VANCOUVER - Build it and they will come.
That was the mindset one year ago when a sparkling new BC Place Stadium — boasting state-of-the-art status following a half-billion-dollar-plus facelift — became the new home for the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps.
More than 50,000 rabid Lions fans filled the new facility on opening day, while 21,000 Whitecaps supporters packed the soccer-specific lower bowl one day later.
But attendance has slipped ever since, with the Lions averaging just under 29,000 fans a game this season and the Caps attracting about 19,400.
It’s a head scratcher as both clubs have played winning football at home this year.
The defending Grey Cup champion Lions have the best record in the Canadian Football League while the Whitecaps are on the verge of becoming the first Canadian team to qualify for the Major League Soccer playoffs.
“It’s certainly easier to sell any product when you have a winning team but what’s going on here isn’t that much different to what’s happening in other leagues in North America,” Lions president Dennis Skulsky said in an interview.
Even the National Football League — the juggernaut of North American professional sports — has experienced steadily declining attendance since peaking at 17.35 million in 2007, dipping to 16.56 million paying fans last year.
But massive NFL television deals guarantee that each team makes much more in television revenue each year than in ticket sales.
The Lions and Whitecaps don’t enjoy that kind of TV windfall so ticket sales are by far the biggest revenue source for both teams, representing more than 50 per cent of their income.
Lions’ single-game tickets range from $43 to $133 and Skulsky said prices will be reviewed at the end of the season but he’s not a big believer in discounting.
“We could easily have 10,000 more people at our next game by discounting tickets or just giving them away,” he said. “But what do you do the next game or next season when you want people to actually pay for the tickets?”
Skulsky said switching to a lower-bowl configuration with a capacity of 25,000 to 26,000 isn’t an option for the club, though it may consider closing off more sections in the upper bowl.
“When your number-one revenue source is ticket sales, you have to work hard at doing that,” he said. “Deep discounting and closing sections isn’t a winning formula.”
While attendance numbers have flattened, Lions’ television ratings this year have increased by 10 per cent — with an average of 804,000 viewers watching Lions games on TSN.
The team has attracted the top CFL television audience in seven of the past eight weeks, which Skulsky attributes to the club’s strong play and the national interest in players such as Travis Lulay, Geroy Simon and Andrew Harris.
The CFL has a local television blackout policy for games that aren’t sellouts but that doesn’t boost local attendance the way it used to — by as much as 3,000 fans in Skulsky’s estimation — because it doesn’t apply to high-definition broadcasts.
He said the Lions remain a profitable business, despite the lacklustre attendance, but stressed that could go “either way” very easily.
“It’s an ongoing work in progress to stay on the right side of the ledger but we will be profitable this year.”
The club will try to attract new fans by creating the best in-stadium experience possible and will seek out new revenues through the increased use of the BC Place video board and electronic signage and by selling more Lions merchandise.
The Lions used to contract out merchandise sales but took over that function last year and Skulsky said the club wants to offer even more team products for women, young people and families — whether it’s clothing, stickers or food items like barbecue sauce.
The Whitecaps won’t reveal if they’re profitable but it’s difficult to picture them being in any kind of financial straits with such a strong corporate sponsorship base and attendance that still ranks in the top third of the league.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said last year the Caps topped the league in the value of its corporate sponsorships, noting its deal with jersey sponsor Bell was worth “many millions of dollars a year.”
Poor on-field performance last year and the end of the first-year MLS curiosity factor contributed to the team’s season-ticket base falling to 13,000 this year from more than 15,000 in 2011.
The team recently offered season-ticket holders a 12-per-cent discount if they committed to 2013 season tickets by early October – an offer that created the lowest season ticket prices in the club’s brief MLS history.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said the team wants to grow organically and won’t be in a hurry to expand it’s lower-bowl soccer capacity beyond 21,000, even though it could accommodate as many as 27,000 fans.
“Our capacity is 21,000 and that’s the number we work with to help create a greater urgency in our season-ticket base,” he said, noting the club was criticized this season for not opening up more seats for the Los Angeles Galaxy match.
“We don’t want to compromise the atmosphere and we want to make sure it’s a tough ticket to get.”
The Caps will try to attract more young people to games next season by introducing a new student season ticket for university and college students. The $233 price, including taxes and fees, works out to less than $14 a game.
“We like the supporter culture that’s spreading across the west end (of BC Place) and the student season ticket will attract more young people,” said Whitecaps chief operating officer Rachel Lewis.” They create the kind of atmosphere we want.”
The Whitecaps’ original vision for MLS had them owning and operating their own soccer-specific stadium with a grass field but according to former PavCo chair David Podmore, they have agreed to a 15-year lease at BC Place that features artificial turf.
Lenarduzzi said the recent decision to build a training centre at the University of B.C., with grass and turf fields, should address the concerns of players who might be reluctant to sign with Vancouver because they don’t want to train and play on turf all the time.
Whitecaps officials know they’re the new player in the major sports franchise market in Vancouver and appreciate it will take time to approach the interest built up by the Lions and Vancouver Canucks over the years.
While Lions games attract an average television audience of more than 800,000, Whitecaps games have attracted an average of 80,000 viewers on Sportsnet Pacific this year, up 38 per cent from last year. TSN broadcasts have maintained last year’s average of 149,000 viewers.
Langara School of Management instructor Aziz Rajwani said the Whitecaps are still in the early stages of their MLS development so they still have a lot of upside potential.
“The Lions are in more of a mature point in their life cycle so they should be able to attract more fans to BC Place because that has been their home for years and years,” he said.
Rajwani said a slowing economy and the in-home comforts of watching games on high-definition television have combined to affect attendance at most sporting events.
The bigger issue for Vancouver, he said, is whether the city can support three major sports franchises or possibly four if the NBA ever returns.
“I think in the long term, more corporations need to buy up tickets than just the individual fan base,” Rajwani said. “I’m not sure Vancouver is at that stage yet.”
Average attendance this season: 19,380 (down five per cent from last year)
Cheapest single-game ticket: $28
Most expensive single-game ticket: $148
Average attendance this season: 28,952 (up two per cent from last year)
Cheapest single-game ticket: $43
Most expensive single-game ticket: $133
Ticket prices include taxes and fees.
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