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Lions expecting more than 50,000 fans for home opener

B.C. Lions led by Sukh Chungh take the field B.C. Lions - The Canadian Press

The BC Lions are on the verge of history.

The team is expected to host more than 50,000 fans at BC Place on Saturday when the Calgary Stampeders head west for the Lions’ home opener.

Rapper 50 Cent will perform before the opening kickoff of what is expected to be the largest regular-season crowd at a CFL game since Sept. 30, 2011, when a newly renovated BC Place re-opened.

“It’s huge for us to know that, hey, our season opener at home is gonna have 35,000 or 45,000 [plus] people,” said veteran offensive lineman Sukh Chungh, who has been with the team since 2019 and grew up in the greater Vancouver area. “Playing in front of your home crowd and having a loud crowd behind you is a great feeling.”

The Lions’ attendance has increased by 23 per cent since 2019, and their brand recognition has grown as well. The franchise has a bigger presence in the community, grown its fanbase, and is seen by many as the gold standard for marketing in the CFL.

Much of that can be traced to owner Amar Doman. The Victoria native, who owns real estate and industrial supply companies, bought the team in August of 2021.

“Amar is the brand,” said Aziz Rajwani, a business professor at the University of British Columbia and contributor to The Sports Market radio show. “The owner has had a significant impact on the team in Vancouver and how the fans have embraced the team.”

Doman hired Duane Vienneau as the team’s president in 2022 from the CFL, where he was the chief Grey Cup and events officer. Vienneau vividly recalls one of their first conversations.  

“One of the very first things he said was, ‘We’ve missed a generation of people,’” Vienneau said. “You’ve heard people say that the fanbase is getting older. One of the things he said is, ‘Let’s get younger.’”

50 Cent isn’t the only high-profile music act to headline a Lions game. The team also had big numbers for OneRepublic and LL Cool J the previous two seasons, both of which drew more than 33,000 fans.

It’s not just the popular music acts, either. Tickets are cheaper to BC Lions games than seeing those acts in concert. Fans 17 and under can see 50 Cent on Saturday for just $15, while adult tickets start at $25.

Vienneau gave Doman all the credit for the concert initiative.

“He doesn’t just want to do a halftime show,” Vienneau said. “He wants to give the fans something from him…you’re not getting three or four songs in the middle of the game. You come in, you get a 45-minute set, and then the building gets turned over into the game. That’s very different to what most teams do…we want to be young, and we want to be affordable.”

The Lions have made other changes to make their team more accessible. 

They schedule games earlier in the day to make it easier for fans from Vancouver Island and the Okanogan to attend without having to stay overnight in Vancouver. The Lions are more involved with amateur football and the local Indigenous communities. They also have more theme games, including a successful watermelon smash collaboration with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2023. 

“We created this duelling tailgate party,” Vienneau said. “The way we described it to people is, ‘You come in the front door [of BC Place], are you going to the groom’s side or are you going to the bride’s side? You going to Saskatchewan or B.C.?’”

Riders executives, staff, and fans showed up and helped the Lions set up the event. It was such a hit that the CFL asked the Lions to host the event again this year. The Lions also collaborated with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on an event they called the “Gravy Bowl.”

“I asked Wade Miller, the president of the Bombers, to come and him and I carved and served turkey dinner to fans of both teams pre-game,” Vienneau said.

Chungh and his teammates appreciate the culture change in the organization and the new energy Doman has brought. They see the packed stands and growing Lions presence not just in Vancouver, but across British Columbia.

“[Doman] has definitely grabbed peoples’ attention around the league,” Chungh said. “I think he’s got a buzz around him that, ‘Hey, you come to B.C., we’ve got a good home crowd to play in front of, a beautiful stadium, and we’re really out in the community.’”