Vancouver sports teams in tough at the gate

Canucks, Lions, Giants face declining attendance while Whitecaps and Canadians beat trend

Sergei Bachlakov/Shutterstock

Putting bums in seats is an ongoing challenge for many sports franchises. Cities across North America, in sports ranging from football to baseball, have been struggling with ways to keep attendance from slipping. Some blame poor team performance for the falling numbers, others say fans are finding it more enjoyable — not to mention cost effective — to watch the action from their big-screen TVs, or even little mobile screens, at home.

Vancouver’s sports franchises are no exception. All but one has seen a drop in attendance in recent years. Below is a look at how each team has fared, and why.

(Note: All Vancouver’s sports teams report attendance as tickets sold as opposed to actual fans in seats. All attendance figures reported here are those provided by the teams).

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks reported a streak of 474 consecutive sellout games between 2002 and 2014. In the 2015-16 season, average per-game attendance was 18,431, or about 6.8% less than the 2013-14 season.

Attendance at Canucks games is down only slightly from the years of non-stop sellouts, in part because of promotions such as sliding scale pricing. That tactic, introduced in 2015, saw the team reduce prices for games where demand was lower.

Canucks’ vice-president of communications Chris Brumwell rejects suggestions that ticket sales have stalled, estimating season-ticket sales are down about 9% compared with last year and only slightly more than that compared with the 2014-15 season.

“We’re still in the top 10 in the NHL in terms of season-ticket-member health and, while our season-ticket-member base is a bit softer this year, in an interesting way, it’s given new fans a chance to attend who haven’t had a chance before,” said Brumwell.

BC Lions

The Lions have also seen declining attendance, since the high-water mark of an average of 30,356 per game in 2012. Today, fan count has dwindled to an average of a little more than 20,000 per game at B.C. Place stadium, despite a relatively good season in 2016.

“The last five years have been an anomaly for us,” said Lions’ CEO Dennis Skulsky. “After 2010, we had the big investment on upgrading the stadium so automatically you’re going to attract a certain percentage of people because it’s a new venue.”

Indeed, the team’s first game at B.C. Place, in September 2011, drew more than 50,000 fans.

Hosting the Grey Cup in 2011 and 2014 also helped the Lions’ attendance in those years because many fans would buy season tickets in order to get the perk of being eligible to buy tickets for those same seats in the championship game.

“The best marketing is winning and the second best marketing is winning. The third best marketing is exciting play,” said Skulsky.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The Whitecaps averaged slightly higher attendance than the B.C. Lions, with 20,507 tickets sold per game last year and more than 22,000 in 2016.

Jeff Mallett, who owns the team with Greg Kerfoot, Steve Nash and Stephen Luczo, sees B.C. Place as a facility with “multiple abilities to scale up.”

That compares to cities such as Portland and Kansas City, where attendance is strong, but the stadiums are near capacity with no room to add new seats.

While the Whitecaps’ operations are profitable, Mallett said the ownership group is investing “above and beyond the core business,” which means the business has so far lost money.

The biggest drain on team finances is at the University of British Columbia, where the Whitecaps train. The ownership group has partnered with UBC and the B.C. government to spend a total of $32.5 million to upgrade the National Soccer Development Centre, which has three grass and two artificial turf fields.

The team’s owners also operate a professional United Soccer League men’s Whitecaps team and a women’s team, which is not professional but feeds the Canadian national team.

Mallett previously co-founded the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2009 and is optimistic about the current National Women’s Soccer League, which is run by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

He has no immediate plans, however, to try to have his women’s team join that professional league.

“The option is in front of us if we want to add a pro team down the road,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on it.”

Vancouver Giants

It was falling attendance and a flat lease rate at the Pacific Coliseum that spurred Toigo to move the Giants to the relatively new Langley Events Centre earlier this year.

The Giants steadily drew an average of more than 8,000 fans per game at the Coliseum up to the 2010 season, when the team was winning. But as the team’s percentage of wins dropped, so too did attendance, to an average of around 5,000 fans.

At the 5,200-set venue in Langley, Toigo has a sliding lease rate. If attendance fades, the team pays less rent.

Vancouver Canadians

While other Vancouver teams are losing attendance, the Vancouver Canadians are seeing a steady increase — and regularly selling out its Nat Bailey Stadium venue.

The Single A Northwest League baseball team has increased attendance each year since 2006, which was a year before it was bought by Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney.

The team averaged a record 6,177 fans for each of its 36 home games in 2016.

“We ranked No. 19 or 20 in attendance out of about 160 teams in North America for all of the minor baseball leagues – that’s Single A, Double A or Triple A,” said Kerr.

But it’s not just the competition that’s driving fans to the ballpark. An exit survey Kerr commissioned showed 60% of attendees didn’t know who won the game. They came to enjoy the atmosphere, including the entertainment that includes races between sushi-themed mascots Ms. B.C. Roll, Mr. Kappa Maki and the sinister Chef Wasabi.

Groundskeepers who dance between innings are so popular that they are emblazoned on T-shirts for sale in the stadium.

Despite the success, Kerr has no plans to move up the baseball hierarchy to be a Triple A team because that would require playing as early as April and as late as October which, in Vancouver, would mean plenty of rainy weather.

“Most Triple A teams that were ever in Vancouver lost their shirt in the first two months and then spent all summer trying to make it back,” he said. “We have a nice model right now where we’re really family entertainment at a reasonable price.”