Next Friday is a momentous day for football fans in Vancouver. When Canada take to the pitch at BC Place to face Honduras, it will be the first World Cup qualifier to be played in the city in over 11 years.
Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium hosted the last such match in October 2004. That game end in a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in front of 4,728 fans. Canada will be hoping for a much different result against Honduras on November 13th, and in front of a much bigger crowd.
Just what kind of crowd the national team will draw in a city that it has long neglected has been a big talking point amongst hardcore fans and local media. We know Vancouver is a soccer city when it comes to the Whitecaps and at World Cup time, but how many of them actually care about the Canadian national team? This was always going to be interesting aspect to gauge.
The lack of any kind of update is usually a worrying sign, but we finally got an actual idea of ticket numbers when CSA President Victor Montagliani spoke to reporters in Vancouver on Thursday morning.
And thankfully, those numbers aren’t looking too bad at all.
“We’re at approximately 15 [thousand] right now,” Montagliani said of tickets sales for the Honduras match. “We’ve got two weeks left pretty much. We have a big Whitecaps game obviously inbetween. We’re confident with the build up.
“The team will be here pretty soon, this weekend. A lot of them will be at the Whitecaps game. So I think we’ll be able to sort of push into the 20’s.”
So the numbers are promising but at the same time a little disappointing.
When the match announcement was made in Vancouver on September 14th, the general feeling from the Canadian Soccer Association side was that the game wasn’t going to be a tough sell and if Vancouver struggled to fill the lower bowl at BC Place then it couldn’t really call itself a “soccer city”.
I tended to agree. It is the national team after all and it’s a World Cup qualifier.
With eight days before the game, expectations have been adjusted a little.
“A lower bowl sell out was always our goal,” Montagliani admits. “But if we get north of 21, between 21 and 26, that’s good. If you look in comparison at the same round last time around, we played them all in Toronto and the highest attendance was 18. That’s 2012 when we played Honduras again, and Panama and Cuba.
“So our goal was to surpass what we did in Toronto back in the last round of round four. We’re confident that we can surpass that and if we can get as close as we can to a lower bowl sell out, that will be great.”
Looking back to that miserable failed campaign for Brazil 2014, the attendances in Toronto for the three, then third round, matches were pretty steady.
Canada drew 16,132 for the 0-0 draw with Honduras in June 2012 and 17,586 for the 1-0 win over Panama in September, before topping out with 17,712 for the 3-0 win over Cuba in October.
If the CSA are targeting beating those attendance figures this time around, then they certainly seem well on their way in Vancouver to kick things off.
But were the attendances in 2012 relatively poor and disappointing? You can argue both ways but personally I believe a national team in a football loving country should sell out a stadium the side of BMO Field in Toronto for all World Cup qualifiers. Maybe I live in a fantasy world where football is king, but I truly believe this should be the realistic expectation.
Which brings us back around to whether Canada cares about it’s national men’s soccer team. We’re always saying here at AFTN that Canada is a footballing nation. But is it?
Montagliani firmly believes it is and feels the crowds the national team draws and the interest in the team is more than comparable with elsewhere in the world.
“It’s funny. because I know our results have always been mediocre at best,” Montagliani honestly admitted. “But we’re always so hard on ourselves that we’re not a soccer country. But if you actually compare us to most countries in the world, we actually are a soccer country because a lot of professional leagues in the world do not get this kind of attendance. A lot of national teams don’t get this kind of attendance.
“So yeah, if you’re comparing it to the big five in the world, of course, but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. But I think if you look at it from a global perspective, Canada is a soccer country and I think the numbers and the proliferation of the game over the last ten years I’d say, or more, has shown that.”
The biggest factor in increasing support, interest and awareness in the Canadian national team is success on the pitch. That’s the hard part, but the signs are there that this current squad of talent Canadians has the ability to go far.
On the pitch success aside, to grow the game, you also need to promote the game and frankly the promotion of the Canada v Honduras match in Vancouver has been dreadful.
I’ve seen online ads, but little else. Online ads targeting the likes of me do nothing. We’re already the ones that know about the game. Promotion elsewhere has been lacking, making the 15,000 ticket sales all the more impressive.
How many of the Whitecaps crowd know, or care, that the game is on? How many of the general football loving fans in the city and the province?
