The place to be: How BC Place became the sporting heart of Vancouver

Nestled in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia, BC Place Stadium has developed a reputation as one of Canada’s premier sports and entertainment venues. With two resident professional teams and the capacity to stage a diverse array of live events, it is a facility that punches well above its weight thanks to the ambition and agility of its operators.

The place to be: How BC Place became the sporting heart of Vancouver

Vancouver’s major event hosting history can be neatly charted alongside the three-decade backstory of BC Place Stadium. Opened in 1983, the 54,500-seat venue doubles as both a living legacy of the Canadian city’s sporting past, and the physical manifestation of its future as a year-round destination.

Originally built for Expo ’86, the world’s fair that helped shape and signal Vancouver’s aspirations of becoming the international hub for innovation it is today, BC Place has played a starring role in some of sport’s blue-riband occasions, from the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to the Fifa Women’s World Cup final of 2015. Together, those events have etched Vancouver’s name into the annals of international sport, affirming BC Place’s status as a marquee venue in the process.

In addition to serving as the permanent home of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the city’s Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League (CFL), and the BC Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s third-largest stadium hosts an annual round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, as well as major concerts, consumer shows, community events and conferences. Having re-opened its doors in September 2011 following an extensive renovation – a CAN$563 million project that included the installation of a striking, semi-retractable roof – the facility is now one of the busiest hubs for sports and entertainment in the Pacific Northwest.

“In the last few years we’ve really excelled in our international sport,” says Graham Ramsay (right), the director of business at the BC Pavilion Corporation (PavCo), the public entity which owns and operates the stadium. “I think what fundamentally changed after the renovation is the community supported the events and BC Place was the perfect venue to make it happen.”

Ramsay explains how the renovation, which, besides the new roof, included sweeping upgrades to the venue’s concessions, luxury suites and other amenities, helped set BC Place on a new course, emboldening the stadium’s operators to be more proactive and ambitious in their efforts to attract major events. Not only was it a tangible upshot of the 2010 Winter Olympics and the catalyst for bringing MLS to Vancouver, the revitalisation project inspired PavCo to change the perception of what BC Place could be.

“We see ourselves as Canada’s national stadium,” says Ramsay, a BC Place veteran who is responsible for sales, marketing, communications, live entertainment and event management at the venue. “We have essentially a brand new building that has state of the art turf, has state of the art connectivity, video – all those different aspects that really allow us to be the premier venue.”

Situated just a stone’s throw from downtown Vancouver, BC Place is perhaps the standout landmark in a city revered more for its natural geography than its manmade architecture. Its cable-supported fabric roof – the largest of its kind in the world – and jutting steel supports are prominent features of Vancouver’s high-rise, glass-inflected skyline, giving the venue the air of an iconic stadium that feels much grander in scale than its size would suggest.

BC Place hosted nine matches during the 2015 Women's World Cup and will bid to stage games in the men's edition in 2026

Then, beyond the confines of the building itself, there is the unique appeal of Vancouver, a vibrant, modern metropolis that sits invitingly on a compact beach-fringed peninsula located between verdant, snow-capped mountains and the Pacific Ocean. “We live in a beautiful part of the world,” says Ramsay, himself a lifelong Vancouver resident. “British Columbia is an outstanding area and Vancouver is a beautiful city, so you immediately start with a positive response. People want to come to Vancouver.”

Yet BC Place’s setting is more than just a photogenic backdrop. As western Canada’s major economic and commercial centre, Vancouver is a hotbed for corporations with existing links to sport, and is regularly ranked among the world’s most liveable cities by The Economist – a ranking that is admittedly more reflective of the city’s picture-postcard topography and active, outdoor lifestyle than its climate and affordability. It is also a large, growing, affluent and ethnically diverse market, too. Official figures indicate that the median household income in Metro Vancouver - which comprises a population of nearly 2.5 million, 45.9 per cent of whom are of Asian descent - grew 11.2 per cent to hit CAN$72,662 (US$56,740) in 2015.

That enviable mix of demographics and location, not to mention the notorious passion among Vancouverites for all manner of sports, has contributed to BC Place’s success, says Ramsay. “Our reputation is extremely strong out there,” he posits, “and more importantly we sell a lot of tickets to events. You look at that and if you’re an event promoter or an association, you’re thinking that’s a great reason to come here.”

