Thursday, May 24, 2007

Soccer Explodes in Canada!

While we anxiously wait for progress on the Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium in Vancouver, soccer is exploding like never before in Canada's two largest cities. If there's still anyone left who even questions the need for a new soccer specific stadium, they need not look any further than to our eastern cousins in Montreal and Toronto. Both cities are now at the forefront of the North American soccer revolution, and they're taking the sport's popularity to levels unheard of since the heights of the NASL.

In April, Montreal launched construction of a new 13,000 seat Soccer Stadium on the grounds of their Olympic complex. Expandable to 17,000, the new stadium will be finished by Spring, 2008 and will play host to the Whitecaps' Canadian rivals, the Montreal Impact. The Impact have long been one of the best supported teams in USL, often selling out their current 10,000 seat facility. At 13,000 seats, in a stadium designed with the fans in mind, Montreal will likely need to expand their stadium sooner than expected.

While Montreal's stadium success was virtually assured from the get go, no one could have ever predicted the exciting response by fans in Toronto to their new stadium and MLS team, Toronto FC. With over 14,000 season tickets , sold out games, and the best atmosphere of any team in the league, Toronto has surpassed even the most optimistic predictions.

So how much of a difference can a soccer stadium make?

Let's start with Toronto. For ten years, Toronto's pro soccer team was the Toronto Lynx...another USL rival of the Whitecaps. Throughout that time, the Lynx played in a small community stadium, similar to Swangard, on the outskirts of Central Toronto in a city similar to Burnaby. Throughout that time, they rarely drew more than 2500 fans and were never able to capture the imagination of the city whose name it bore. Over the years, the Lynx developed many fine Canadian players that are making careers for themselves throughout Europe and North America. But developing talent was not enough. With no hope of expanding their base, and no way to modernize their stadium, the Lynx could never become bigger or better than they were.

However, with public investment in a modern soccer stadium located on the edge of downtown Toronto, Toronto FC were able to tap into the enthusiasm of millions of soccer fans in this multicultural hub. The result was a mosaic of fans unlike any group of soccer supporters in the world. The naysayers who tried to deny Toronto their stadium on October 27, 2005 should be ashamed.

Meanwhile, Montreal's new stadium will finally put Canada's second largest city in a position to regularly host international matches, and it opens the door for the Impact to consider joining Major League Soccer. The Impact have proven that there's a pent-up demand for the game that's been held back too long, and it's about to take off there like never before.

With deep roots in the game, and a long history of outstanding fan support, Vancouver's success with a new downtown soccer stadium is virtually guaranteed. Last summer, thousands of you rose up and let City Council know so.

When it's finally built, the Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium will take its place as the crown jewel of Canada's soccer stadiums. However, Vancouver can learn a lot from the bold steps taken by Toronto and Montreal. Both their stadiums were proposed, passed by their city councils, and constructed in less time than it has taken to move the Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium to this stage. Although the City of Vancouver can't speed up the current negotiating process between the Whitecaps & local stakeholders, the City should do its best to expedite the rezoning process and to make the stadium a reality as soon as possible.

A Quick Stadium Update

Here's a brief update on the Whitecaps Stadium, and some of the things Friends of Soccer are doing to support it:

1. At the moment, the stadium issue is in the hands of the Whitecaps and the landowners /stakeholders in the area. The Whitecaps need to finalize an agreement with all parties on the revised site before the stadium can be brought before City Council for rezoning. We're not privy to any information in these talks, and we have no role to play in them. We have been assured, however, that all parties are positive and working towards getting the stadium built on the waterfront.

2.The City has been very helpful on the stadium since the last council vote, and aren't the cause of any delays in the current process. They might appreciate a word of thanks and support if you have a moment.

3. We expect that the stadium issue will probably come before City Council sometime during the late summer or early autumn. As you already know, the thousands of letters, signatures & phone calls to councillors have given the stadium proposal two unanimous votes of support to date. We'll need your calls & letters again when the next vote comes.

4. The two main opponent groups in the last round, the Gastown Residents Association & the Gastown Neighbourhood Coalition, no longer exist. In fact, their leader, Jon Stovell, expressed satisfaction during the last Council meeting with the moves the Whitecaps have made to accommodate the concerns of local residents. While there are still some opponents remaining, the vast majority of people who had reasonable concerns about the original stadium proposal are content.

5. The City Planning department has invited Friends of Soccer to send a representative to its working group on the stadium and the proposed Central Transportation Hub. There, we'll meet with other supporters and opponents, landowners, business owners and government agencies involved in the project to provide ideas, feedback and solutions to issues. There's no expectation that all of these groups will reach a consensus on the stadium or the hub. However, it's an important part of of the public process, and we'll be asking for your ideas when the sessions begin sometime this summer. Bruce Wilkins, a well respected labour lawyer and longtime Whitecaps season ticket holder, will be representing Friends of Soccer in the working group.

6. In March, the BC Soccer Association expressed their support for our efforts. When the time comes, they're willing to help us mobilize the BC Soccer community in support of the stadium.

7. The Whitecaps - LA Galaxy exhibition match on October 3 is very important in the stadium campaign. We believe that this event will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the need for a new stadium. Every soccer fan who wants a stadium should be out in full force for this match!

That's what we know at the moment. For now, it's a good time to relax a little, go to Swangard, and enjoy the Whitecaps as they look to repeat their W-League & USL Division I titles. Also, the FIFA U-20 World Cup is coming up, and we'll be planning a few events this summer to keep the the stadium in the front of people's minds.

Thanks again for your support on the stadium. Let's do everything we can to make it happen!

Yours in Sport,
Bill Currie
Friends of Soccer