It was just another routine day for the BC Lions when it came to the pursuit of another player via free agency. Defensive lineman Shawn Lemon was being pursued by the Lions, Bombers and Redblacks and when he made his decision to verbally agree to a two year deal with Ottawa, the Lions were once again the odd man out.
Two years ago the Lions publicly announced six players they were going to target at the start of free agency and they got none of them. The best they could do this year was safety Chris Rwabukamba who has already fallen out of favour with the club.
For years the Lions didn’t have to sign free agents because they found their own players. They developed a solid core of talent that served them well for close to a decade. For years the Western Final or at the very least the road to the Grey Cup meant playing the BC Lions.
Where did it all start to change? On July 6th, 2008 the club lost the face of its franchise when Bob Ackles suddenly left us. It was the start of a downward trend in the progress that Ackles had made following his return to the Lions in 2002 after being pursued by owner David Braley.
When Ackles agreed to return he soon wondered what he had gotten himself into, and realized the monumental task in front of him. The Lions had become an afterthought in the Vancouver Sports scene. Their crowds were horrible and the product on the field wasn’t much better.
Off the field the business community had become alienated from the club to the point where Ackles wasn’t sure he could fix it, but fix it he did.
Since then, things have changed. Ackles not only possessed football acumen, he had a vast network of contacts south of the border. The Lions core got old and new talent hasn’t been as frequent or abundant as it was when Ackles was in charge.
Years of sub-par draft results have hurt the Lions Canadian depth, especially on the offensive line and over the last few seasons it seems the same problems occur year after year because of it.
And like Wednesday, when the Lions do go for free agents, they are either outbid or not seen as the best option when all things are on the table. Why have the Lions gone from one of the most respected, desired franchises to play for to the bridesmaid?
There are likely a few reasons. The obvious answer is that other teams are offering better money or better options with their offers. But there other less obvious reasons to the average fan. The cost of living in Vancouver isn’t cheap. A player can stretch his money a lot farther in some of the other CFL cities. U.S. players are being hurt by the low Canadian dollar, making every dollar count when it comes on deciding where to play.
The Lions practice facility, while suiting their basic needs has become substandard in today’s CFL. Despite renovations, their practice field isn’t great, it’s not in a great neighbourhood and there is no comparison to new modern facilities in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and soon Regina.
Dante Marsh pointed out to me that when the Lions were winning all those years, players wanted to be here because they knew that there would be playoff money and the chance to play for a championship. When you’re struggling, it’s not an attractive option for those players who are looking for some bonus money to beef up their salary.
David Braley deserves praise for saving the BC Lions, and make no mistake, he did save this franchise, but it’s time to start looking for local ownership for the team. Braley has taken a lot of heat the last couple of seasons, mostly over the fact he’s owned the Toronto Argonauts at the same time, and some of the things that happened there with cost cutting last season.
Whether the same thing is happening in BC is unclear and I have no knowledge of that being the case. But on the surface an argument could be made that it is. Season ticket packages keep getting smaller, half-time shows are being eliminated and with the exception of the well done gun metal jersey reveal two years ago the marketing has been suspect for awhile.
Braley has said on more than one occasion that he has multiple local parties interested in the Lions and if that’s the case it’s time to put the for sale sign up. One only needs to look at Ottawa to see the impact that fresh ideas, solid marketing and an owner invested in winning on and off the field can bring. I’m not saying Braley isn’t invested, but he doesn’t live in this market and as such you wonder if he has a true grasp of the uniqueness that it’s made up of.
A new direction is needed. New ideas, new blood and a commitment to building this franchise up where it needs to be again because sadly, Bob Ackles isn’t going to be around to fix it this time.