Sunday, August 30, 2009

My (non-existent) kingdom for a roof!

The latest news on the B.C. Place front, which Duane covered here, is rather depressing. As most know, the $365 million plan to replace the existing solid roof with a retractable one and renovate the interior of B.C. Place was an important part of the Whitecaps' successful bid to join Major League Soccer. However, Global BC (a local television channel)'s sources have told them that "the roof replacement may no longer be a key government priority and it may be forced to pull its funding in the current economic climate," meaning "the project could face some serious delays or be cancelled altogether". As the Globe and Mail story linked above shows, nothing's been officially decided yet, though.

It's understandable that the provincial government is looking for ways to cut costs. After all, they're facing a deficit that could reach as high as $4 billion this year, despite pre-election predictions in February that it would only be $495 million. They've already looked into cuts to health care, education and other services, and they've brought in an unpopular harmonized tax to pull in federal government funds to the tune of $1.6 billion. Given all that, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that they're looking at scrapping the B.C. Place renovations.

However, what's troubling is the two-faced stance the governing Liberals have taken on the issue. Back when the renovations were first announced, the Liberals were all over them, using them as political capital in an attempt to appeal to sports fans. At the official press conference announcing the Whitecaps' bid for MLS status, B.C. Liberals were again present in numbers showing their support; former Attorney-General Wally Oppal was one of the featured speakers, and Premier Gordon Campbell sent a video message of support. Moreover, the press package was filled with letters supporting the bid from Liberal MLAs.

Even worse was the stance the Liberals took this year. Just before the May election, news leaked that the opposition New Democratic Party was planning to cut funding for the B.C. Place retractable roof, replace it with a simpler fixed roof and redistribute the saved money into social programs. Of course, soccer and CFL fans were outraged, and their protests were heard. The NDP soon came out with a statement calling the whole thing "a Liberal lie" and maintaining that they'd always been at war with Eurasia in favour of a B.C. Place retractable roof. Few believed them, but it looked like the roof was safely out of the realm of politics and back into the realm of sports. Of course, the Liberals made great political capital out of that incident, so it's very disappointing that they're now going back on their word.

That wasn't the Liberals' only attempt to appeal to soccer fans, either. In May, just 10 days before the election, they announced provincial funding for an expensive new training facility for the Whitecaps. Coincidentally, that just happened to be in the battleground riding of Delta South, where the aforementioned attorney-general Wally Oppal was facing a stiff challenge from former Delta councillor Vicki Huntington, running as an Independent. It wasn't enough to sway the election, as Huntington won narrowly, but the timing and location did give the move substantial political overtones. As I wrote then (in the above piece), that didn't necessarily make it a bad thing, as the training facility will certainly prove beneficial for soccer in B.C. (unless it gets scrapped as well). It does show that the Liberals were quite happy to support the Whitecaps just a few months ago when there was an election coming up, though. It's disappointing to see them switch directions at a time when it's harder to call them to account for it.

What does it all mean? Well, I don't think it's doom and gloom for the Whitecaps just yet. For one thing, the roof hasn't definitely been cancelled yet. Moreover, there's a huge amount of support for MLS soccer in Vancouver, and that was already enough to sway one political party that was considering scrapping the roof project. The roof issue's been one of the chief subjects of political discussion in the Lower Mainland this past week, and there are plenty of people up in arms; the Liberals may see that and reconsider this ill-advised move. Also, regardless of politics, leaving B.C. Place as is isn't exactly an option. The current roof has plenty of issues and isn't a viable long-term solution. They could replace it with a fixed roof, as the NDP planned, but that might only save $125-150 million. Is it really worth antagonizing a massive base of soccer and football fans over what amounts to chump change when you consider government budgets?

For another thing, there are options for the Whitecaps even if this retractable roof plan falls through. They have played friendlies in B.C. Place before, and it can work as a soccer stadium. This also might finally clear the political roadblocks towards building their waterfront stadium. Personally, I'd prefer a renovated B.C. Place, as it would likely have more capacity; I don't want to see a situation where tons of fans can't check out the games thanks to a small stadium. The waterfront soccer-specific stadium would be better from a pure soccer standpoint, though, as it could likely be grass instead of turf. I doubt it could be built by 2011 even if the political opposition vanished overnight (not bloody likely), but it might be possible to get it done by 2012 or 2013. B.C. Place could work just fine for MLS for a couple of years, even without renovations.

As I discussed with Jason Davis and Ginge this morning on the Match Fit USA Podcast], I don't think MLS is going to pull the Vancouver franchise regardless of what happens. They already have a lot committed to Vancouver, and as I've written before, the Vancouver-Portland-Seattle rivalry will be huge for the league. Moreover, there aren't really that many good alternatives left; Vancouver and Portland were the strongest of the MLS bids, and the other cities have moved on with their lives for the moment. Montreal could still get in, and they'd certainly be a good addition, but at the moment, it looks like they'll be added anyway without taking anyone else's franchise.

Even without the renovations, the Whitecaps still have a tenable place to play and one that could work for MLS. Moreover, interest in Vancouver has been huge; MLS tickets have been snapped up as soon as they've become available, and interest in the current USL team has swelled as well. Despite currently sitting seventh in the USL-1 table, the Whitecaps recorded their ninth-straight sellout and their tenth of the season in the game I live-blogged last night. That tenth sellout tied a season record from 1987, their first year in Swangard Stadium. Seeing as they didn't reach that mark last year on their way to the USL-1 championship, I'd imagine that the increased ticket sales are proof that there's more interest in the team thanks to their upcoming MLS status. It's hard to envision MLS throwing away what looks like a fantastic soccer market with plenty of population, excellent demographics, strong support from local media and pre-existing rivalries with Montreal, Seattle and Portland.

Cancelling the roof renovations would still hurt both the Whitecaps and Lions, though. B.C. Place is showing its age at the moment. It's a decent facility for football, and a capable if unimpressive one for soccer. However, there are plenty of times when it could sorely use a retractable roof, especially during summer heat waves. That would make Lions' games a much better experience for fans, and it would create a great atmosphere for Whitecaps' games. As I've written before, the retractable roof plans are very impressive; they're based off of Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, which is used regularly for Bundesliga matches and has also hosted World Cup and Confederations Cup games. Seeing that potentially scrapped in pursuit of a political agenda, by a government that promised the funding in the first place and has used their support of the Whitecaps for political capital time and time again, is incredibly disappointing. My message to the Liberals is simple: forget the politics, forget the cuts, keep your word for once and just build the bloody roof already.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

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