Vancouver footballers need to win big with local fans

Much as many of us are gripped with distress about the playoff prospects of the Vancouver Canucks, my main anxieties about our city’s sports franchises concern the businesses of the footballers.

The North American footballers are, of course, the venerable BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. The rest-of-the-world footballers are the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. Each has a significant fan dilemma that the coming season will either reveal or resolve.

Disclosure: I have season’s tickets for both, so my bias favours their success. Their presence is integral to the region’s identity, older and newer, and we can’t afford either to weaken much more.

The Lions are the greater challenge. Their traditional base is aging out, and their potential base finds the National Football League quite alluring. The new lower budget XFL will not help either. Local minor football programs are challenged, in part because of their costs and in part because parents are keeping their children out of a concussion-heavy sport.

That said, all CFL games are televised, the local blackouts are long gone and the Lions get a healthy average of 110,000 viewers – a nearly double-digit multiple of the crowds at the cavernous BC Place. The challenge is to get the interested audience from the sofa to the seat.

Franchises need a winner to rebuild an audience. Their 1-9 start to last season decamped the stadium for their final few games.

To the team’s credit, it had spent on a marquee quarterback, Mike Reilly, but seemed to have missed the nuance that it needed linemen to protect him. By late season, it had shored up his offensive line, fired the coach responsible for it and appeared to be somewhat on track. Unsurprisingly, Reilly fell to injury. Undoubtedly, the team can’t fumble this season’s start.

In the off-season, it fired its head coach after one season, replaced him with a recent Grey Cup winner in Rick Campbell and made some strategic player acquisitions through free agency that (on paper, at least) make the team considerably better. CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie came through town this week and expressed genuine optimism about what’s taking shape on and off the field here. Yes, of course, he’s paid to do that, but if he was insincere, it was an excellent acting performance.

Still, that only takes care of the product. What about the incentives to consume it?

Smartly, the Lions have decided that young people are great for the stadium experience. It will let anyone 17 or under get a free ticket for the season opener, then a $10 ticket all season. This is the wisest investment in the fan base it could make. The end zones and stadium corners will benefit from noise, providing Reilly can reignite.

Last Saturday, I got a first taste of the new version of the Whitecaps. Like the Lions, the Caps have some serious issues with the fan base. Last season was your basic meltdown: the second-worst record in the league due to an abysmal squad whose principal offensive strategy appeared to be kicking the ball back to the goaltender to regroup.

The team made a couple of simple strategic errors. It sold its marquee player, Alphonso Davies, to Bayern Munich for an MLS record US$22 million, but didn’t put the funds to any clear acquisitive use. Given that the team barely missed the playoffs a year earlier, the fan base expected under its new coach a step forward and not three steps back – and the organization didn’t prime us for it. It also was inelegant in communicating with supporters how it was handling a sexual harassment allegation against a coach of its women’s team a decade earlier, and that cost its reputation dearly. To its credit, it is trying to build back important community relationships.

This year, expectations are lower, the rebuild is more evident and advanced, the team is the youngest in the league and we can likely expect playoffs only in 2021. But this ought to be a more intent, exciting team.

More importantly, though, is that the Whitecaps have stopped taking the good-vibe crowd for granted. The stadium experience is up a notch and the ancillary experiences around BC Place are markedly better.

That being said, the season debut crowd was disappointing (even if the team claimed a sellout of 22,000). The awnings that drape the lower bowl were longer than I can recall.

The MLS season is absurdly long and interrupted, so this is likely a symptom of soccer in February. But the team will need to be competitive to bring back those lower-bowl sellouts. There is unquestionable new energy in the team, but the opening-night jitters will need to disappear – well before the Canucks start the playoffs.

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