Lions can't afford to ignore MLS, Whitecaps - The Province


Battle for local audiences will soon heat up

BY KENT GILCHRIST

If the worry that the Buffalo Bills will relocate to Toronto is on the back burner, the CFL should consider Major League Soccer a serious rival.

While the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders add a reassuring brand of Grey Cup fever to the feeling of certainty the CFL has of its place in the hearts of sports fans in Calgary this week, it should take a moment to look at the horizon and see what might be rising there in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Because of the grim roller-coaster of ups and downs ridden by the CFL during the last three decades, the tipping point to when the NHL became No. 1 is murky, but summertime has always been a preserve of pro football in Canada. Erosion of that certainty has surely begun in Toronto, where Toronto FC could often sell 15,000 more seats at limited BMO field. And that's with a non-playoff team.

The Seattle Sounders, whom the Vancouver Whitecaps will attempt to emulate, began the 2009 MLS season opening 30,000 seats at Qwest Field, increased it to 32,000 and increased it again to 36,000.

"I would say less than 10 per cent of our fan base comes from the Seahawks," said Sounders senior vice-president of business operations Gary Wright, a statement which might comfort the Lions and the CFL somewhat.

Wright would know because the two teams share the same ownership group.

Lions owner David Braley owned the Vancouver 86ers for three years (1997-99 in the A-League, the precursor to the USL), too. But soccer was in a valley then and seemed unlikely to climb out and into fans' consciousness the way it has.

While the CFL and the Lions have enjoyed a nice run of prosperity, too, the Lions had only one home crowd of more than 30,000 in 2009. The loss of team president Bob Ackles, who died suddenly in July 2008, combined with a team that went 8-10 and barely scraped into the playoffs indicates how a team's fortunes can change.

The Lions have next year to set things straight and the 2011 Grey Cup game to offer their fans before the Whitecaps trumpet their 2011 MLS debut, but it is clear the Lions will have to share the spotlight with them for media attention behind the Canucks.

You only had to look at Wednesday's Province back cover of the Whitecaps latest coup, Paul Barber, the executive director of Tottenham Hotspur, headlined "Big Shot."

And if you were wondering who the Whitecaps might be inviting to play at the temporary stadium where Empire Stadium was, Spurs would be a good bet.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi will be sharpening his elbows to make room for summertime media exposure. In the USL, the 'Caps include tickets to the women's team, Nutrilite (Canada Cup) games and playoffs in their season-ticket package.

The Sounders also included friendlies by Barcelona and Chelsea in their season-ticket package for their fans. They had their own marching band and each game fans gathered at a pub five or six blocks from Qwest Field, marched and sang their way behind the band to games.

With the Orange Helmet Awards banquet, the Waterboys and several other team initiatives that gets players such as star receiver Geroy Simon into the community in the offseason, the Lions have done an excellent job of connecting with their fans, too.

But they will likely have to do more to maintain their position.

hkgilchrist@yahoo.com

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