BC Sports Box Office: The BC Lions are hoping for a record year on and off the field

The Lions’ home opener once again proved popular but can they follow through the rest of the season?

The excitement cascading out from Duane Vienneau is hard to ignore. The president and chief operating officer of the BC Lions is practically yelling into his phone’s mic as he details the many different initiatives and projects that the team has forthcoming this season. But there’s something else mixed in with all that passion: the teensiest, tiniest trace of trepidation.

It’s early July, and the Lions’ season has started much in the same way last year’s did: a sold-out lower bowl at BC Place and a big win against the Edmonton Elks. The home opener—labelled the team’s Concert Kickoff night—featured OneRepublic last year and LL Cool J this time around. Both events were, by all accounts, massive successes and representative of the overall excitement and enthusiasm being brought to the team by its new owner, local business figure Amar Doman.

But the shine came off quickly last year. That OneRepublic game brought 34,082 people to 777 Pacific Boulevard—the largest number posted by a CFL team in 2022. The next Lions’ home game was two weeks later as BC hosted the Toronto Argonauts. With Victoria-born quarterback Nathan Rourke (the closest thing the Lions have had to a homegrown star since Lui Passaglia) slinging it, the Lions stomped the Argos 44–3. Attendance wise, however, it wasn’t so pretty: 15,500 fans made it to the game. For a stadium that has a capacity of over 50,000, that isn’t exactly ideal.

For the rest of the year, the story was similar. 17,603 for the Family Day game against Winnipeg. 16,155 against Hamilton. 16,342 for the revenge match against the Elks. The Lions only went over 20,000 fans twice more in 2022—against the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their well-travelled fans and for the home finale Fan Appreciation night against Winnipeg.

This year, keeping up the momentum from the opener, especially without Rourke—who signed a contract with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars—is absolutely crucial for the squad. Announced attendance for this year’s opener was 33,103, a league high so far this season.

“If you have good attendance and go for a dip, that momentum sort of goes down,” says Vienneau. “We believe, if we have a good showing in the second game, our momentum is going to continue. We don’t expect it to be LL Cool J numbers—that was a special thing. But if we get that lower bowl close to sold out for our second game on a Sunday without that extra draw of an LL Cool J or a OneRepublic, that’s a good step for us in the right direction. Our overriding goal for this year was to consistently sell out the lower bowl. That would be a huge win for us.”

With an aging fanbase that’s losing more and more of its potential younger demographic to the behemoth that is American football fandom, the Lions have struggled to remain competitive in the marketplace in recent years. In 2012, the team averaged more than 30,000 fans per game. Average attendance dropped every year until 2022, when the concert game buffed up the number to just over 20,000. The 17,803 average in 2019 was the lowest in 21 years (excepting the 2020 and 2021 seasons, which were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic).

There are a number of tactics that Vienneau and company are employing to get fans marching back to the stadium en masse. Theme nights are once again a big draw, with new additions this year including July 22’s Watermelon Smash, which saw rival tailgate parties between Lions fans and Saskatchewan Roughriders fans on Terry Fox Plaza.

But Vienneau has also made season tickets a priority—a move that has paid off so far, with a 45-percent increase in the team’s season ticket base. “In the off-season, we weren’t sitting on a beach in Hawaii, we were working hard to increase that season ticket membership,” he says.

One of the ways the club did that was through offering a variety of season ticket options. “We created something called the Quarterback Club, which is essentially a kid’s ticket that comes with an adult ticket,” explains Vienneau. “The kid feels like they’re in charge, and they bring their mom or dad. It’s a bit of a reverse. That program alone sold us 500 new season seats.”

Last year, for the playoffs, the Lions created Island tickets that come with bus rides to and from the ferry. “It was a huge success. And then people asked us to do the Interior, too,” says Vienneau. “So we said, Why don’t we do that for season’s seats? We have six games this year that are at 4 p.m.; someone from the Island or Interior can get to the game, watch it and still get home in one day.”

Those two programs, says Vienneau, made it easier for people to become fans of the Lions. “We don’t just say, Hey, buy a season ticket,” he says. “We really target people, reach out, determine what sort of special programs we have to find for whatever region or type of fan to make it work.”

As pivotal as Vienneau has been for the team’s marketing and ticket sales to this point, one gets the feeling that the Lions really hired him for 2024, when they’ll be hosting the Grey Cup. Vienneau most recently served as chief Grey Cup and events officer for the CFL. The plan for that game has already been designed: it’ll feature tailgate parties, street closures and zip lines. The league will be taking over both the east and west convention centres and will be hosting non-stop concerts.

“Vancouver has had good Grey Cups in the past, but we haven’t really done a lot of the outdoor activations some of the other cities have done,” he says. “We’re just trying to bring the best of the best with some additions and make Vancouver the best one that’s ever been.”

For now, though, Vienneau is focused on the season at hand. A couple of days after the Lions’ follow-up game against the Alouettes (a 35–19 win by the Leos, with 20,106 fans in attendance), I asked Vienneau via email for his take on the crowd. The excitement was still evident over the screen. The trepidation less so.

“We are very happy with the fan support for game two. The fam fest theme was a huge hit: the stadium was loud and enthusiastic. And we got a big WIN.”

Player to watch

After starring for Laval University, Mathieu Betts was one of the last cuts of Chicago Bears minicamp in 2019. He played for Edmonton for a couple of seasons before signing with B.C. last year. Over a full season in 2022, he had seven sacks. This year, the 28-year-old has nine in five games to lead the league. Betts is on pace for the most sacks since former NFL star Cameron Wake had 23 in 18 games.