Montagliani admits that the initial promotion has been slow, and perhaps a little understated, but with just over a week to go he fully expects the CSA promotional machine to go into overdrive.
“I heard a little bit about that,” Montagliani told us when we asked about the criticism around the lack of promotion for the match. “I think you’re going to see a lot of that ramped up. We have to be cognisant too that there’s another big game in town too and we’re working together with the club [Whitecaps]. They’ve been excellent with us.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of this ramp up over the next two weeks. What we have found too, and I think a lot of professional sports [have], is that if you do your advertising too far in advance, it gets lost. It gets lost with too many other things.
“You want to hit it hard and often, as close as you get to the event. In fact I know a lot of sponsors are like that. A lot of sponsors like to get in at the right time because there’s too much of a lag and they don’t see a build up. I think you’re going to see a bit of a build up over the next two weeks, I guess, leading up to the game.”
Slightly worrying that the President thinks that there is still two weeks left to promote the game. There’s eight days. But Vancouver is, annoyingly, known as a walk up market, so I do expect a late flurry of sales once the promotion is increased. If the final crowd next Friday isn’t over 20,000 it would be a major disappointment.
But as Montagliani said, there’s another big game in town before then. The Whitecaps have now sold out the full lower bowl for their MLS Western Conference semi-final second leg against Portland. That’s 27,500 fans. Will they be targeted to head back to the stadium five days later to watch Canada? Hopefully yes.
There’s a big buzz in the city right now around the Whitecaps and football, and that can surely only get people to the Canada v Honduras game. Right?
“Listen, at the end of the day, the Whitecaps have to win,” Montagliani said. “Not if, they have to! Would it help us? Absolutely it would help us, but I think it’s more I look at it in a bit of isolation. You want our club, our home team to do well. Nothing would make me happier to see a Montreal – Vancouver final.”
You can almost here the alarm in MLS headquarters at such a prospect!
But back to the World Cup qualifiers.
Canada have six matches ahead of them in this round before the Hex. It’s the semi-final stage in the CONCACAF qualifying and every point is crucial. Any advantage Canada can give themselves, they have to take it.
Which brings us back to Vancouver. That turf pitch could be a big advantage.
Canada’s two remaining home games at this stage are against Mexico on March 25th and El Salvador on September 6th. Could we see either of those matches in Vancouver as well or has it already been decided that Toronto will get their team back? Montagliani said there’s been no decision made as of yet.
“That won’t happen until after we have this home and away here,” Montagliani told us. “We’ll sit down in December, January, then we’ll decide, probably before the end of January, where the March 25th Mexico game is.”
It’s been 11 years since the national team played in Vancouver. Will it be another 11? Unlikely, but how much does bringing Canada back to BC Place depend on ticket sales for this Honduras match? Not at all, according to Montagliani.
“We’ve never seen it as a referendum,” Montagliani added. “We’ve always seen it as British Columbia and Vancouver has always been a hotbed for soccer. I’m from here, so I know that intimately. It was just the right decision to make. Not only for the team, but for a lot of reasons. Technical, tactical reasons.
“Listen, at the end of the day, it’s about three points. Do want a full stadium? Absolutely. Do we want the fans to go home happy? Absolutely. Our primary goal is three points.”
One thing has at least been finalised and that is the TV deal for the national team.
After bouncing around Telelatino, online streams and legendary Mad Dog and Maestro commentaries, Canada’s national team has a new home for now – TSN. At least for the home qualifiers. Who knows the fun we’ll have in store for the away ones!
“TSN is our TV provider for this round,” Montagliani confirmed. “All three [home] Canada games, between now and next September, will be shown on TSN. Going forward, it’s a one year deal because we don’t know what’s going to happen after this round. I’m not at liberty to say what the actual contract is but obviously there’s options there.
“In terms of away games, it’s a little bit more complicated because we have to negotiate those rights away from those countries. So we’re in the middle of doing that and hopefully we’ll be showing all the away games as well. It’s not as easy to say you can shoe them all. You can’t go and plant your cameras in somebody’s stadium without their permission.”
But forget TSN next Friday. If you’re free and in the Vancouver area and you’re not heading along to BC Place to cheer on your national team, shame on you! If we want to see Canada back in our city, we need to “Pack The Bowl” and show the CSA that Vancouver really is Canada’s “soccer city”.