Vancouver Canadians gear up for uncertain 2021 season

Nat Bailey Stadium. | Tyler Nyquvest

What will the 2021 season look like for the Vancouver Canadians? The fact is, given the uncertainty surrounding border crossings and public gatherings post-COVID, not even the club’s top executives know for sure.

That’s the assessment of Canadians President/Partner Andy Dunn, who has been the driving force in making the club – the only affiliated Minor League Baseball team in Canada – arguably the city’s leading professional sports entities over the last 14 years.

Last season, however, was a frustrating one; the onset of the pandemic last March forced multiple delays to the season before it was officially cancelled in June. The Canadians had to furlough a couple of full-time staff and was unable to offer summer jobs to students, something that still weighs on Dunn.

“Last year wasn’t just an issue from what we were trying to do from a baseball perspective,” Dunn said. “It affected so many people in such a terrible way, whether it was job loss, losing loved ones or other things like that. So it was not just a challenge for baseball, but for everybody... No matter what industry you were in, it was a tough time.”

Dunn is hopeful, however, that 2021 can be an important step towards recovery for the club and the community. After some uncertainty about its future MLB affiliation, the team was able to secure a 10-year development licence to continue to be the Toronto Blue Jays’ affiliate. 

There is also a change in classification to High-A, which means a different league (joining the High-A West League with Eugene, Everett, Hillsboro, Tri-City and Spokane) and a lengthened schedule from 76 to 132 regular season games in a season. That means a typical season will now last from April to early September.

Most importantly, there is now also a schedule – dubbed an “Early Bird” version that’s subject to change – that currently sees the Cs start their season on May 4 at Tri-City.

“Well, it really is nice to have a schedule,” Dunn said. “With everything the club had to go through last year, the whole season just kind of got stopped during Spring Training, and we never really got started. This year, with all the things we’ve gone through... to have what hopefully is a start date, that’s something to work on instead of planning what special events to hold. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can start the season on-time. 

What Dunn doesn’t know – given the current restrictions on travel and gatherings – is where the Canadians will play their games. 

As the only Canadian team in the West League, if the Cs play at Nat Bailey stadium, the team would have to cross the border for road games or have the visiting team do the crossing for games in Vancouver – something that the federal government has not allowed for any sports leagues up to this point.

Logically, the Canadians could follow the footsteps of the Blue Jays, the Toronto Raptors or even Vancouver’s own Whitecaps FC in finding a temporary home in the United States (likely in Washington state or Oregon) to bypass the border issue. There’s even speculation that the club may share parks with another West League franchise.

Even if the season starts elsewhere, Dunn said the goal is to plan some games in Vancouver eventually – with fans in attendance if allowed. That brings another complication: If Nat Bailey is opened, at what level of capacity would it be open? Much of that will depend on the vaccination/COVID case trends up to the moment, meaning the answers of what the Canadians’ season will look like in reality remain elusive.

“We are looking at everything,” he said. “I think we are going to have border issues when it comes to getting started in May. But we don’t know what’s going to happen with the vaccine; we don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of COVID. So we are going to be ready to play, whether we are going to have to play somewhere else for a little while or not... and go from there.

“If we have to start somewhere outside Vancouver, I can promise you this: Everyday, all we’ll want to do is to be able to come back and play in Vancouver, because that’s our home and who we want to represent. But I think will have to be real patient this year.”

What is positive, Dunn noted, is that the season ticket base remains stable – with the vast majority of ticket holders deciding to roll over their accounts into 2021 instead of cancelling after the lost 2020 season.

Corporate sponsorship has also remained steady, Dunn said, meaning the club has the foundations for a stable recovery once things slowly return to normal post-COVID, he said.

“We certainly appreciate all their support, and once we know what’s going to happen this year, we’ll contact them individually to let them know what our status is for 2021,” Dunn said. “We have the best season ticket base in all of baseball. We really do... We worked very hard to make sure people know how important they are to us, and we try to put on a quality night of entertainment every night at an affordable price.

“I think people understand that if they give up their tickets, they are not coming back because we are very fortunate to have a waiting list. We do have some ticket scarcity in the marketplace. So we will treat people right, and they know we will be back playing for them as soon as we can.”