Among many factors, cost could be the biggest player in Canada’s evolving sports culture

CARLO JAVIER // Editor-in-Chief

Hockey and lacrosse will forever be ingrained in the very fabric of the Canadian identity. That much is clear. In 1994, the two sports were officially recognized by the National Sports of Canada Act as the country’s national winter (hockey) and summer (lacrosse) sports. Though legislation is meaningful, it was not like Canada needed a ratified document to show the significance of hockey and lacrosse in Canadian society. Especially hockey, considering that “Canada is hockey” is one of the foremost axioms that take the spotlight during the Winter Olympics and the NHL Playoffs. The times however, as Bob Dylan famously sang, are a-changin’.

Throughout the past decade, CBC News, Global News, VICE and Statistics Canada all conducted their respective research that revealed a sea of change that may be a tough pill for many Canadians to swallow. Soccer and swimming have surpassed hockey as the most popular sports for Canadian children to participate in, with basketball and baseball not too far behind. While multiculturalism and increased diversity certainly have a role to play in the rise of other sports, there is one simpler factor that is boosting participation for other activities: cost.

Since its inception in 1966, Sport BC has been the champion of amateur sports in BC representing over 50 sports organizations across the province. In 1993, Sport BC launched KidSport, a not-for-profit that works towards providing financial assistance to families who do not have the means to send their children to pursue their respective sports of choice. The idea was to address the rising costs of sports, while also supporting member organizations such as Basketball BC, Volleyball BC and the BC Amateur Hockey Association. Through the years, KidSport has grown leaps and bounds, even expanding to the national scale – but so has the cost of sports.

“Our childhood poverty rates continue to grow, certainly in BC, we’re among probably one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the country and the cost of sport is increasing at the same time,” said Pete Quevillon, director of KidSport BC.

The 2010 census conducted by Statistics Canada found that 42 per of children between the ages of five and 14 were found to be actively participating in soccer. Numbers nearly double those of the next most popular sport, swimming, which clocked in at 24 per cent. Ice hockey came in third with 22 per cent of the participants, followed by basketball at 16 per cent and baseball at 14 per cent. The remaining participant numbers were split near evenly among volleyball, gymnastics, figure skating, karate and downhill skiing.

Three years later, the CBC boldly announced that hockey was no longer Canada’s most popular sport to participate in, even among adults, stating that 5.2 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 played golf, compared to the 4.4 per cent that played ice hockey.

This past Fall, Global News also took a stab at unpacking the state of youth sports and other extracurricular activities in Canada. According to the Ipsos research that Global commissioned, 15 per cent of Canadian parents surveyed said that they plan on registering their children to play hockey, while 25 per cent opted for soccer and a whopping 40 per cent of respondents picked swimming.

“[Cost] has certainly played a part in it,” said Quevillon. “We’re a very different country than we were 30 years ago. The passion for the game is perhaps not as great in new Canadians and that’s an area that hockey is working on developing and the fact that it’s a long commitment, to run from September to March or April, for a lot of families, that length of time to commit to a sport is a challenge.”

Per CBC, the average cost of the equipment alone for junior level hockey stands at $740 per child. This includes the helmet, gloves, protective padding, apparel, hockey stick and skates. In comparison, basketball equipment costs an average of $310, while soccer comes in even lower at $160.

Beyond equipment and registration fees, there are also costs that come with playing the sport. According to Quevillon most of the sporting infrastructure is operated at the municipal level, and while municipalities offer subsidized rates for the use of their facilities, there are still other costs to consider. “So, your rinks and pools and fields are municipally-run facilities and there’s a cost to obviously keeping those up and maintaining them and making them available,” he said. Quevillon also noted that the costs of equipment, officials, uniforms and coaching, are also all on the rise.

The price to play may be the driving factor in the rising popularity of sports other than the national ones, but there is another significant element in the shift in Canada’s sport culture. The game is not the only thing that’s changing – the players are, too. For Quevillon, Canada’s increased diversity cannot be ignored when investigating the rise of sports such as basketball and soccer. “Basketball has become a much more popular sport in terms of grassroots participation,” he said.

