Can The Whitecaps Capture The Vancouver Olympic Fervour?

We’ve moved into April, a new season is just eleven days away and the excitement is building. We’ll soon get to watch some live competitive football again after the horrible lengthy off season that we have here.

It’s our last season outside of the “big” league and no one really knows what it will bring on the pitch. Off it, we’re not too sure either. Will there be a string of sell-outs at Swangard, as the lure and build up of the forthcoming move to MLS captivates the Vancouver public’s imagination? Or will it just be like the last few seasons where it’s the hardcore of true football fans that know that supporting your local team is all that matters, no matter what level they play in?

When I attended the Caps MLS countdown celebrations last week it was great to hear Bob Lenarduzzi and Carl Valentine regale us with tales of the Whitecaps old NASL days. The proper NASL that is! As someone who wasn’t in the city at the time and someone who is a football history buff, it was a perfect night out!

The Whitecaps 1979 Soccer Bowl triumph was Vancouver’s largest sporting celebration prior to this year’s Winter Olympics. When over 100,000 people line the streets to see the celebratory return of the team, you know it’s a football mad city.

At least it was then. Is it still now?

I’ll be honest here, I personally have concerns as to how the city will treat the Whitecaps move to the “majors” and I sometimes wonder just how much appetite, interest and excitement there is for it and if the interest that is there what need to make this work the way it has elsewhere. I also know I’m not alone. Even The Province’s Marc Weber has questioned it on occasions recently.

There’s no doubting that there is a huge football loving population in the city, from the multinational ex-pats to homegrown fans. I just haven’t seen a lot of evidence that we’re going to take the city by storm like the Sounders did in Seattle and TFC did before them in Toronto.

I so want to be proved wrong and I probably will be and this time next year we can all look back at this post and laugh.

Having only moved to Vancouver in 2007, I have nothing to base this on really apart from apprehension. Well that and the friendly between the Caps and David Beckham’s LA Galaxy side just a few weeks after I’d moved over.

Now obviously friendly atmospheres are usually a bit stale, but it was awful in BC Place that night. Yes it was packed out but it was mainly young kids and teenybopping girls who just wanted to scream any time the has-been centre of attention went anywhere near the ball. When the crowd had to keep being reminded that they weren’t allowed to keep the balls that went in to the stand, it just left me shaking my head in disbelief.

Now, I’m pretty certain that the majority of people in attendance that night won’t be the core target market for the new MLS Caps. The strategy is clearly going to be for the Setanta-EPL-European watching stay at homes. It’s getting them off their asses and to the games that it going to be the hard part for the Caps front office.

The initial sell out of 5,000 season ticket deposits in less than 48 hours was impressive. It’s the next stage that will be key.

At the MLS event last week, as I was walking around with my bag full of new season ticket goodies, several people asked me what the bag was. Discussions then revealed that many of the people in attendance had not purchased season ticket for the forthcoming NASL season, with one adding that he had “no interest in the team just now”.

Sad to hear, but not unexpected of course. Even with the buzz of last season and the original MLS announcement and hype, we struggled to sell out Swangard at times. The North American sporting culture is all around “major leagues” and college sports. Division 2 and minor league teams will never carry the same sway. Never.

For the Caps though, the challenge in the next 11 months is to build up a buzz in the city for the 2011 season. To create a hot item ticket. The must have sporting ticket in town. To capture that Olympic buzz and the passion of sports fans all over the lower mainland and beyond.

The BC Lions have been fortunate in moving to the smaller capacity Empire Stadium. Every game will be a sell-out. Tickets will be hard to get. It’ll be the hot summer ticket and it should create a demand that will carry forward to their return to BC Place and boost their season tickets sales going forward.

The Caps need such a buzz and in this hockey mad city it will be hard. You just have to look at the recent “Best Of The City Readers Choice” awards handed out by the Westender newspaper last month.

Under the category “Best Local Sports Team”, it read: 1st – Vancouver Canucks (no surprise there), 2nd – Vancouver Giants (huge surprise for me), 3rd – BC Lions.

I’d have loved to have known where the Whitecaps placed. I would hope 4th and the Canadians didn’t pip us to that spot! Knowing some of the knobs that read and write in to the paper though, it wouldn’t surprise me. After all they did vote the Winter Olympics as “The Most Spectacular Failure” just days after everybody else was saying it was the best thing for the city and country ever.

You always have to take such polls with a pinch of salt, but it does show how much work the Caps need to do in establishing the team in the consciousness of the city’s sports fans.

In the NASL days of old, the Whitecaps were Vancouver’s number one sports team. Carl Valentine was voted the sports hero of the city. Will we see anywhere near this enthusiasm rekindled next year. Those in attendance last Thursday certainly still had it. We just need more from the past, more from the present and lots more for the future.

In the meantime, it’s up to all of us Southsiders to make sure we spread the word, bring the newbies, keep the special atmosphere we create and show them why football is the best sport in the world and that the Vancouver Whitecaps games are the one place that you want be next summer. It’s an uphill battle on paper, but I think we can do it.

Remember, it’s us that will be the ones creating the atmosphere and the buzz. We need to lead by example and hopefully the city will follow.

Mon the Caps.

*** With the new season just around the corner, we’ll be upping the regularity of the blog posts from now, so keep checking back ***

Share your thoughts