Strategic errors, unsuitable venue threaten to defeat Vancouver sports franchises

If a local media outlet is a business with a community’s soul, a local sports franchise is a business with a community’s mood.

The joys and sorrows attached to their accomplishments serve as thermometers and barometers, a vast swath of a city’s talking points, and even an economic index for bars, restaurants, sporting goods sales – for that matter, for inspiring sport participation.

Which is why 2019 is the Summer Horribilis in Vancouver. The BC Lions, Vancouver Whitecaps and Vancouver Canadians have established distressing new lows for their franchises and, in the case of the Lions and Whitecaps, established new challenges to their business models.

To be fair, it is far less of an issue for the Canadians, the entry-level professional single-A baseball franchise that is the envy of the minor leagues. The team’s terrible start gets a do-over mid-season because of the peculiar league rules that provide a fresh set of standings for the season’s second half. Finish first in the second half and they’re in the playoffs, and in the last three weeks the team has shown signs of life. Let’s not worry. The fans are still happy because the vibe at the Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium is the town’s best. Families come for the sushi mascot races and the dancing field crew, the cozy confines and, sure, baseball.

With that good news out of the way, though, there are truly troubling signs for Canadian football and global football in this city, and for different reasons.

The Lions’ inherent difficulties are principally demographic – an elder fan base insufficiently rejuvenating – but its effort to regenerate is impeded by an unexpected faltering on the field.

The team’s bold off-season move to sign quarterback Mike Reilly, arguably the league’s best and highest-paid player, was expected to pay quick dividends. But the changeover in the team and its coaching staff has yielded only one win in seven starts, and there are only so many times you can play the Toronto Argonauts.

The crowd Saturday was middling for its annual Family Day – an announced 20,950 was generous to the pock-marked stadium of actual attendance – and the game itself was dreadful for the home side. Its week off had better involve a reboot or the season will be lost by the halfway mark.

At least the Lions are trying this season to bring, as they say, bums back to the seats. The Whitecaps are in a whole other state of siege and are at risk of severing a large part of the fan base they so smartly developed in recent times.

The team is winless since May and at the bottom of the standings. Last week it lost to a non-Major League Soccer franchise from Calgary in the playoffs for Canadian championships – itself a consolation prize in soccer, something that Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto clubs ought to win by dialing it in. The loss was the equivalent of the Lions losing to a college team, and only increased the call for big changes.

Trouble is, it’s the big changes that appear to have stripped the team of any success. The Whitecaps sold their budding star, Alphonso Davies, to Bayern Munich, for $22 million, traded their two highest-paid players, their disgruntled captain and some significant supporting players to take the team down to the studs – only with no studs remaining.

The funds ought to have in turn secured a couple of marquee players to propel the team, but new coach Marc Dos Santos has done nothing of the sort. Instead he and the front office have built a team without anything approaching a fan attraction, somehow positing that the coach’s force majeure would create an exciting and competitive squad. It worked a little at first, but as other teams have developed mid-season chemistry, the Whitecaps have developed mid-season chaos.

Any business knows it makes sense to level with customers about what can and cannot be delivered, but the Whitecaps have been guilty of claiming they’d be spending funds to grow the team, not saving funds to harvest the fan base. A conservative investment strategy will not win a championship, and this is not a city that will endure a loser when there were reasons to expect it would be a winner.

Worse, the team defied the textbook when abuse allegations surfaced earlier this year involving a coach of its women’s team a decade ago, saying nothing for weeks then finally expressing regret and empathy – but not apologizing – as it launched an independent review of its workplace practices. For a business attempting to reach out across gender and age lines, this was a self-inflicted wound of consequence.

That both the Whitecaps and Lions play in a vacuous white elephant of a building is of little help in their attempts to create a lively atmosphere. They need a smaller outdoor facility of intimacy, not an indoor facility of grandiosity. The curtained upper bowl is a metaphor for cloaked underperformance by teams that can’t punch through a self-imposed ceiling.

It’s hard to believe that hopes for the local sports fan appear to reside in the Vancouver Canucks, a team that hasn’t been in the post-season since Stephen Harper was prime minister.


Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.