Although Quevillon credits the Toronto Raptors for spearheading the popularity of basketball among Canadians, he also cites logistical details about the sport as integral factors. “I think that the game itself is much cheaper to play, it’s much more global in nature, there’s a lot more countries in the world that play basketball and play soccer extensively than there are that play hockey.”

Illustration by Ashley Visvanathan

Long before Jennafer Palma could win a Pacific Western Athletic Association (PACWEST) championship with the Capilano University Blues women’s basketball team, she had to first win a spot just to get on the court. “It was really hard for my parents to find me a camp or a team to be on because there was actually nothing provided for girls, only boys,” said the 2016 graduate of CapU’s Bachelor of Business Administration program. “My parents actually fought to put me on a boys’ team and I played with them for a year.”

Palma first picked up a basketball in the first grade. She often found herself staying around school after classes to wait for her older brother’s basketball practices to finish. Soon, she picked up a ball and started to copy some of their moves. After competing with the boys’ team of RBL Basketball (originally known as ‘Real Basketball League’), Palma found her way in camps like the Triple Threat Basketball Training Academy in Vancouver, as well as the varsity team of the Notre Dame Regional Secondary School.

The extensive training proved to be worthwhile, as she soon found herself becoming a key player for the Blues women’s basketball team. Her PACWEST career however, almost came to an unceremonious end after she tore both her ACL and the MCL in her right knee towards the latter part of her time with the Blues. Although she was able to claim a redshirt year and preserve one more year of eligibility, Palma ultimately re-aggravated the same injury going into her final year, forcing her to play with a brace the entire season.

Palma may have experienced the peak of competition during her time in the PACWEST, but it’s the contributions she’s made outside the game that truly resonates. In 2013, inspired by her start with a boys’ basketball team, Palma launched Jalma Ball Sports Club, an affordable basketball program that helps train and develop young girls in East Vancouver. However, this past year, Palma completely changed the operation of Jalma Ball.

“I did a 180 and I actually changed it into a sponsoring foundation.” Like many other independent sporting camps in the Lower Mainland, cost was a major element in driving the change. “As a coach, if I want to take time on the side to help a player, the biggest cost is a gym,” said Palma. As an alumna of Notre Dame, Palma also receives a subsidized rate for the school gym, but even a per-hour fee that ranges between $50 and $60 is a luxury that not many independent coaches have. “You can’t even get anything done in an hour,” she said.

Another factor leading to the change was the auxiliary costs that come with any sport. “Some of the girls I coach at Notre Dame, they’re still wearing shoes that they wore three years ago, and those are run down and they’re probably going to hurt themselves in those shoes and that’s because they can’t afford them,” said Palma. Recently, Palma had a player who faced that very issue, and instead of concentrating her efforts on finding clientele to run another camp, she instead led a sponsorship campaign for the player. “We raised enough funds to buy her two ankle braces and a new pair of basketball shoes,” she said.

Though the cost of sports can be a debilitating financial crunch, the value they provide can be immeasurable. This particular reason is why Quevillon and the rest of those involved at KidSport and Sport BC strive to help alleviate the oft-unforgiving state of sports in BC and the rest of the country. “What’s important to remember is that not very many kids that play sports or that we help are going to become Olympians or pros, but they’re going to learn some valuable lessons playing sports, hopefully it becomes a lifelong habit for them,” said Quevillon. “I think every kid should have that opportunity.”

Noam Chomsky once argued that the intrinsic social role of sports is to distract and divert the masses’ attention from the far more important worldly affairs. The noted “father of modern linguistics” argued in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media that sports, especially competitive ones, incubate “irrational competition,” “irrational loyalty to power systems” and “passive acquiescence to quite awful values.”

While Chomsky’s critique certainly stands on strong grounds, what he fails to recognize is the value of sports to those who do not have the privilege of choice. Yes, sports do distract and do offer a way to escape, but for some, sports can be the only way out. It is a universal language that can bond people of varying backgrounds, beliefs and orientations together. All of Canada saw this beauty at its apex form on Feb. 28, 2010, when “the golden goal” struck the back of the net.

Canada’s sports culture may be experiencing the (very) early stages of a paradigm shift, but a sense of certainty lies in the fact that at the end of the day, sports do, and will continue to matter for many Canadians.

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