An American Football Fan In Vancouver
When you first meet Brandon Mason, the phrase “seasoned diplomat” is not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not that he isn’t a bright, outgoing guy – because he is. But he certainly didn’t arrive at Vancouver’s Empire Field expecting to single-handedly avert an international incident. Truth be told, he hadn’t even originally planned on going to the B.C. Lion’s first home game of the new CFL season. But an opportunity to improve his status in the family will presented itself when his mom Joan called. The friend with whom she had made plans to attend the game couldn’t make it, but Joan still wanted to go – would Brandon be interested?
So we’ve established that Brandon is a nice guy and a good son. But crisis-averting diplomat? Perhaps a little background will help…
Let’s rewind to a few months earlier, when I began to map out the summer schedule for the IGTS Tour. “How cool would it be”, I thought, “to have a regular season football game under my belt before any of my NFL-crazy fellow American citizens have even started to focus on training camp – even before ESPN sets up its annual vigil outside Brett Favre’s house!” Intoxicated by the thought, I turned my attention north of the border, where the Canadian Football League operates almost completely off of the radar screen of American football fans.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. But a little less so after planes, trains and automobiles brought The Bird and me to an outpost of the Canadian border – where we sat for 45 minutes. And much less so as we spawned our way westward on Canada Highway 1, a number that coincidentally matched our average kilometer-per-hour speed. Evidently, I missed the press release announcing that Canada had changed its national tree from the Maple to the Orange Cone, as pretty much anything remotely related to asphalt now appears to be under construction. I began to long for the comparatively speedy clip of L.A.’s 405 freeway at rush hour.
Eventually we made it to the area of East Hastings Street that my trusty Google Map told me was the home of Empire Field. “Home free, honey”, I said. “Just look for a football stadium now – we can’t miss it!” We missed it. We missed it going west. We turned around, and nearly missed it coming back east. See, Empire Field is tucked behind Playland Amusement Park, if the concept of “tucking” a football stadium is remotely conceivable.
There was no discernible stadium parking lot, so we pulled off the main drag and cruised the neighborhood for a place to stash the car that had by now become biologically attached to my backside. Having done so, we joined the river of orange that was now overflowing its banks on its way to the game. Like most successful football teams anywhere you go, the B.C. Lions have a faithful and boisterous fan base that is only too happy to wear the team’s colors into battle – often in imaginative ways. Now THIS was football! I could hardly wait to get into the stadium to drink in the full atmosphere.
Except that the full atmosphere didn’t exactly take place in what I would call a “stadium”, per se. It was more like a block party in a cul-de-sac – with some grandstands erected in the middle. At first I thought we had inadvertently stumbled next door into Playland, because the venue was much more an amusement park than a ballpark. More precisely, it was like a street fair.
Concessions were set up under temporary tents, many of which were of the simple “pop-up” variety. Lines of people randomly spilled out from these tents, clogging pedestrian traffic areas. Bathroom facilities consisted of banks of port-o-johns. And it slowly dawned on me – this tangled zig-zag of asphalt that ringed the seating surrounding the playing field was the stadium’s actual concourse.
So this was big-time pro football in Canada? Shoved into a corner of Playland? A stadium without any discernible basic plumbing? I looked around and saw all of the enthusiasm and passion of an NFL game crowd…but the sophistication of the game day experience was much more NCAA. And I mean Division III NCAA.
We navigated the tight lanes of foot traffic around to the far side of the property, and made our way through the tunnel and into the actual stadium. Things were better here. The playing field was definitely state-of-the-art artificial turf, and while cozy, the grandstands afforded a good view of the game, even from our end zone location. But aluminum benches with numbers on them instead of seats? Just four light standard towers with 6 rows of 7 bulbs each? I couldn’t comprehend that this was the best that a 5-time Grey Cup Champion team with a 50-plus year tradition could muster up.
It all came to a head at halftime, when I ventured out vainly in search of a game program. When I had managed to reach the opposite end of the “concourse”, my progress was blocked by stadium personnel who had created a temporary lane for the players to return to the field from…their trailers. What, no locker rooms?
I decided right then and there that the folks that ran Empire Field needed badly to schedule a field trip to Johnny Unitas Stadium at Towson State University in Maryland (site of the recent NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Championship) – or to virtually any similar size school in the U.S. to get a lesson on how to professionally set up and run a big-time sports venue.
When I returned to my seat, I found that The Bird had befriended the people seated next to us, which didn’t surprise me since she could find somebody to talk to in a solitary confinement lock-up. Our neighbors? The aforementioned Joan Mason and her son Brandon.
We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, and almost as an afterthought, I asked The Question: “Ummm…how long have the Lions been playing in this stadium?” – meaning of course “How long have the Lions been foisting upon its fans a sub-par experience that we just wouldn’t stand for in the good old U.S. of A?”
“This is the first game here”, replied Brandon. “Well, the first regular season game – there was an exhibition game here last month.”
To which I relied, blink, blink… “Oh.”
He went on to tell me that the Lions actual home is BC Place, the 60,000-capacity domed stadium located in downtown Vancouver. You know – the place where they had the opening and closing ceremonies for that little “Olympics” thing that was recently in town. Apparently, right after the Olympics, work began on a $400 million renovation to BC Place, including the installation of a retractable roof. Just for this season, the Lions were playing in this temporary facility which had been built from scratch in just a few months – basically a minor construction miracle in itself.
To which I relied, blink, blink… “Oh.”
And there in front of me was the unavoidable realization – I was The Ugly American. When it dawned on me how easily I had been willing to believe that this was as good as the Canadian Football League could get, I had to laugh at myself. “Why don’t you guys come down to America to see how we do professional sports down here”, I was tut-tutting in my mind.
And the only thing that saved me from actually publishing such patronizing drivel was the calm and patient explanation of the actual story that Brandon provided. You tell me – is this not the role of a seasoned international spokesman?
So please excuse me while I extricate my foot from my mouth, and prepare to tell you about the B.C. Lion’s home-opener against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
To be continued…