May 29, 2023
BC Lions playoff home game - first in years - symbolic of turnaround season

BC Lions playoff home game – first in years – symbolic of turnaround season

When I reached Duane Vieneau Tuesday morning to discuss the BC Lions, the excitement of the club’s new COO practically erupted in his voice.

When I reached Duane Vieneau Tuesday morning to discuss the BC Lions, the excitement of the club’s new COO practically erupted in his voice.

For all the excitement, however, Vienneau kept one last proverbial pig in a poke about “a potentially important announcement” later in the week.

“I’ll just tell you one thing: it will be worth waiting for,” he said.

Viennau wasn’t joking. On Thursday, the Canadian Football League announced that Vancouver will host the 111th Gray Cup game and celebration in 2024. The news was apparently the culmination of a resurgent 2022 season that saw the team go after years of declining attendance and shrinking on-site visibility to suddenly become the city’s sporting darling.

“It was a construction season,” Vieneau said. “Every game and every day business gets a little bit better. We really wanted to be involved in the community, have little football players, families and people in general who are just proud of the BC Lions and wear the logo. And we are making great strides towards that.”

Most observers agree the club’s turning point came on August 19, 2021 – when new owner Amar Doman bought the Lions from the estate of previous owner David Braley. The past decade had not been good for the club — no home playoff game since 2016, no Gray Cup since 2011 and average BC Place game attendance fell from 28,011 in 2014 before the pandemic to 17,567 in 2019.

On Sunday, the Lions host the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL Western Conference semifinals, becoming the first Vancouver-based major league sports team in more than five years to bring a playoff home date to the city.

Such was the demand for tickets that the club opened the upper deck of BC Place for only the second time this season (after the regular season opener, which also featured a One Republic concert that drew 34,082 people).

“This is a huge opportunity for them,” said Matt Sekeres, co-host of the Vancouver Sports Talk podcast Sekeres & Price, who has covered BC’s sports scene for more than a decade. “And that’s because of the scarcity of it [home playoff games] with our local sports teams, which made this game an event… and Vancouver is an event city. We’ve just been very dry on that front for the last ten years.”

Doman was unavailable for comment due to his travel schedule to Toronto to announce the Gray Cup this week, but Vienneau – who was named to succeed outgoing President/CEO Rick LeLacheur in August – was one of the first major hires under the new ownership regime. Vienneau, previously the CFL’s chief Gray Cup and events officer, said Doman’s role in turning the tide was unmissable.

“He just has a huge passion and energy,” Vienneau said, referring to moves like the decision to introduce New Republic, the return of pre-game street parties in the Backyard Block, and a concerted effort to get football players/teams from the grassroots and the youth involve the fold. “He wants to do his best every day… and that drive to succeed is contagious.”

Officials including BC Secretary of Tourism Lisa Beare, Vancouver Mayor-elect Ken Sim, BC Lions President/CEO Rich LeLacheur and the club’s COO Duane Vienneau at Thursday’s Gray Cup announcement at the BC Place. Chuck Chiang, BIV

Vienneau’s attitude also plays a part in this strategy of engagement, fanfare and creating an event-like atmosphere. The COO’s previous experience organizing Gray Cups (he was the executive director of two such festivals in Edmonton) meant Vienneau knows how to create that atmosphere.

“A big part of Amar’s strategy is to make every BC Lions home game an event,” Vienneau said. “In my previous role, I was responsible for Canada’s largest annual sporting event. So we really want to look at that in the future – not saying we’re going to have a republic every single game – but how do we create an environment around our games so it can’t be overlooked because every game is going to be a little different?”

With that in mind, hosting the Gray Cup two years from now gives the club a timeline and goal to work towards, he added — creating meaningful events at Lions games over the next two years leading up to the big party in November 2024 .

“If you’re hosting a Gray Cup, everything from now through two years will be focused on both hosting the Gray Cup and working on your BC Lions football team at the same time,” Vieneau said. “So you have to do things together… Everything you do is [up to the Grey Cup] is almost like test events, if you will. You’re focused on building your team, fan activations and everything else you build on to host the Gray Cup.”

However, an elephant remains in the room. A big part of the team’s resurgence this year was new quarterback Nathan Rourke, whose record performance in the first 10 weeks of the season helped the team get off to an 8-1 start while capturing the attention of fans not only in BC but in the whole league attracted .

What makes Rourke even more of a draw for fans is the fact that he’s Canadian, born in Victoria and raised in Oakville, Ontario. What Rourke represents beyond his football success cannot be underestimated, said Justin Dunk, editor-in-chief of Canadian football news site 3DownNation and a former starting quarterback at the University of Guelph.

“We can see it on 3DownNation where everything we post about Rourke gets a very good read,” said Dunk, who lives in Ontario. “You can see it in the TSN TV ratings for every game Rourke has played in. Year after year there is a big upsurge in BC Lions games and even outside of the Lions fan base, I believe. There were average CFL fans and even new CFL fans tuning in.

“When Rourke was healthy, he’s able to score points at an historic pace. And I think that really got people’s attention across the country… My two little nephews, 7 and 6, watch more football with me now and their favorite team is the BC Lions. Her favorite player is Nathan Rourke. My oldest nephew, Liam, says he wants to be just like Nathan Rourke and be the quarterback for the BC Lions. I think that’s a tangible example of the impact he’s had.”

Rourke was injured in Week 11 despite returning to the final game of the regular season last week and set to play Calgary on Sunday. His historic performance has also sparked speculation that Rourke could be receiving offers from NFL clubs across the United States and could end up south of the border next season.

However, Sekeres is more hopeful. He noted that ultimately, fans resonate with winning, entertaining football. If the Lions can keep this facet of their operations running, they should be able to build on this year’s success on and off the field.

“If Rourke goes into the NFL and the Lions don’t adequately replace him as quarterback, then yes, it’s going to be very difficult even to maintain what they have this year,” Sekeres said. “But if Rourke is back or if they replaced the quarterback position appropriately, I think they can build on this year.

“Yes, it would be difficult to achieve the cachet of a Canadian quarterback like Rourke. But I think part of the problem with the BC Lions over the past decade has been not having that big star quarterback at a sustained level of success… A Canadian quarterback might get you some headlines you wouldn’t get otherwise, but You can replicate a certain level of success when you excel at quarterback.”

Vienneau said the club will do everything in its power to provide excellence on and off the field, adding that the CFL’s acceptance of the BC Lions to host the 2024 Gray Cup shows the league’s resurgent status recognized by the franchise.

“When hosting Gray Cups, there are many criteria that need to be met,” Vienneau said. “Basically, you have to write a business plan; Is the club ready? can you host Do you have the infrastructure and skills to take the Gray Cup to the next level? And I think that was very clear in our bid, starting with Amar at the helm.

“There’s just this renewed energy and excitement about everything that’s happened in the last year or so. And now everything from the team on the field to the team in the office is all about working hard to improve our game.”

#Lions #playoff #home #game #years #symbolic #turnaround #season

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *