Our major-league sports teams – if not vital indices in our economy, then barometers of our city’s mood – have rarely been so collectively forlorn and at a crossroads. Worry, we should.
On paper, they are not businesses in strife – at least, not imminently. On the ice and fields, though, it’s another matter, which suggests their economic impact on our region risks decline.
If nothing else, they have existential decisions that will determine their medium- and long-term economic destinies.
Let’s start with the Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Whitecaps, the franchise most on the ascent of the three top Vancouver teams. The Whitecaps have chosen the long, slow route to competitiveness primarily by developing players in their system and scouting bargains in out-of-the-way places.
Other teams have written large cheques to bring aging players to North America from more prominent leagues abroad, but not the Whitecaps. Their consistent approach has brought them up the ladder to the playoffs, but not far into them, and their season to date suggests their claim to the post-season will be tepid and not feature a home game.
The pending transfer after the season to Bayern Munich of their emerging marquee player, the 17-year-old Canadian Alphonso Davies, is touted as a watershed moment for MLS because of the record US$13.5 million transfer fee. While the Whitecaps have pledged to take the fee and plough it into the product instead of back to the investors, they are staying the course with player development instead of plucking a couple of stars for a couple of years to make the team elite.
The disquiet in the fan base is palpable now. The novelty of the team at BC Place is wearing thin. The vibe is a lot more dependent on success than it was two or three years ago. The expectation is getting beyond what the team appears able to deliver. Once it loses Davies, one wonders what the next act portends.
In the same half-filled stadium are the BC Lions, and while the Whitecaps are drawing healthy crowds, there is no fooling anyone about the Lions’ struggle to attract.
The new president, Rick LeLacheur, arrived from well-attended Edmonton, and he talks about only one priority: “Bums in seats.” Trouble is, the product is not what consumers expected. The defence is more porous than anticipated, and the starting quarterback is Travis Lulay, who many thought might have retired following his season-ending knee injury last season – mainly because Jonathan Jennings was wrongly deemed ready.
The team now pins its prospects on Lulay to return them to the playoffs after it missed them last season for the first time in 21 years, but even playoff contention doesn’t necessarily guarantee a crowd.
Ticket prices in the prime sections are out of a family’s reach, so the team has been shrewd in reconnecting with community groups and minor football to try to fill the ends of the stadium. But there are many bald patches in the lower bowl, and this is a long-term rebuild, particularly due to the strength of the Western Conference teams.
As for rebuilds, well, meet your post-Sedins, post-Linden Vancouver Canucks. They are pretty much conceding as the season starts that this will be a third straight year out of the playoffs, a concession that seemed to require needle nose pliers to extract last year and the year before.
Fans felt misled by the wishy-washy way in which the team suggested it wanted to be competitive and wanted to retool simultaneously. Just doesn’t happen that way in the National Hockey League (NHL). While you can turn around a CFL team in a year to make the playoffs and add a couple of scorers to do the same in the MLS, an NHL rebuild is usually a half-decade odyssey.
The Canucks are closing in on the time they will deliver, but the question they face this season is whether it will come soon enough, whether the market will much longer tolerate anything other than an exciting team whose boast will be that it loses less frequently.
In other years, at least one of these teams could lift our spirits. Into autumn and the winter, this may be the season of high sports despair.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.