Opinion: Why the CFL's Grey Cup rodeo is a huge marketing blunder

Sep 23 2019, 12:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Peter Fricker, Communications Director of the Vancouver Humane Society.

The Canadian Football League’s decision to hold a rodeo as part of this year’s Grey Cup festivities is a marketing blunder that not only ignores public concerns about animal welfare but also tarnishes the CFL’s brand by linking it to rodeo’s narrow cultural appeal.

Sure, rodeo is popular in Calgary, this year’s Grey Cup host, but polling shows a majority of Canadians (63%) are opposed to rodeo, with opposition higher in B.C. (66%), Ontario (68%) and Quebec (70%).


Chuckwagon races (Calgarystampede/Instagram)

Six horses died at this year’s Calgary Stampede, sparking a public outcry and increasing the animal death toll at the Stampede to more than 100 since 1986.

Not only are most Canadians opposed to rodeos, but so are virtually all animal welfare organizations. Humane Canada, which represents most SPCAs and humane societies in the country, has stated that it is “opposed in principle to rodeo and is working towards the ultimate abolition of this activity.” The same is true outside Canada, with the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa taking positions against rodeos. Even the Calgary Humane Society says that it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events.”

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There is good reason to be concerned about the treatment of rodeo animals. The bucking bulls and horses that are slated to appear at the Grey Cup rodeo will be deliberately subjected to fear and stress to make them perform.  Flank straps will be cinched tight around their hindquarters to induce bucking as they are coerced into the arena with unwanted riders on their backs, using spurs to grip the animals’ hides.

rodeo fun

Bull riding competition/Jim Parkin/Shutterstock

The bucking is a prey animal’s response to a perceived predator attack, as it seeks to dislodge the rider and stop the stress caused by the flank strap. In bulls, aggression is triggered, as can be seen when they sometimes charge bucked-off riders on the ground.

All of this amounts to tormenting animals for the sake of human amusement. It’s the equivalent of poking a stick at a caged tiger or bear at a zoo and calling their reactions entertainment. It’s unethical, uncivilized and un-Canadian.

grey cup

Image: Grey Cup Festival / Facebook

The CFL might also want to consider how rodeo’s image fits with an iconic Canadian event like the Grey Cup or with the league’s own brand and values.

In recent years, there has been discussion about declining interest in the CFL, especially in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver markets, where populations are increasingly diverse.  To its credit, the league launched a “Diversity is Strength” campaign in 2017, recognizing Canada’s changing values and demographics.

But the CFL’s efforts to broaden its appeal pale in comparison to the outreach and marketing of the National Basketball Association and, especially, of the Toronto Raptors.  The recent bold decision by the Raptors to launch new line of team-branded hijabs, part of a broader effort to be more inclusive to fans of all cultures, is an instructive example.


But rodeo, which the CFL is now making part of its most high-profile event, has an image that comes nowhere near the modern, diverse Canada that the Raptors have successfully tapped into. To be blunt, rodeo reflects the values of 1950s America more than those of 21st Century Canada.

Rodeo’s image has also been marked by controversy. In 2013, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair infamously donned a Barack Obama mask, taunting a bull as an announcer on loudspeaker shouted “We’re going to stomp Obama now” to a cheering crowd.  A tourist attending the event likened the atmosphere to a “Klan rally.”

Chilliwack Rodeo / Vancouver Humane Society

Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo / Vancouver Humane Society

Last year, an anti-rodeo protest in Chilliwack, B.C. was cancelled because of threats of violence and a counter-demonstration by the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group. In 2013, a rodeo fan at B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo was caught on video engaging in a racist rant.

In 2015, the Calgary Stampede had to crack down on the sale of Confederate flag belt buckles and licence plates. Disappointed vendors said the Confederate flag design was a “good seller.”

Headlines about such incidents only add to the negative brand values engendered by animal welfare controversies that plague rodeos.

Canadians value compassion, kindness and empathy – toward animals and people. When Canadian figure skater Keegan Messing recently unfurled the flag of Japan to honour his competitor at a medal award ceremony, he made headlines while making his country proud. What other nation celebrates its patriotism by valuing others? That’s the culture Canada’s sports leagues would be wise to incorporate into their brands.

The Canadian Football League, if it really thinks diversity is strength, should follow the NBA’s example and reach out to a broad audience that represents Canada’s future. The last thing it should be doing is associating itself with events that represent our inhumanity to animals and that harken back to a narrow culture that most Canadians have little interest in.

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