British Columbia·In Depth

The Vancouver Canadians are more popular than ever but no return to 'AAA' in sight

With the Vancouver Canadians nearly doubling the average attendance of the rest of the Northwest League, some fans would like to be rewarded with a higher calibre of baseball. But the team isn't convinced the fan base really cares.
The Vancouver Canadians lead the Northwest League in attendance and nearly doubled the league average in 2015. (Vancouver Canadians/Twitter)

If you're hoping to head down to Nat Bailey stadium for the Canada Day game against the Spokane Indians, I hope you've already got your tickets. As of last check, there are three single tickets left for the game.

Jam-packed houses at Nat Bailey stadium have become the norm for the Vancouver Canadians in recent years with the team improving its attendance record every year since 2006.

Last year the C's nearly doubled the average attendance of the rest of the Northwest League, drawing more than 5,800 fans per game while the rest of the league mustered just short of 3,200.

The team has become so popular that its tickets have become the target of scalpers. Dozens of tickets for tomorrow's nearly-sold out Canada Day game are listed on Craigslist, and almost all of them are priced well above face value.

In fact, it seems scalpers have bought 10 rows of Section 9 for tomorrow's game (that's 120 tickets) and each ticket is marked up $12 from its $14 face value.

How have the C's done it?

What is it about this Vancouver Canadians franchise that has Vancouver sports fans buzzing? For starters, it seems like every year the team works to improve the stadium and keep the experience fresh for its throngs of fans.

A couple of years back, it was a new video scoreboard. Last year, it was the new porch in left field and new seats along the third baseline, and this year, the Yard Dog which is a three-foot-long hot dog. Nom nom.

And of course there's always the highly entertaining sushi mascot race (my money's always on Chef Wasabi).

Canadians' president Andy Dunn says affordability is extremely important, especially in a city facing a housing affordability crisis. 

"You want to keep it fresh. You want to keep people entertained whether you come to one game, five games or 38 games," Dunn said. 

"You can afford to come to multiple times over the course of the season ... you can bring your wife and your children out to the ballpark and it's not going to cost you your mortgage."

Single Class A Short-Season baseball can be Bad Bearsian

But what about the product on the field? There are nights at the Nat where the errors, the base running mistakes and the lack of offense can be tough to watch. There are nights when it becomes downright Bad News Bearsian.

Just to give you an idea of what we're talking about here, there's Major League Baseball, then there's Triple-A, a step below that. There's Double-A. Below that, there's Class A and a half step below that is Class A Short-Season baseball. The Vancouver Canadians play at that last level. 

Dominic Coletta is a die-hard baseball fan and a lifelong denizen of Nat Bailey who would love to see better baseball on the field like Vancouver had back in the 1990s but recognizes there are obstacles.

"It would be great, of course, to see a higher level of baseball being played. For now though, I'm pretty happy with what we have because, realistically, the hopes of having Triple-A in Vancouver would be pretty slim," Coletta said. 

"You'd probably be talking about rebuilding. You know, building a new stadium."

Weather and cost stand in the way of better baseball

Triple-A teams play 70 home games instead of the C's 38 game schedule, so they're on the field in April and May, just like in the big leagues. As we know, Vancouver weather isn't always co-operative with outdoor ball at those times of year.

C's president Andy Dunn says it comes down to cost, too. 

"Yeah, we've looked at it. It's a big cost factor when you just factor in cost of the franchise," Dunn said. 

"To acquire a Triple-A franchise it'll cost anywhere from $20 million to $25 million then you're probably going to have to put $10 million into Nat Bailey, so now you're looking at a $35 million to $40-million investment."

Give the people what they want

Sure there are the cost and weather concerns, but what it really comes down to is one big question: is Vancouver a baseball town?

Do the fans in this city flock to the Nat for the finer points of the great American pastime? Or are they simply there for a cheap ticket, a cold beer, maybe a three-foot hot dog and some bonus fireworks a few times each season?

President Andy Dunn thinks most people wouldn't notice a higher level of baseball, even if it was right in front of them.

"People will debate me, but I could put a Triple-A product out there on a Tuesday night and 80 per cent of the people wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

Super fan Dominic Coletta gets excited thinking about seeing near-Major League talent at the Nat, but despite his deep passion for the game, he's not convinced Vancouverites would really care about the better baseball. 

"Baseball's just not necessarily a household topic. People don't talk about it that much in the coffee shops or the pubs," Coletta said. 

"Is this a baseball city? No, it's not unfortunately."

So, the baseball may not be absolutely sterling out at Nat Bailey stadium, but the beers are cold, the tickets are cheap, the view is stunning and the dogs are three-feet long.

And it seems like that might just be exactly how Vancouver baseball fans like it.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Vancouverites pack the Nat but is this really a baseball city?


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