A generation ago, the opening of a new downtown stadium in Vancouver ignited a love affair between the city and its CFL team.
The B.C. Lions moved into B.C. Place Stadium in 1983, and began welcoming huge crowds of more than 50,000 en route to a memorable Grey Cup game against the Toronto Argonauts on home turf.
The Lions lost that classic when Argos quarterback Joe Barnes relieved starter Condredge Holloway in the second half, and led a come-from-behind victory before more than 59,000 inside B.C. Place, and before a television audience of more than eight million, one of the largest in Grey Cup history.
It was as though the whole country was curious about a then state-of-the-art stadium with an inflatable roof, the lid that resembled a giant marshmallow from the outside.
Twenty-eight years later, the curiosity isn’t as widespread.
On Friday, the Lions return to B.C. Place, which has undergone a $563-million renovation in the last 18 months (playing during that time at Empire Field, a temporary facility), for a game against the Edmonton Eskimos.
The Lions won’t have head coach Don Matthews, quarterback Roy Dewalt, or kicker Lui Passaglia, and unless there is a huge rush on tickets in the final hours before kickoff, they won’t have a full house either.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Lions had sold about 43,500 tickets for the game. The stadium has a football capacity of 52,465, according to B.C. Place general manager Howard Crosley, who was overseeing a mad scramble Thursday, in which hundreds of workers were still labelling seats with numbers, and welding portions of the roof. That work was scheduled to continue through the night and into the hours leading up to kickoff, and Crosley has faced more readiness questions than any sports official since the organizers of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“This last week, quite honestly, has been amazing,” he said. “Two weeks ago, I walked into the building and said: ‘Oh my Lord, we are not even close.’ ”
At minimum, Friday will feature the largest regular-season football crowd in Vancouver in more than 20 years, and the first to surpass 40,000 in attendance since 1994. Lions president Dennis Skulsky said a sellout was still possible with a large walk-up crowd.
“It will probably be the biggest crowd in the CFL this year if we reach 45,000,” he said.
That a sellout is so far away seems odd. The Lions have won five games in a row, are the hottest team in the CFL, and have a chance to take over first place in the West Division with a win and a Calgary Stampeders loss (Saturday against Saskatchewan).
After several years of inconsistency, the offence is humming under quarterback Travis Lulay, and the defence is making big play after big play. In short, the Lions are more entertaining than at any point in the last five years, and yet the market hasn’t responded in the numbers one might expect – particularly when the novelty of a new stadium is heaped on top of the on-field performance.
The Lions have yet to decided whether the opening event at B.C. Place will take place under the roof or under an evening sky. The roof takes about 20 minutes to open or close, and while no CFL policy exists, Skulsky said the Lions don’t want to begin games with the roof open and close it in mid-game.
The team is also considering exercising its option to blackout the game on local standard-definition television – a move that might not go over well given how much British Columbia taxpayers paid to renovate the provincially-owned facility. Skulsky argued the Lions haven’t played the blackout card in the last two seasons.
“That call will be made [Friday],” he said. “As of now, it’s still in a blackout situation.”