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Vancouver Whitecaps make pitch towards families as inflation, expenses hit fans

The Vancouver Whitecaps have the fourth lowest attendance in Major League Soccer
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Water is sprayed on the artificial turf before Switzerland and Ecuador play a FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer match at B.C. Place stadium in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday June 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The Vancouver Whitecaps have the fourth lowest attendance in Major League Soccer, but the team’s president and sporting director is defending the fan experience at B.C. Place.

Axel Schuster said the club is doing everything it can to make the games more family friendly, but that trade-off has been questioned by longtime fans who have dropped their season tickets.

Chris Anderson grew up as a Whitecaps fan and decided to take the plunge and purchase a season ticket in 2015.

But after eight years, he decided to pack it in after what he called mediocre performances from the team on and off the field.

Anderson said the mixing of families and casual fans in areas that had once specifically been for supporters groups, the rising cost of living in the city and an on-field product that underachieves are among the factors have turned away him and some of his fellow fans.

“It’s a part of where affordability to go to a match and check it out and for people to be enticed to go to a match and feel that the fans are being heard, or there is something that’s being done to make things happen that is different, (it) doesn’t feel like that. I don’t get the feeling of that,” Anderson said.

The Whitecaps are averaging 16,675 fans per match, with a regular-season low of 13,232 on Wednesday against the Houston Dynamo.

“B.C. Place is a massive venue,” Anderson said. “It’s not a purpose-built venue which hurts the experience.”

Schuster said the club understands the realities of the cost of living in Vancouver coupled with rising inflation.

“The city is very expensive and there are people that are living in the region of the city who are having a hard time. That’s a fact. We also see that with our employees,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Schuster added that he believes the club’s tickets are one of the most affordable in the league.

“Our average price is US$15 under the average price of MLS. We are definitely already one of the cheapest ticket pricing markets. That doesn’t mean that’s great who cannot afford so we still have to look in to that,” he said.

Schuster said the club has worked to make food and beverages more affordable for families attending the matches and is looking to integrate public transit in to the tickets the club provides.

The issue of low attendances at sporting events post COVID-19 pandemic has affected a variety of sports.

Craig Depken, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina specializing in sports, said the monetary and time costs of attending a match as well as external factors like economic pressure and inflation and the quality of a team’s play are factors that affect attendance.

MLS clubs face another challenge in having stadiums built for other sports acting as their home venues

“Fans would rather be in a smaller stadium that’s full than a bigger one that’s empty,” he said in an interview. “For Vancouver, their attendance isn’t really growing. Some of that could be short-term economic uncertainty and what you’re seeing is that drop off of casual fans responding to the quality of the team, quality of the product or outside economic forces.”

Anderson said the Whitecaps’ handling of a sexual abuse scandal involving former women’s coach Bob Birarda could also affect attendance.

Schuster defended the current front office’s handling of the scandal, saying it has undergone four separate investigations in to the incident and has implemented strict SafeSport guidelines for staff to follow.

“As somebody who wasn’t there at the time, I have to go with all the facts and information I was provided,” he said. “I have spoken with a lot of season ticket holders who have said ‘This is not good!’ and I say ‘do you have fact? Please present me a fact. If there’s a fact that can prove these rumours or this story proves or makes it real for me, I will act on that.”

Schuster said the club experienced a brief dip in season ticket sales in the wake of the news but sold 1,000 new season tickets this season.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

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