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MLS market and demographic trends in Vancouver


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Some interesting reading on how the Whitecaps and MLS stack up against the other professional teams in Vancouver.


VANCOUVER — If demographics explain why Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps will soon take over as the second biggest team on the West Coast, but aren’t quite there yet, blame it on TV.

Television is the single biggest reason why the B.C. Lions and the CFL will continue to hold down the No. 2 spot behind the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in the brand sweepstakes of professional sport in British Columbia — at least for another few years.

Those are the findings of a special report entitled Champions of The Sport Market — Vancouver 2015, presented in association with The Vancouver Sun.

Driving an estimated $175 million in annual revenues, the Canucks are literally in a league of their own in Vancouver, despite the sharp downturn in ticket demand from the glory years leading up to 2011.

Valued at $800 million in the latest NHL franchise valuations compiled by Forbes Magazine, the big whale is worth more than six times all of the other five major Vancouver sports teams combined ($127 million). Much of that is driven by the fact the Canucks are the only Vancouver franchise that also owns and operates its stadium or arena; an advantage that maximizes revenue streams and reduces expenses in almost every line of team business.

It helps when you make the playoffs 10 times in 14 seasons, of course, win back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. Yet it is principally those powerful team-arena business synergies that have made the Canucks one of North America’s fastest-rising sport franchises over the past decade.

Nationally, only the $1.3-billion Toronto Maple Leafs and $1-billion Montreal Canadiens of the NHL plus the $920-million Toronto Raptors of the NBA and $870-million Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball are valued as bigger Canadian sport franchises by Forbes.

The team’s high achievement over time is reflected in its related arena business, which sees Canucks Sports & Entertainment cashing in on the marketing of Rogers Arena as a concert and special-event hub. It is currently the second-biggest arena naming deal in Canada — and one of the top-10 in North America — at $6 million per year.

The Canucks are the fifth-biggest franchise in the NHL and are sixth leaguewide in annual revenues. In literally every indicator of financial clout and fan engagement, they are among the league’s best performing franchises. That remains true despite the fact they saw their 474-game consecutive home game sellout streak snapped last October and have flatlined since losing about 1,000 season ticket holders over the past two seasons and seen a net loss of about 600 since their peak of 17,350 in 2010-11.

Vancouver is top-10 in NHL merchandising, fifth in regional television audiences, seventh in social media and top-three in website traffic. Only the Maple Leafs ($146) have a higher average ticket price than the Canucks ($109), although both may be looking at incentive pricing to stabilize their season ticket bases and seek a return to the days when their season tickets were re-sellable assets instead of expense-line items.

The franchise has been owned outright by Vancouver’s Aquilini Investment Group since 2006, and before that by Seattle-based John McCaw from 1995 to 2006 and by the local Griffiths family from 1974 to 1995. And while the bottom line for the Canucks is they are still searching for their first Stanley Cup, they are still only behind the Original Six brands of Toronto, New York, Montreal, Chicago, Boston and Detroit when it comes to combined hockey and business operations success in the NHL in the period since the first lockout in 1994-95.


Despite all of the market-leading metrics around the Canucks and the comprehensive work they’re now engaged in to stop the brand-bleed of 2012, 2013 and early 2014, it’s the emerging business rivalry between the Whitecaps and Lions that merits attention in a changing Vancouver sports landscape.

No sports franchise in Canada has grown more in relative terms over the past five years — a 280-fold increase — than the Whitecaps. In 2010, the Whitecaps were a United States Soccer Federation Tier 2 franchise valued at about $250,000 and playing before crowds averaging 4,400 at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium. They only dabbled in radio while television coverage was limited to selected home games on Shaw community cable.

Now in their fifth season in Major League Soccer, the Whitecaps are pegged at about $70 million in franchise valuation. That’s almost three times the $27-million price tag accorded the Lions on the strength of their share of the new $40-million CFL television deal struck with TSN two years ago. The Whitecaps are playing before crowds averaging just a little under 21,000 at BC Place Stadium, renovated to the tune of $563 million in 2010-11, compared to about 28,000 for the Lions.

Make no mistake, the heritage brand of the Lions can still lay claim to being the second most popular team in B.C. in 2015 — as illustrated in a recent public opinion survey of sports fans commissioned by CTV — and they should be able to continue to do so for as long as the CFL on TSN drives average national audiences north of 750,000 per game (including to between 350,000 and 400,000 across B.C. for Lions games). That kind of television platform is huge in an era in which sports sponsorship and advertising is still ratings driven, even in a largely gate-driven league such as the CFL.

The Lions hold a significant advantage over the Whitecaps in terms of average television audiences (about 700,000 to 140,000 in 2014). Those numbers will continue to skew in favour of the CFL as long as it has three times the number of Canadian markets (nine) as MLS (three). Every Lions game on TSN attracts viewers from the opposing market, along with hard-core CFL fans tuning in from other markets. On the other hand, only 15 per cent of the Whitecaps games on TSN are against Canadian opponents and the MLS is much more relevant in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal than it is in the CFL strongholds of Regina, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary.

