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Vancouver Whitecaps leading the field in new-fan momentum

It is fair to say that the past 12 months have been rough for sports fans in British Columbia. The Vancouver Canucks have their hopes pinned on winning the National Hockey League (NHL) draft lottery and landing a hot prospect.

It is fair to say that the past 12 months have been rough for sports fans in British Columbia.

The Vancouver Canucks have their hopes pinned on winning the National Hockey League (NHL) draft lottery and landing a hot prospect. The BC Lions barely made it to the Canadian Football League (CFL) playoffs and were defeated fairly handily by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The Vancouver Whitecaps said goodbye to Alphonso Davies and have endured a slow start of the Major League Soccer (MLS) season. One of the province’s main “farm” teams – baseball’s Vancouver Canadians – did not qualify for the latest playoffs. The other, hockey’s Vancouver Giants, did.

In Statistics Canada studies, British Columbia consistently ranks first as the province where the largest proportion of the population is involved in sports. Our mild weather plays a role in allowing enthusiasts to keep fit all year, although there are some difficulties – particularly for soccer leagues – in the wet months of October and November.

The sports landscape for fans has also gone through remarkable changes. The Canucks remain the dominant franchise, an understandable fact as they are the representatives of the country’s actual national sport. When Research Co. asked British Columbians which sports team most accurately represents the province, more than half (53%) selected the Canucks. The Lions, at 18%, were a distant second.

There is a bit of a generational divide when it comes to the way the province’s two longest-standing professional franchises are perceived. Residents aged 18 to 34 are more likely to select the Canucks (63%) than those aged 35 to 54 (60%) and those aged 55 and over (44%). Conversely, backing for the Lions is highest with baby boomers (22%) and drops with generation X (14%) and millennials (12%).

Several factors explain these numbers. Television deals have made the Canucks more ubiquitous than they were before, and tickets to Rogers Arena are now more readily available than they were at the height of the Stanley Cup runs of a decade ago.

The NHL franchise continues to have a strong fan base because it managed to connect in a meaningful way with British Columbians of all ethnicities. This cannot be understated. The people in charge of the Vancouver Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association were not as attentive to this growing group of prospective fans. This is one of the reasons the Grizzlies now play their home games in Tennessee.

For the BC Lions, the challenge is distinctive. The average age of fans who attend a CFL game at BC Place keeps climbing, as younger residents of the province appear to be more enthralled with the National Football League, especially after the neighbouring Seattle Seahawks managed to have a good run that included two Super Bowl appearances and one Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Still, it is the “relatively new” kid on the block – the Whitecaps – that carries with it sizable momentum. When asked if they have become more interested in each of the province’s sports teams over the past five years, 11% of British Columbians mentioned the Whitecaps. The Canucks managed a decent 10%, followed by the Lions at 9%.

The Whitecaps are the undisputed leader in momentum among British Columbians aged 35 to 54 (16%, with the Canucks a distant second at 10% and the Lions at 7%). These middle-aged soccer fans are now a key component of the Whitecaps’ fan base. Years of watching European soccer on television (something that has become more convoluted as Canadian cable companies no longer hold the rights to the best leagues) have given way to a new favourite, local team.

And speaking of the local angle, the Whitecaps also boast superior momentum among Metro Vancouver residents, with 16% of them saying they are more interested in the MLS team than they were five years ago. Once again, the numbers are lower for both the Canucks (9%) and the Lions (7%).

Just what impact the Whitecaps end up having on the sports spectrum in British Columbia will have to be measured as the fan base ages and evolves. The province’s middle-aged soccer fans grew up watching games from faraway places, at odd hours and with few opportunities to enjoy the beautiful game in a suitable stadium. In just a few years, the jerseys of European teams that were easily spotted on the streets have been replaced with Whitecaps gear. This is not an easy task to pull off. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.