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Special report: Vancouver’s professional sport franchises

MLS soccer outdrawing NHL hockey and CFL football, as single-A baseball sees attendance increasing

Putting bums in seats is an ongoing challenge for many sports franchises. Cities across North America, in sports ranging from football to baseball, have been struggling with ways to keep attendance from slipping. Some blame poor team performance for the falling numbers; others say fans are finding it more enjoyable – and cost effective – to watch the action from their big-screen TVs, or even little mobile screens, at home.

Vancouver’s sports franchises are no exception. All but one have seen a drop in attendance in recent years. Below is a look at how each team has fared, and why, during the 2016 season.

Note: All Vancouver’s sports teams report attendance as tickets sold as opposed to actual fans in seats. Attendance figures are those provided by the teams.

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks reported a streak of 474 consecutive sellout games between 2002 and 2014. In the 2015-16 season, average per-game attendance was 18,431, or about 6.8 per cent less than in the 2013-14 season.

Attendance at Canucks games is down only slightly from the years of non-stop sellouts, in part because of promotions such as sliding scale pricing. That tactic, introduced in 2015, saw the team reduce prices for games where demand was lower.

Canucks vice-president of communications Chris Brumwell rejects suggestions that ticket sales have stalled.

“We’re still in the top 10 in the NHL in terms of season-ticket-member health, and, while our season-ticket-member base is a bit softer this year, in an interesting way it’s given new fans a chance to attend who haven’t had a chance before,” said Brumwell.

BC Lions

The BC Lions have also seen declining attendance, since the high-water mark of an average of 30,356 per game in 2012. Today, fan count has dwindled to an average of a little more than 20,000 per game at BC Place stadium, despite a relatively good season in 2016.

“The last five years have been an anomaly for us,” said Lions CEO Dennis Skulsky. “After 2010, we had the big investment on upgrading the stadium, so automatically you’re going to attract a certain percentage of people because it’s a new venue.”

Hosting the Grey Cup in 2011 and 2014 also helped the Lions’ attendance in those years because many fans would buy season tickets in order to get the perk of being eligible to buy tickets for those same seats in the championship game.

Vancouver Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps MLS soccer franchise averaged slightly higher attendance than the B.C. Lions, with 20,507 tickets sold per game last year and more than 22,000 in 2016.

Jeff Mallett, who owns the team with Greg Kerfoot, Steve Nash and Stephen Luczo, sees BC Place as a facility with “multiple abilities to scale up.”

That compares to cities such as Portland and Kansas City, where attendance is strong, but the stadiums are near capacity with no room to add new seats.

While the Whitecaps’ operations are profitable, Mallett said the ownership group is investing “above and beyond the core business,” which means the business has so far lost money.

The biggest drain on team finances is at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where the Whitecaps train. The ownership group has partnered with UBC and the B.C.
government to spend a total of $32.5 million to upgrade the National Soccer Development Centre, which has three grass and two artificial turf fields. 

Vancouver Canadians

While most other Vancouver teams are losing attendance, the Vancouver Canadians are seeing a steady increase — and regularly selling out its Nat Bailey Stadium venue.

The single-A Northwest League baseball team has increased attendance each year since 2006, the year before Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney bought it.

The team averaged a record of 6,177 fans for each of its 36 home games in 2016.

“We ranked No. 19 or 20 in attendance out of about 160 teams in North America for all of the minor baseball leagues – that’s single -A, double-A or triple-A,” said Kerr.