For Rugby Canada, the Toronto-based national governing body for rugby union, Vancouver’s sporting centrepiece has become something of a home away from home in recent years. As well as staging regular 15-a-side national team matches at BC Place, the organisation is currently halfway through a four-year agreement with PavCo to host its annual Canada Sevens tournament there each March.

Our reputation is extremely strong out there, and more importantly we sell a lot of tickets to events. You look at that and if you’re an event promoter or an association, you’re thinking that’s a great reason to come here.

“Without a doubt, there’s a reason why we have our sevens stop there,” says Allen Vansen, Rugby Canada’s chief executive. “It’s a fantastic stadium. We have between 38,000 and 40,000 spectators a day for our sevens tournament; they service those spectators exceptionally well, they help us market, promote ticket sales, promote the excitement around those matches.

“There are not many stadiums like that – that are in a downtown core, are very accessible from a transit perspective, great for our athletes. They’re in the heart of the city and Vancouver is such a world class city. I think BC Place is a big part of that story that rugby has been able to tell around Canada and around the world.”

For the Lions, too, BC Place is the ideal home. Vancouver’s oldest professional sports franchise, the team has played at the stadium since its opening, winning five of their six CFL championships during that time. According to George Chayka, the Lions’ vice president of business, the venue is not only “the best stadium in Canada and one of the best in North America”, PavCo are also “true partners in every sense”.

“We’re all working towards the same thing, and that’s to build our fanbase and fill BC Place Stadium,” says Chayka. “They’ve been very cooperative in helping us do that. It’s in the best interests of both of our parties to maximise the attendance at BC Place and they’ve been very receptive in trying to make the best experience possible for our fans.”

The Canadian Football League's BC Lions are an anchor tenant of the venue 

Aside from football and international rugby, BC Place has also become synonymous with soccer at both the club and national team levels. The Whitecaps were original tenants, alongside the Lions, back in the early 1980s, when they competed in the first iteration of the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL). The team featured in the first major sporting event held there in 1983, a match against the Seattle Sounders that drew over 60,000 spectators, before folding a year later along with the NASL itself.

Some 25 years later, the Whitecaps got their pass back into the big leagues when Vancouver was awarded an MLS expansion franchise in 2009. Around that time, a group of investors had been exploring the possibility of building a new 20,000-seater stadium on the city’s waterfront, but when PavCo came calling with an offer to play at a soon-to-be-renovated BC Place, those plans were shelved.

The outsized stadium was by no means a ready-made home for the Whitecaps, however. Prior to moving in, the club’s ownership negotiated a provision for PavCo to include retractable pitch-level seating at each end of the field as part of their renovation, bringing fans closer to the action. It was also agreed that a system of sail-like drapes should be installed to cordon off the upper bowl, creating a more intimate setting tailored for MLS.

“We needed to ensure the building was capable of providing a cosy atmosphere,” recalls Bob Lenarduzzi, the Whitecaps president who has been involved with the club for four decades, firstly as a player, then as a coach, general manager and director of soccer operations. “We’ve probably done better than we expected, and the capacity is there for future growth if we can continue to grow the season ticket memberships. There is massive potential there.”

There are not many stadiums like that – that are in a downtown core, are very accessible from a transit perspective, great for our athletes. They’re in the heart of the city and Vancouver is such a world class city. 

Having succeeded in attracting the Whitecaps, who currently average just under 22,000 fans for each home game, PavCo has since set its sights on bigger prizes in soccer. Spurred by the success of staging a total of nine matches during the 2015 Women’s World Cup – an event that followed their hosting of the Concacaf Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament in early 2012 – the operators are now in the process of bidding for the right to stage matches during the men’s edition in 2026.

Canada is vying to host that tournament as part of a three-way ‘United Bid’ along with the USA and Mexico. Earlier this year, a PavCo-led pitch to bring fixtures to BC Place’s artificial turf was shortlisted by the United Bid committee ahead of a final decision in early 2018.

“From a venue standpoint, I know we could deliver it,” Ramsay tells SportsPro, unfazed by the prospect of hosting the planet’s largest single-sport event. “That’s the key for us. In the end, where Canada lands, where the bid lands, I can tell you that if we had to host it tomorrow, we would be ready to go.

