Pro sports teams hoping for some summer 2022 wins

Revitalized fan support, revenue flow expected with the return to normal attendance rules

Home games for the Vancouver Whitecaps are finally back in BC Place Stadium | Whitecaps FC/Bob Frid

After two seasons filled with cancellations, restrictions and uncertainty, Vancouver’s major summer spectator sports are returning to full-capacity operations this year – a first since 2019.

And the reaction, unsurprisingly, is one of relief, excitement and unbridled joy, team officials say.

“It’s amazing,” said Andy Dunn, president/partner at Vancouver Canadians Baseball, the city’s High-A Northwest League team. 

“It’s been ever y thing we’ve wanted it to be … I’ve been through quite a few opening days now, and this one might have been one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen. Some people were walking around with tears in their eyes, just happy to see their friends at the ballpark again.”

Despite this spring being one of the rainiest and coldest in recent memory, the Canadians have already reported several sellouts at Nat Bailey Stadium since returning to their first full season in Vancouver since moving up to High-A – which brings with it a higher level of play. 

As summer approaches, Dunn said he is optimistic about the Canadians returning to its status as one of the city’s most popular fan events.

He noted that season ticket holders have largely returned and this year’s preseason tickets sales are likely the highest they’ve ever been. 

“What we’ve been through the last two years, with a cancelled season [in 2020] due to COVID and then having to play remotely the year after, just having games again at home is special.

“This year is just about, ‘Let’s play some games; let’s try to get life back to normal and get out and enjoy the crowd, the excitement.’ That’s what we’re all looking for.”

The same excitement is also readily apparent for the two BC Place Stadium tenants: the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) BC Lions and Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Whitecaps FC. 

The CFL also had to cancel its season in 2020 before playing an abridged version last year; the MLS had to resort to holding tournaments in Florida and moving home games for teams like Vancouver temporarily out of Canada to maintain a season during the onset of the pandemic.

Whitecaps FC CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster noted that the MLS also started its season earlier than either the CFL or High-A baseball, leading to a few restrictions still being in place when the team opened its home schedule on March 5.

As such, Schuster said the team worked hard to keep fans informed of the situation until most restrictions were removed in mid-March, and while he noted that while some fans are not yet comfortable returning to live sporting events, more are making their way back.

“I think so far, I would describe it up to this point as getting back to normal and communicating with people on what the situation is,” Schuster said. “Going into the season, a lot of people still thought we had restrictions in regards to capacity, and some people maybe would have been more comfortable if there were more restrictions.

“Now, all the restrictions are gone, and we are back to full normal. But even now, we still have to explain to people that it is safe to come back and – also for the stadium experience – it’s back to what it was before.”

Whitecaps FC attendance so far this year has hovered between 16,000 and 18,000. That’s a couple of thousand below pre-pandemic levels, but Blake Price, the team’s TV play-by-play voice, said those early-season attendance numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the team’s support among fans.

“The springtime is never a great time [for Whitecaps FC attendance], especially with the hockey season overlapping an additional three weeks … over the MLS season.”

Price added that the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Vancouver Canucks team has had a busy off-season of announcements so far. 

“And … the [Whitecaps] were not playing well in the first two months of the season, so they didn’t help themselves in that regard. By the middle of June, they could be as healthy as they have been all season. So there are reasons to be optimistic.”

Schuster agreed.

He noted that Whitecaps FC’s injury woes have hurt the most important draw for bringing fans back: the team’s on-pitch performance.

“I think the people that are closely connected to our club, they have the right knowledge about our situation.”

Schuster pointed out that the team has lost only one game since May. 

“We have the best home record in the MLS since the day we returned from Utah [the Whitecaps’ temporary home last season]. So people know that, at home, we deliver a good show in terms of entertainment and results.

“We are building back, and when we look at our plans, 2023 will be the best year of our club on the business side.”
The CFL’s Lions had their own early-season challenge: There almost wasn’t an on-time start of the season due to a labour dispute between the league and its players.

But with a new agreement now in place, the team is excited, said president Rick Lelacheur, to begin its first full season under new owner Amar Doman, who bought the team from the estate of the late David Braley last August.

The team kicked off the new season on June 11 with some fresh flair, hosting a concert by rock band OneRepublic as the pregame show and having former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page perform at its Backyard Block Party on Robson Street in the hours leading up to the game.

The initial results have been promising. The Lions announced days before the opening game that it is opening BC Place’s upper bowl for the first time in many years to accommodate ticket demand.

“David Braley was a great owner for the Lions,” Lelacheur said. “But we are into a new generation, and Amar Doman not only is very passionate about the Lions, he’s local. And that has played a big part, I think, in our fan base appreciating that he is local and wants to do things to fill up the building and to win football games.”

The Lions’ slide in attendance since a decade ago has been one of the CFL’s most serious challenges, and Lelacheur said the league has implemented a slew of rule changes in an attempt to create more offence and scoring across the CFL.

In addition, the club is introducing a slate of new ideas that, Lelacheur said, the team hopes will generate more fan support for the Lions. Those ideas range from field-level club seats and more aggressive presence in social media/conventional marketing (street banners, bus wraps, event trailers and bicycle teams) to grassroots outreaches to amateur football organizations for fostering long-term interest in Canadian football.

As with Whitecaps FC, however, the key for the Lions will be the team’s on-field product. 

The team is starting its first season without retired quarterback Mike Reilly – one of the CFL’s biggest names – and has not made the playoffs since 2018. 

Lelacheur added that while the season-ticket base is stable (no official figures were released), the team will need strong walkup support to be financially successful.

“It’s very important to have a good season on the field,” Lelacheur said. “We are not going to win every game, but we recognize that we want to protect our house when playing at BC Place. We want to play exciting football.… We would rather lose in overtime than getting blown out.… But we’ve got some game-changers on our roster that will make the games very exciting.”