Thursday, May 15, 2008

Whitecaps to push for MLS status?

Some interesting news came out today. The Vancouver Whitecaps, who have been trying for ages to give the city a privately-funded new showcase stadium (supposed to be paid for entirely by Vancouver multi-millionare Greg Kerfoot, the team's owner who has been a key financial backer of the growth of soccer in Canada) with little success, may have finally made the breakthrough needed on a stadium of suitable size to support their Major League Soccer ambitions. However, the potential breakthrough has come from an unexpected direction that may cause as many problems as it creates. According to local radio station CKNW, both the Whitecaps and Lions will be represented tomorrow morning at a news conference called by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, which is believed to be on the subject of a new retractable roof for B.C. Place. The Whitecaps told CKNW last week that they'd consider playing in B.C. Place with the new roof if it helped their chances of landing an MLS franchise.

On the face of it, this seems like it may be a problematic proposition for the Whitecaps. B.C. Place was opened in 1983, and it's appeared to show its age recently, most notably when the roof collapsed in January 2007. It also goes against the soccer-specific stadium model so desired by MLS. However, the idea makes a lot more sense once you consider comments from Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi in a April 30 Vancouver Province article by Jim Jamieson.

"The club is still 100 per cent committed to building a soccer-specific, natural grass stadium on the Vancouver waterfront, but would consider B.C. Place as a temporary venue if major renos are announced shortly as expected," Jamieson writes. 'Our priority is still the waterfront stadium, but given that it's taking as long as it has, we need to have alternatives if the opportunity to move to a higher level is available,' said Lenarduzzi. 'It would be a short-term solution, as we're looking at the waterfront stadium being our permanent solution but of course we're mired in that process right now.'

Now, that makes a lot of sense. The key goal here is for Vancouver to get into MLS, and the window is rapidly closing. MLS has said it will cap expansion at 18 teams. There are currently 14 teams, and two more franchises have already been approved (Seattle next year and Philadelphia in 2010). The Montreal Impact already have a bid on the table, backed by their brand-new natural-grass Saputo Stadium, and St. Louis is apparently applying as well. Given the rapidly expanding popularity of MLS, it's hard to believe that these are the only other cities interested. If both those clubs make it in and the league sticks to its previous comments, Vancouver would be on the outside looking in. Time is clearly of the essence, so a move to a newly-reinvigorated B.C. Place (which MLS has deemed acceptable as long as there's a long-term plan for a soccer-specific stadium) would dramatically boost the team's
chances of cracking the exclusive MLS club.

B.C. Place also can handle soccer. It played host to the old NASL Whitecaps for several years, and staged the last Soccer Bowl before the league folded. More recently, 48,172 soccer fans packed the joint for last November's clash between the Whitecaps and David Beckham's L.A. Galaxy. It isn't the ideal outdoor stadium the Whitecaps have been dreaming of, but with a new roof, it would make a great interim venue until the new stadium gets finished. The capacity's also a tremendous advantage: far better than the 6,868 seats in Swangard Stadium (the Caps' current home) or even the 20,500 at TFC's BMO Field. If the Whitecaps make it into MLS, there will be likely be tremendous ticket demand similar to what happened with TFC. The Vancouver area has long been very supportive of top-quality soccer, and the old NASL team used to regularly sell out Empire Stadium (32,000 capacity). With B.C. Place, fans wouldn't have to sell their soul for a ticket the way you have to for a TFC game at BMO Field.

There are other alternatives coming out of the woodwork as well for the long-term stadium solution, which should put some pressure on the Vancouver bureaucrats who have dithered for five years over accepting a free stadium (ironic that this is happening just up I-5 from where a team is about to be stolen due to the lack of a publicly-funded stadium). One compelling one is the idea of building a new stadium in the suburbs out in Surrey, just off the SkyTrain rapid-transit line, floated by my esteemed father a while ago and promptly followed up on by the Vancouver Province with a story by Kent Spencer (which included Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts offering support for the proposal) and an editorial backing the idea. A downtown stadium would be more desirable, but Surrey is a viable alternative (especially due to the easy access provided by transit to the western part of Surrey, where the stadium would likely be located), and its inclusion in the mix should give Vancouver council a little pressure to hurry up on the downtown proposal for fear of losing out. Suburban stadiums have worked out well in other MLS locations, notably Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts (home of the New England Revolution and the NFL's New England Patriots) and Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (home of the New York Red Bulls, and the NFL's New York Giants and New York Jets).

As the Globe's Matthew Sekeres wrote in his excellent article last month, the team is quite happy to look at different stadium solutions.

"Maybe I underplay it, but I don't think it would make a difference," Lenarduzzi said. "What we're saying is, 'We can build it anywhere, just tell us where.'"
Five years later, that question awaits an answer.
In other communities, with a smidgen of political will and dollop of pressure from the local millionaire, an answer would've come in five minutes.

Perhaps the presence of political backing in Surrey (where landing a pro sports franchise would be a huge coup for the city) will be enough to get things done, or perhaps the idea of competition will produce new will in Vancouver to keep the team downtown (even though they currently play in another suburb, Burnaby). Either way, at least the team looks to have some options now.

Regardless of where the new soccer-specific stadium is located, one (and a preferably natural-grass one) is still desperately needed. However, this announcement on B.C. Place is very promising: it should give the Whitecaps a good jump on their bid for MLS by providing a suitable high-capacity venue for them to play in. In turn, the team gaining MLS status would put more pressure on local officials to get things done on a new stadium. It's rather a reverse of the normal model of stadium, then team, but a similar manuever worked for the Blue Jays many years ago: they got into Major League Baseball with the terrible confines of Exhibition Place on the promise that a new stadium would be built down the road, and then they were able to use that leverage to forge the political and financial support needed for the SkyDome. Let's hope stadium history can repeat itself in Vancouver.

Update: 7:42 P.M.: Jim Jamieson has a new story up on the expected deal.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:10 PM

    I can't wait for the MLS to add Vancouver as a new expansion team. I would drive down to Vancouver for every game if that happened and would definitely secure season tickets. It would be a dream come true!!