Restart plan: No room for sports fans in B.C.’s reopening

If the Pacific FC soccer, Victoria HarbourCats baseball, Victoria Shamrocks and Nanaimo Timbermen lacrosse and Westshore Rebels and VI Raiders football seasons begin this summer, they will do so without fans in attendance.

That was assured with the announcement on Wednesday that the ban on gatherings of more than 50 people will remain in effect in B.C. for the foreseeable future.

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“The restrictions on large gatherings are here to stay,” Premier John Horgan said.

The premier said large gatherings will only be allowed after the fourth and final phase of the planned lifting of restrictions, which is when there is a vaccine for COVID-19 or herd immunity is reached.

That means the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League and Island teams of the B.C. Hockey League might also not be able to have fans attend games this fall.

“This is not a return to normal,” Horgan said about the phased lifting of restrictions. “This is about what is going to be the new normal.”

Horgan said he has written to the NHL and NHLPA and offered B.C. as a venue for the restart of the hockey league “assuming games are played without audiences and instead played for TV.”

It’s one thing for the NHL, NBA or Bundesliga to contemplate opening without fans. But teams in the Western Lacrosse Association, West Coast League of baseball, WHL and BCHL don’t have the luxury of TV revenue.

“Without the ability to put fans in the seats, there is no way we can play,” said Shamrocks general manager Chris Welch.

“We will mull over what we heard today and the WLA board of governors will meet and make a difficult decision. What we heard was tough for sports in general and especially leagues which rely on paid attendance like we do. Ticket sales are a big chunk of our revenue. If they aren’t there, it’s not feasible for us to operate. We [the WLA] see the writing on the wall.”

Pacific FC is in professional soccer’s Canadian Premier League and in a better position to play without fans at Westhills Stadium because the CPL has a TV and streaming deal with Spanish sports giant MediaPro.

The CPL has asked the federal government for $12 million in aid to help it through the pandemic.

“We are trying to adapt and pivot to the new normal,” said PFC president Josh Simpson.

“It’s too early to speculate. It’s challenging, and we have to be creative in our thinking, but we are doing everything we can to get back on the field within the regulations,” said the 43-time Canada capped former European leagues pro.

“Our players are champing at the bit to get back on the field. We are like every other soccer league in the world that is trying to formulate a plan of attack going forward. None of us have been through anything like this before.”

Even being on TV — the Canadian Football League is on TSN — might not be enough. The CFL has asked the federal government for up to $150 million in pandemic aid.

“The B.C. Lions need to have bums in the seats,” Horgan acknowledged. “I don’t see that happening. But we are working with the CFL.”

The BCHL, which had its playoffs cancelled mid-stride in March, has asked the province for help. “These discussions have been positive and are ongoing,” said commissioner Chris Hebb.

“This call for financial support has also, unfortunately, led to some talk that the BCHL is somehow in danger of not returning next season. This is entirely false.”

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