Lions hope hot streak will bring fans back to BC Place

Football fans have every reason to show up to BC Place for tonight’s Lions-Bombers CFL matchup, but will they?

Attendance for home opener was the lowest in 15 seasons

Numerous seats sit empty as the B.C. Lions and Saskatchewan Roughriders play during the first half of a pre-season CFL football game in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday, June 16, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Football fans have every reason to show up to BC Place for tonight's CFL matchup, but will they? 

The B.C. Lions enter tonight's game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as winners of three straight, all of them on the road, and have emerged as an early season Grey Cup contender. 

But, despite the Lions' promising start and the team owning one of the league's most talented rosters, only 19,175 fans turned out for the home opener against Edmonton four weeks ago, the smallest crowd for a home opener since 2002. 

"We have a great team. I'm stoked about it," said longtime fan Christopher Jones. "The Lions may not have a lot of fans right now, but the ones that are there are hardcore and they always have been." 

Older crowds

Jones has been going Lions games since 1971.

"My neighbour took me to a game and I fell in love with the team and have been a fan ever since," he said. 

Neither of his parents liked or watched football. So, as a 12-year-old, he would sneak out of his childhood Coquitlam home on Lions game days and catch a bus west to Empire Stadium.

Longtime Lions fan Christopher Jones has been attending games since childhood. (Christopher Jones / Facebook)

He would make sure to carry with him a bag of Nalley's brand chips to the game, which thanks to a promotion, would allow him free entry to the Empire Stadium.

"It was smash-mouth football. I just loved it." 

Jones also fondly remembers the raucous atmosphere of games during the mid-1980s when the Don Matthews-coached Lions played inside a packed BC Place. 

"There was no better experience than 55,000 people cheering on your team," he said. 

Today, he  describes the atmosphere at game as "hollow." Average attendance has fallen each of the past four seasons, down from 30,356 in 2012 to 21,055 last season. 

Jones says he sees few young fans making the same trip he made decades ago.

"It's the same fans. They've just gotten older. I'm 55 years old and I'm a young'un."

Family football

The Lions hope that victories on the field will win over young fans and families.

"Our fans have had a chance to watch us the past three weeks on the road and hopefully we can translate that to ticket sales," said George Chayka, the Lions vice-president of business.

Last year, the team rebounded after a pair of disappointing seasons, recording 12 wins and coming one game short of reaching the Grey Cup.

Fans watch the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Eskimos play during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, June 24, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"Our team made great strides last year," he said. "

Chayka estimates the average Lions fan is between 35 and 55 years old. 

To bring that age down, the team has focused on its social media presence, providing behind the scenes video providing on-demand content through its social media channels. 

For the first time, the team introduced a kids club, and featured several promotions with discounted tickets for summer games.

"Building that connection with young people is the future of any sports franchise."

Winning back the fans

But moving the goalposts with Vancouver's notoriously fickle sports fans won't be easy. 

"When you lose them ... you have to work twice as hard to get them back," said said sports business analyst Tom Mayenknecht.

He says the Lions face a crowded local sports market, one that's further saturated by the popularity of the Seattle Seahawks.

Superfan Russ Gordon says Lions games provide the best entertainment value and fan experience among local sports teams. (Russ Gordon / Facebook)

The team also has to work around ongoing construction around BC Place, increasingly limited downtown parking, and heavy traffic for fans driving in from the suburbs. 

In 2015, the Lions began closing off the upper bowl of the stadium in an effort to create a more lively atmosphere closer to the field. While the days of 50,000 fans may not return soon, Mayenknecht says a full crowd in a smaller seating area can make for a better experience.

"It's not just the Lions. 25,000 is a pretty well a celebration in markets like Montreal, Ottawa and Hamilton." 

"The question is, what is the new normal for the B.C. Lions?"

About the Author

Matthew Black

@TheMatthewBlack

Matthew Black is a B.C.-based writer, producer and reporter. He writes mostly about sports and has worked for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver as well as abroad in London.

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