Government says sports will return ‘when the science says so’

Lisa Beare had $1.5-million in funding for community sports organizations during a news conference Tuesday, and words of hope for Pacific FC and the Canadian Premier League, but none yet for the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League or Island Division teams in the B.C. Hockey League.

An abbreviated, single-site 2020 CPL pro soccer season without fans is being considered, with Westhills Stadium in Langford and a site in Charlottetown the two candidates. The CPL is set to announce its return-to-play plan today in Toronto and Beare gave nothing away.

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“We’ve been working very closely with [the CPL] and provincial health officer on their potential hub-city bid and what that would look like,” said Beare, the B.C. minister of tourism, arts and culture, who is responsible for sports.

“We’re working with the federal government, as well, to see what supports would be available to ensure that the league actually could operate. Negotiations are on ongoing and we are continuing to work closely with the league.”

The passing over of Vancouver in favour of Edmonton and Toronto as an NHL hub city is still fresh in mind, however.

“We have a strong stance on our return to sports. All our decisions have been based in science following the best health and safety protocols we can,” said Beare.

“We continued along the path with our Canucks trying to have a [NHL] hub city here in B.C, which would have been a fantastic opportunity to highlight our province as a great destination. But health and safety were top of mind. That needs to be said for all professional sports going forward, for all the organizations, in how their return-to-sport play is processed.”

The WHL and BCHL have set respective opening dates of Oct. 2 and Dec. 1. But while the pro soccer CPL has a TV and streaming deal with Spanish giant MediaPro, the WHL and BCHL don’t have sustaining TV deals and both say they need fans in attendance for their returns-to-play to be financially viable. The WHL said it requires socially-distanced spectators up to 50 per cent of arena capacity. The BCHL has proposed starting at 25 per cent capacity and working up to 50 per cent.

“[Provincial health officer] Dr. Bonnie Henry has been very clear in her guidelines that there are no gatherings over 50 people and we do understand that makes it really difficult for organizations that rely on ticket sales as their predominant source of income,” said Beare.

“Until we have the potential return to play requests in from both the organizations [WHL and BCHL] — they have been fed into the provincial health officer — the number remains at 50. They [provincial health officials] are continuing to work [to] when it is safe to do so, when that number of 50 is expanded. We’ll have an opportunity to expand their [WHL and BCHL] bids at that time. The semi-pro sports have been in talks with me, and the federal government, on ways to make their organizations work and we’ll continue to have conversations with them.”

Meanwhile, the $1.5 million the province announced Tuesday for local sports organizations will join $3.4 million from the federal government as part of the nationally allocated $72 million to help sport across the country.

“It is for the local swim club or local gymnastics team that may be struggling to keep their facility open or keep their one executive director so they are able to support their wonderful athletes,” said Beare.

The minister was backed by baseball players from Carnarvon Park in making the announcement on the lawns of the legislature.

“Sports plays a vital role and most community-based clubs are facing financial challenges. We know how important sport is to our collective well-being.”

Beare was pressed but remained non-committal on when the province will move from the current Phase 2 of its return-to-sport plan, which allows for team training and practices in small groups, to Phase 3, which would allow for team-on-team play at least on a regional basis.

“Dr. Henry is very clear about no gatherings over 50 and that social distancing requirements stay in effect,” said Beare.

“A lot of the competitive sports would require a relaxing of these guidelines. When it is safe to do so, when the science says so and Dr. Henry makes those recommendations and we’re able to have that conversation, we will absolutely move forward in another phase. But for now our focus is making sure we have everyone getting back out and returning to sport in a safe manner and be able to be physically active.”

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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