“We have hosted the world here. We’ve had such vast experience, between the Olympics and hosting the finals for the Women’s World Cup. We’re in meetings and we’re like, ‘Yes, we understand, we get it. Tick that box.’”

Landing the World Cup would certainly be a significant boon for Vancouver, not to mention another feather in the BC Place cap. But it would also tie into PavCo’s broader strategy of positioning the venue as a community hub first and foremost. As Ramsay explains, BC Place is known to many in the local region as the host of some of British Columbiaʼs largest consumer exhibitions, including the Vancouver International Boat Show and the BC Home and Garden Show, as well as other major cultural events. Each year it welcomes more than one million guests through its doors and is estimated to generate more than CAN$120 million in economic activity annually through visitor spending and hotel stays.

BC Place is also home to Major League Soccer's (MLS) Vancouver Whitecaps, who currently average just under 22,000 fans for each home game

That heightened level of activity is both a cause and consequence of PavCo’s improved operational agility, suggests Ramsay. Where once, converting the venue between its myriad configurations might have taken up to two days to complete, the venue’s in-house team has now got its changeover time down to less than 12 hours. “It’s like a well-oiled machine,” Ramsay says. “We can go back-to-back, one day after the other.”

Such flexibility has enabled the stadium to accommodate a busier schedule and, as importantly, to stage a greater variety of events – everything from provincial high school football championships to sell-out concerts headlined by acts such as Coldplay and Guns N' Roses – in quick succession. In November, BC Place hosted four major sporting occasions in the space of just 11 days, welcoming well in excess of 100,000 spectators in total over the course of a Whitecaps MLS Cup playoff fixture, a Lions regular season game, and international rugby and soccer fixtures that both set national attendance records.

“I don’t know of any other buildings, certainly in Canada or North America, that would have that flexibility and that support,” says Ramsay, adding that BC Place now hosts, on average, anywhere between 220 and 260 event days per year. “During spring and fall and much of the summer, you won’t find any weekend dates available, or very few,” he continues. “We’re a very busy building.”

That packed calendar is a measure of Vancouver’s growing profile within international sport, but it is also testament to the ambition of PavCo, which finds itself jostling for attention in a stadium market that is growing more competitive all the time. Across North America – and the wider developed world beyond – a new generation of ultra-modern, ultra hi-tech venues has raised the bar in terms of what is now expected by both event promoters and fans alike, ensuring that every venue operator, not least those who run older stadiums like BC Place, must always be striving to up their game.

We have hosted the world here. We’ve had such vast experience, between the Olympics and hosting the finals for the Women’s World Cup. We’re in meetings and we’re like, ‘Yes, we understand, we get it. Tick that box.'

For some, that has meant getting more creative when it comes to schedule composition and the types of events being hosted – in the US, for instance, major ballparks have taken to installing pop-up golf courses during the off-season while motorsports circuits have been known to host extreme sports events. PavCo, which also operates the Vancouver Convention Centre, a major waterfront venue that plays host to the world-renowned TED Global Conference each April, has taken to employing a similar approach, says Ramsay. He mentions that his team has had “exploratory discussions” about bringing cricket to BC Place, for example – something that would be “a good fit for the building, for sure”, provided the right partner can be found.

“What are those unique things we should look at?” he muses now. “Rugby, all the different rugby leagues, what are our options? Is Vancouver, at some point, a host for an international rugby franchise? We look at where the successes in the building have been and then capitalise on that.”

Commercially speaking, the venue also has the added bonus of being something of a blank canvas. With no naming rights partner and relatively few lower-level sponsors to speak of, incoming promoters and their partners are comparatively unrestricted when installing their own branding and static advertising, both in the concourses and in the bowl itself. They also have 50 guest suites and three club lounges at their disposal, while Cisco’s StadiumVision digital inventory management system facilitates easy sponsor integration across BC Place’s technology assets, including an HD video board that is the second-largest in North America and a fully integrated, stadium-spanning ribbon board.

“We want the events to be successful so we’re partners from day one on everything from helping with ticket sales to marketing and operations,” says Ramsay. “We don’t just sit back and wait for the business to come to us – we go out and get it.”

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.