B.C. baseball fans anticipate return of Canadians to Canada

Let my bias show: One of the jewels of Vancouver was lost to us in the pandemic, possibly lost to us permanently. Thankfully we get it back, and quite a bit more, in April.

Sure, we know, two mercilessly long years may not be the full COVID clobbering, a sixth wave is probably en route. But we think we are safe enough, even if we are pretty much left to our own devices to fight what’s left of the variants. Besides, we are out of patience.

A dividend of this environment is that the outdoor entertainment and sports business will be back largely regrouped and intact this spring. Concerts, festivals and games beckon. A third straight absence of these sectors would be intolerable.

At the top of the list, in my considered opinion, are the Vancouver Canadians baseball team. There is no sports experience in our market more authentically moored, more financially accessible and more socially communal than the games at Nat Bailey Stadium.

Much happened, and much didn’t, since the last games at The Nat in 2019.

The team didn’t play in 2020 when the pandemic sent the sporting world panicking. When it resurfaced last year, the provincial and federal restrictions prohibited cross-border travel by sports teams. The Vancouver Canadians were the Hillsboro, Ore., Canadians.

“Financially, it was a beating,” says Jake Kerr, the former chair of forestry giant Lignum Corp., who co-owns the franchise with Jeff Mooney, the former head of A & W Foods Canada.

Their baseball partnership took hold in 2007 when they purchased the team and secured a 25-year lease with the city that prompted a full-on renovation to make what is today considered a model in the minor leagues. It is, Kerr boasts correctly, “the largest minor-league market in baseball. Someday, probably not in my lifetime, there will be major-league baseball in Vancouver.”

Some big names got their professional starts here: Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Pillar and the Toronto Blue Jays’ rookie sensation last season, Alek Manoah. But it was rather lucky we saw them at all, because the Canadians were what is known as a Low-A franchise, with a short season and not the full complement of prospects. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette bypassed the Canadians.

This year, thanks to a dramatic consolidation of the minor leagues by their major league parents, the Canadians were invited up to High-A ball. Which means all the prospects will have to begin clouting professional homers into the parking lot or striking out the side in Vancouver. It also means 132 games, not 75 to 80, and a lengthened season that starts April 8 on the road, April 19 at home, and extends to at least Sept. 11, more if it makes the playoffs.

But that consolidation was not without its consequences for Kerr and Mooney, who also owned a High-A franchise in Lancaster, Calif. When the majors decided to move from 162 to 120 teams, it determined there was room for a team in Fresno but not in Lancaster. It was a top-down decision – as Kerr describes the process, “that’s that, it’s been nice, see ya.” With no viable independent league to sustain the investment, the team folded. A reported $30 million community investment in the stadium stands largely idled in its wake.

Indeed, the pandemic made for some generosity and some stinginess in the business world. The city, for instance, didn’t provide a nickel of relief to the team in the two years of its emptied stadium. “The City of Vancouver was sympathetic, but a lease is a lease, and we had to deal with that.” The province didn’t kick in any support. The federal government, as the hobbled Canadian Football League could attest, wasn’t helpful to the sports business with any specific assistance.

But the parent club, the Jays, came along with help last year. It made sense. “If you think about it,” Kerr says, “their players are our players.”

Was Vancouver in danger of losing baseball or being squeezed out of the consolidation, considering it’s the lone minor-league team above the border? Kerr is frank: “There was a distinct possibility.” Apart from the franchise’s gate success – attendance north of 90 per cent capacity – the decade-long arrangement with the Jays was a stabilizing and reassuring asset. (Kerr recently hopped on the board of Rogers Communications Inc., so that won’t hurt.)

Now there are plans for major stadium improvements at season’s end to bring Nat Bailey to major league standards for on-site training and facilities for female coaches and umpires, among other things.

The test ahead for the Canadians is weathering the weather of April and May and gauging the elasticity of the fan base with an elongated season. Clearly the ball fans will be eager to return, even if it means the jackets and gloves in the chilly stands are not baseball-issued. Still, what franchises can often find is that scarcity – whether it’s a short schedule or small seating capacity – serves the business model as well as does winning. Kerr indicates a Triple-A franchise, one step from the majors, will be an opportunity at some point. But the immediate issue is the comeback of the Canadians to Canada.

So far, so good; advance ticket sales are solid. The Sushi mascots are ready to race, the grounds crew is ready to dance, along with the hot dogs, the root beer floats, the weekend fireworks, the Friday nooners, and the best-priced sports beer in the market. •

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