Friday night in Vancouver, 54,798 soccer fans packed BC Place stadium for a World Cup qualifying match between Canada and Mexico. A couple of weeks before that, it was the Canada Seven’s Rugby event that brought huge crowds to the stadium.
On cue, shots were fired on social media towards the BC Lions, with some stating that soccer is now more popular than football in the city, and that the Lions should be taking tips from these recent events to fill the stadium for their games. While there may be some validity to that, let’s take a look at this comparison.
First of all, comparing a national team World Cup qualifying match against arguably one of the top 10 soccer sides in the world to a Lions game is ridiculous. Never mind the fact that thousands of Mexican fans were also in attendance.
Vancouver’s population has changed drastically over the last 30 years. It has become a true melting pot of different nationalities and cultures. Soccer is widely acknowledged as the world’s game and the World Cup is by far the biggest sporting event on the planet thanks to that worldwide popularity.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have the advantage of drawing from this pool of fans and have done a great job marketing their product. Still, they tarp off seats in the lower bowl with a maximum capacity of 25,000, which is part of their plan. They create a demand for tickets, and it’s been successful for them to date.
The Lions, and the CFL as a whole don’t have that same international drawing power and North American Football is nowhere near as popular world-wide. The NFL has played games in Mexico and overseas with success, but the NFL machine is a different animal. Even then it is more a novelty in these countries than a passion.
Last season, the Lions took a page from the Whitecaps book and reduced the capacity to the lower bowl only, and a capacity of around 27,000 for their games. And while most would agree the setting was more intimate, the crowds continued to drop as they have been the last few seasons.
In addition to a crappy 2015 schedule, the main contributor to this decline is the play on the field. Vancouver is a bandwagon city and if you don’t believe that take a look at the recent crowds at Vancouver Canucks games. Just a few years ago Canucks tickets were hard to come by. This season with fans staying away, you can pick up a lower bowl ticket for under 50.00 from brokers and season ticket holders trying to recoup what they can versus going to watch a floundering product.
What the CFL does have is a national history that is unmatched in this country. This history was passed on from generation to generation, but somewhere along the line that began to be lost, especially in larger markets like Vancouver and Toronto where he NFL hype machine took hold of a younger generation who soon began to see the CFL as second rate. This is something that can be said of MLS as well, though their fan base doesn’t see it that way.
The single biggest issue facing the league today (and anyone who attends Grey Cup every year can clearly see it with their own eyes) is that the fan base is aging, and the league must find a way to make it relevant to a younger demographic.
The Lions must do better on the marketing side to connect with this demographic. They are currently buoyed by a TSN deal that ensures they turn a profit. At some point they are going to have to reconnect with a fan base that is also taking advantage of that same deal and deciding to stay home and watch the games on TV, where the CFL destroys the MLS in national ratings.
A winning, entertaining product on the field will bring many back, because that’s just the way Vancouver is. This is an expensive city to live in, and if you want people to spend their disposable income on your product, you better make sure they are getting bang for their buck. Connecting with that younger generation is also important, but if you give them a reason to follow they will.
In a perfect scenario, the city would support all of its professional teams. Fans and media would stop pitting one team against the other. Every team has its ups and downs, cycles of winning and losing. But in today’s climate you need to win and if the Lions start doing that again, they’ll be just fine, despite what the teams’ detractors want to tell you via social media.