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Hope for BC sports fans

The last few years have been hard times for Vancouver sports fans.

The city’s three major-league professional teams — the Canucks, BC Lions and Whitecaps FC — have all struggled in competition and at the turnstiles.

But all three are now rolling out major “resurgence” business game plans that — officials hope — will reignite fan enthusiasm and, in turn, increase attendance. The Canucks — the biggest professional sports game in town — are using the team’s 50th anniversary and an emerging core of young, exciting players as a “perfect storm” scenario of combining an improved on-ice product with the lessons learned from four straight seasons out of the playoffs.

“I kind of feel like sometimes that we’re that band that has been practising in the garage for three to five years, and all of a sudden you get a hit record, and everybody says, ‘Whoa, look at what you’ve got there,’” said Canucks COO Trent Carroll of the business side of club operations.

“It looks like the stars are aligning a bit.”

The Canucks have announced several major events for the 2019-20 season, including a week in February dedicated to the numbers retirement of long-time stalwarts Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

The team unveiled new jerseys for the year, hosted the NHL Entry Draft earlier this summer, and is set to surround promising young stars like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Quinn Hughes with some higher-profile veterans acquired through free agency or trades.

Carroll noted season ticket renewal rates this summer are “at the highest level in five years.”

BC Lions president Rick LeLacheur has been hard at work since joining the CFL club in December 2017 to reverse a drop in attendance and season ticket renewals — especially since the club won the Grey Cup in 2011.

Since that time, the Lions have won only a single playoff game and average per-game attendance at BC Place has dropped from 30,366 in 2014 to 19,975 last season.

The Lions made a number of high-profile free-agent signings this off-season, the biggest of which is the addition of 2015 Grey Cup MVP quarterback Mike Reilly. The key, LeLacheur said, was not only Reilly’s on-field pedigree, but also the quarterback’s ability to connect with the fan base as a member of the community.

“When we sat down to discuss our strategy at the end of last year, we wanted to put together a team on the field that can win and play exciting football — but the key players we go after could also have a positive effect on the community off the field with their personalities,” LeLacheur said. 

LeLacheur said the early-season schedule doesn’t help — the Lions have played one home game through the first four weeks of the season.

The Whitecaps have had a relatively smoother existence the past few years, benefiting from a new wave of uptake from younger fans for North American soccer. Since joining Major Leauge Soccer in 2011, the club’s attendance per season has risen from 346,909 in the first year to 372,089 last year. 

But the team isn’t without its challenges.

Last season’s 13-13-8 record drew some ire from fans and could have been more poorly received had it not been for the emergence of Canadian phenom Alphonso Davies, widely considered one of the country’s brightest soccer stars in a generation.

With Davies moving on to German soccer giant Bayern Munich in a $22 million transfer, Whitecaps FC were under significant pressure to spend the newfound funds to ensure the team does not disappoint its fans again.

Rachel Lewis, Whitecaps FC’s COO, noted the club’s biggest challenge is that professional soccer does not have as much player-development infrastructure as hockey and football. Therefore, a much larger part of Whitecaps FC’s resurgence focus needs to be placed on youth development.

Forbes estimated Whitecaps FC’s value at $150 million in 2017 with a modest revenue of $19 million. Annual losses sit at approximately $3 million, the report said — and the MLS as a whole remains in investment mode with many teams operating at a loss. 

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