The Lions also have a 62-year tradition upon which to build, including the single biggest domestic annual sports event in Canada: the Grey Cup. The CFL championship game is usually a five-million viewer event on TSN and RDS, second behind only the National Football League’s Super Bowl as the biggest annual sport television event in Canada. The Grey Cup is also typically a 45,000-to-50,000 ticket holder event in-stadium, even when a home team fails to reach the final. Not even the most ardent soccer enthusiast would suggest the MLS Cup could hold a candle to that in any Canadian market; at least not anytime in the near future.

Yet the Lions can only rely on their heritage and tradition — which is more than a generation older than the 41-year history of the Whitecaps — for so long. In fact, with the oldest fan base of any of the Vancouver-based sport franchises, the Lions will need to follow in the footsteps of incoming CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge and make a priority out of growing the next generation of football fans. Both the club and the league need to do everything they can to make the CFL “cooler” in the minds of that all-important 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

The Lions are second only to the Canucks in the 55-plus age group and still holding their own against the Whitecaps among those aged 35-to-54, but it’s in the demographic breakdown where the soccer club is making big strides. It’s simply no contest in favour of the Whitecaps among millennials, the youngest adult sports fans that represent the business upside for any sport franchise. An AFI Group study in 2014 showed that about a third (30.3 per cent) of Whitecaps adult fans buying tickets were ages 18-to-34, with less than 16 per cent 55 or older. That compares to about 36 per cent of Lions fans in the 55-plus demographic.


Independent sponsor research shows that Whitecaps fans are younger and more urban. Fans of the Lions have become older and more suburban. Within the decade, some suggest the gap between the average age of Whitecaps and Lions fans could be as much as six or seven years if current trending continues. That’s a canyon of a difference for demographers and the corporate brands advertising in sports. Also important is overall brand awareness, which a 2014 survey by Mustel Group Market Research showed had climbed to 81 per cent for the Whitecaps in Greater Vancouver; an increase of nine per cent over their five years in MLS. That compares to a drop of 15 per cent by the Lions in the same time period.

When you check out the profile of companies sponsoring the MLS and Whitecaps — EA Sports, Payfirma and Global Relay, for example — and compare them to the prominent sponsors at Lions games in recent years, there’s a gap growing there as well; one that mirrors the divergent demographics between the fan bases of the two clubs.

If you’re looking for tangible evidence of that growing gap, one need only note how seriously the Whitecaps take their social marketing. That’s one area — along with game presentation and fan experience — where the Whitecaps are winning the war for new young fans. Whereas the local MLS club holds only a small lead over the Lions on Facebook, they are running away with Twitter, with almost twice as many followers (135,000 to 74,100).

When one considers the macro demographics affecting sports tastes in North America, the future looks even brighter for soccer and the Whitecaps. That’s why MLS is not the second coming of the old North American Soccer League, the flashy circuit featuring global icons such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer that crashed as quickly as it soared in the late 1970s. MLS is a league with a sustainable business model and favourable collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, with Canada becoming more multicultural and the world getting smaller through technology and expanded access to specialty television and online video streaming, soccer is a much bigger deal on TV than it was in the heyday of the NASL.

You don’t need to be Generation X author Douglas Coupland or noted demographer David Foot to add up all of those demographic trends and, barring a dramatic reversal, count on the Whitecaps to win the race for second best, likely by the year 2020 and their 10th anniversary in MLS.

Sport business commentator and marketing communications executive Tom Mayenknecht is the host of The Sport Market on TSN 1040.




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Surprised by the age group and urban focus of Caps fans. I am in the elderly minority, funny, never thought of myself that way before.


Lions also benefit from having a real chance of winning a trophy every year, odds are high, getting to a final is a reasonable goal (for all CFL teams in fact), and that builds enthusiasm for a team. Has helped Canucks as well being relatively successful lately.


Whitecaps will need to get into the playoffs and go deeper, for example, or have a good run in Concacaf Champions this upcoming summer. A major game, a semi-final all or nothing, or Champions vs a major Mexican side to go into the knock-out rounds, where they decide to open up the top tier of BC Place, that would really help. Right now being sell-out there at 22,000 means you are full and have no real room for a new fan base.


Another factor they are going to have to watch is star player continuity, and some local talent as well. We all know that having stars you keep on mid-to-long contracts helps fans, you buy a shirt with a name you want to be there the following year. Canucks have done that, for the Lions does not matter so much and that most shirts do not have a name on the back. I think Caps have improved a bit in both areas, which is something that Lenarduzzi of all people should understand.

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Lol, that pretty much solidifies what we all assume is the case for the Argos' decent ratings.


And it's not even just that.  IMO TSN is paying a premium for a brand it has created.. if you walk in a bar and the CFL is on, is anyone paying attention?  Not where I'm from yet you see it on every TV because the manager gets behind the bar and flicks on TSN instinctively on a Friday night. 


People pointing to the Argos TV numbers as numbers for success is like me arguing "the national anthem is the most popular song in Canada".

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