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HomeBusinessWhitecaps, Lions winning on the field of play, but aiming for better results at the gate

Whitecaps, Lions winning on the field of play, but aiming for better results at the gate

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Bob Mackin

Two stars from Canada’s Qatar 2022 World Cup team could debut with the Vancouver Whitecaps when the club returns to Major League Soccer play on Sunday at home. 

The Ryan Gauld-captained, Vanni Sartini-coached roster is arguably the most-exciting version fielded in B.C. Place Stadium over the last dozen years. But attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, which peaked at 25,832 for a Sept. 15, 2018 visit by the Seattle Sounders.

Sam Adekugbe (left), Richie Laryea and Axel Schuster (Whitecaps FC)

Newly acquired Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe could fix that and help the club clinch a home playoff date this fall. 

According to actual attendance data obtained under freedom of information from B.C. Pavilion Corporation (PavCo), the Whitecaps averaged just 12,687 fans during 13 league and tournament matches through the June 10 visit by FC Cincinnati. That is less than the 15,780 average of what the club has announced publicly, the amount of tickets allotted or distributed. Three matches — two of which in CONCACAF Champions League — drew just under 10,000 (March 8 vs. Real CD Espana, April 5 vs. L.A. FC, and May 31 vs. Houston Dynamo).

The biggest announced attendance for the period was 20,072, when when the Whitecaps defeated CF Montreal on June 7 for the Canadian Championship. But the actual figure, as reported by PavCo, was 16,735. 

Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster said Laryea and Adekugbe broaden the team’s audience and have already sparked enthusiasm among unnamed commercial partners. The pair helped Canada qualify for its first men’s World Cup in 36 years and Canada is already guaranteed a spot in the next tournament, co-hosted by Vancouver and Toronto in 2026. 

Off the pitch, Schuster hired former Ticketmaster vice-president Aditi Bhatt in March as chief commercial officer. She was not made available for an interview. But, when Schuster addressed the attendance issue in May, he said the club wanted to be the “most affordable professional sport in this town for families.” Initiatives so far have focused on free tickets to Whitecaps MLS Next Pro and League1 BC matches at Swangard Stadium for anyone under 18, but Schuster hinted at more to come.

“We have to understand our market, we have to understand what has changed since COVID, this is also reality, habits have changed, needs have changed,” Schuster said. “People feel challenged also by the rise of costs. Everyone knows that who is living here. So, for that reason, we will continue to work on that.”

Landlord PavCo has promoted a limited $5 food and drink menu and offers other time-restricted promotions at matches. Whitecaps and the Crown corporation held a 24-hour “save the fees day” on May 15 for discounted purchases of all remaining MLS match tickets. 

It all comes down to time and money, according to an instructor with the Langara College School of Management. Aziz Rajwani said that while there are many things to see and do in the region during summer months, consumers are also wrestling with a triple-whammy of high inflation, high interest rates and high gas prices.

B.C. Lions president Duane Vienneau (BC Lions)

“When there’s less disposable income, the industries that are going to hurt are going to be things like: restaurants, instead of getting take out you might cook at home; instead of going to a Lions game, you might watch it at home; instead of going to a Whitecaps game, you might watch it at home,” Rajwani said.

The B.C. Lions, who are vying for top spot in western conference standings this season, were struggling at the gate before the pandemic, which forced cancellation of the 2020 season. During four dates in 2019, from late July to late September, the average for Canadian Football League games at B.C. Place was just 11,767, well below the 17,560 average of the announced crowds. The meeting with the Saskatchewan Roughriders was the best of the bunch, announced in-stadium as 20,950, but actually 16,233.

Building products tycoon Amar Doman bought the club from the estate of the late David Braley in summer 2021 and kicked-off 2022 with a bang. The home opener against the Edmonton Elks, featuring the pre-game OneRepublic concert, drew 25,279. The Lions fared even better with 25,821 for the home playoff game against the Calgary Stampeders. 

This year’s kickoff extravaganza featured LL Cool J and an actual 26,814 was counted, according to PavCo.

Duane Vienneau joined last season as chief operating officer and became president this season. The CFL’s former Chief Grey Cup and Events Officer is focused on turning each game day into an event of its own, on the road to the biggest CFL event of 2024: the 111th Grey Cup at B.C. Place.

So far, the Lions also held a family festival, dual tailgate party with Roughriders fans, and inducted ex-coach Wally Buono and the Bob Ackles-inspired Water Boys business support club to to the Wall of Fame. Coming up Aug. 26 is the Superhero night tribute to military and first responders, followed by Orange Shirt Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Gravy Bowl on Thanksgiving Weekend and the Halloween-themed Blackout Night. 

“We really use those themes to to attract new fan bases and try to, over the season, if not have two or three or four games that will appeal to somebody, maybe they’ll appeal to all of them,” Vienneau said. “Trying to make sure that something in our product mix that a non-traditional football fan will intrigue them to come.”

Keys to Vienneau’s marketing strategy include six kickoffs at 4 p.m., entry-level adult tickets at $25 (plus the $6 Ticketmaster order processing fee) and a $10, London Drugs-sponsored kids club for children 6-12 that includes a free game ticket. The late afternoon time works for eastern zone audiences on TSN and for those who commute to games from Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley and the Interior. 

“We’re really trying to do our best to be cost effective as possible, and we don’t want price to be a barrier,” Vienneau said.

“So basically, you can come in and out of the game on one day, you don’t have to stay overnight, it solves that affordability piece and it really is an outreach into into the community.”

Inside B.C. Place Stadium (Mackin)

Rajwani said the provincially focused Lions are outpacing the Whitecaps in the affordability race. An end zone ticket to Sunday’s Whitecaps’ match with a $31.75 face value via Ticketmaster totals $48.50, after the $10.75 service fee and $6 order processing fee.

It also matters that Doman is visible at Lions games and in the media, but Whitecaps’ owner Greg Kerfoot is not. An owner should stand behind the product and realize that his fandom can be contagious. 

“I need to know and sense your passion for winning,” Rajwani said. 

Rajwani said other factors are challenging the Whitecaps and Lions at the gate, such as a hesitancy to visit downtown due to well-publicized public safety concerns. The University of Toronto School of Cities’ ongoing “Downtown Recovery” rankings project, based on mobile phone device activity detected in a downtown core, shows Vancouver lagged at 54th place between March and May, comparable with Philadelphia and Seattle.

“If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel you could actually go down there and just have fun, like you did, for example, during the Olympics [in 2010],” Rajwani said.

It is a whole different story for concerts at B.C. Place. Unlike sports, they are not televised live. According to PavCo stats, the stadium drew a dotal 231,986 to six dates featuring five acts since last year. 

Luke Combs in May 2023 (42,208), The Weeknd in August 2022 (40,873) and Elton John’s second show in October last year (39,673) were the top draws. 

Five big dates with big audiences are coming: Ed Sheeran (Sept. 2), Beyonce (Sept. 11), Coldplay (Sept. 22-23) and Guns ’n Roses (Oct. 16). 

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