball to pinpoint its best opportunity to succeed in the Canadian sports market. Four in five baseball fans are hockey fans; half are basketball fans and a similar proportion follow football. That means there is a small window of opportunity each year when baseball faces minimal competition from the other sports its fans follow. Depending on the performance of Canadian teams in the NBA and NHL, the MLB’s only competition from May/June until September is the CFL – a one-game-per-week league with waning relevance in many parts of the country.

Among the “big four” North American leagues – the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB – baseball is the only one with such an exclusive window each year. Sports fans have few options other than baseball during the summer months. On one hand, that partly explains the casual nature of their fandom – since many follow it as a secondary sport during their favourite sport’s offseason; on the other hand, it creates a unique opportunity to capitalize with those casual fans.

What we think

The MLB will struggle to create die-hard fans in Canada making it difficult for brands to leverage the sport to generate connection and engagement. Hockey has deep roots in this country’s sports landscape, while basketball and soccer are growing in popularity, making for a more competitive market. Instead of chasing those die-hard fans, the MLB should take advantage of its position as a casual sport – especially during its exclusive summer window.

That means connecting with the modern sports fan. Canada is becoming increasingly diverse, meaning legacy leagues like MLB – and, in turn, their brand partners – need to target young, multicultural consumer groups. One way to do so is by converting bandwagon fans to casual fans; the anticipated success of the Toronto Blue Jays this season creates a rare opportunity to build off of the energy of bandwagon fans in the same way that the Toronto Raptors did on their championship run in 2019.

Greater attention should be paid to digital platforms like YouTube and Instagram to make it easier for the casual fan to stay connected. Furthermore, young, diverse sports fans are particularly interested in learning more about players’ personalities. Baseball is uniquely well-positioned to cater to that interest since the sport lends itself to seeing those personalities on full display throughout the game – such as cameras in the dugout and a pace of play that allows for mid-game interviews.

Source: Toronto Blue Jays via Instagram

Of course, that pace of play is also a challenge for the sport to overcome. According to ESPN, the average 2021 MLB game was three hours and ten minutes long. In the long term, the league will benefit from finding ways to shorten the length of a game to make it easier for the casual fan to fit it into their daily lives. And while the 2022 season was mostly saved from a labour stoppage – the start of the season was slightly delayed due to a lockout that was not settled until March – any future labour-related interruptions would be a threat to attracting more fans, especially those younger potential fans. 

By making casual fan base growth the primary objective, MLB can focus its attention on its most realistic path to success. And by targeting short-term initiatives – like converting bandwagon fans and connecting with young, diverse Canadians via social media – as well as longer-term plans (e.g. shorter game times) the league can position itself to be the casual sport of choice for the modern Canadian fan.