B.C. Lions Face Frenetic off-season After Laying Egg in West Division Final, But Have Reason to be Excited
No one ever said that locker clean-out days after a sour ending to a football season were like snowflakes, each one unique.
There’s a certain “We were strong, but our opponents were stronger” sameness about them.
Also common to all teams in the Canadian Football League, where contracts are short and tend to be as ephemeral as the disappearing ink in which they are written: each familiar face heading out the door trailing wistful goodbyes and a Hefty bag full of gear and memories adds to the anxiety for the faithful subscribers, who never can be sure which, or how many, of their favourites will be there when camp opens next spring.
Faced with somewhere north of two dozen pending free agents to either re-sign or bid adieu, B.C. Lions’ chief cook and bottle washer Wally Buono has an off-season ahead of him that’s guaranteed to test his 66-year-old nerve and resolve and football savvy — trying, as every GM in the league must, to strike a balance between paying his stars and keeping enough in reserve to surround them with an able supporting cast.
Coming off a 12-6 regular season, second-best in the CFL, and their first playoff win in five years, the Lions laid an enormous egg in Sunday’s Western final, losing 42-15 to a Calgary Stampeders machine that, admittedly, looks unstoppable.
In a perfect world, Buono figures the Lions’ fans would look at all the good things the team has to build on and the exciting football they played in 2016, and not dwell on the train wreck at the end.
“Hopefully the (home) fans are proud of the effort they got from the players, they went home happy with the product on the field,” Buono said Tuesday. “When you look at it, those were all things that were accomplished in a short period of time.
“This (off-season), we can sell the fact that we have exciting football and stars. Last year, it was ‘wait’ and ‘show me.’ Well, I believe, to a certain point, we showed ‘em.”
Just not in the West final.
“Haha, well, we didn’t show them much on Sunday, but at least we’re on the road,” Buono said.
But the world is far from perfect for the Lions, or for the teams in the CFL’s other two largest markets, Toronto and Montreal — and somehow, while the GMs are putting their roster jigsaw puzzles together this winter, someone else in each of those front offices, and in the CFL’s head office, needs to be figuring out how to get more bums in seats in those stadiums.
It’s the old dance, the same one the CFL has been doing for generations. TSN pays a lot of the freight, and it needs people watching to build ratings to attract advertisers to justify the cost of the CFL rights. But the CFL is also a gate-driven league, and Buono privately would love to see it go back to the days of local blackouts for home games.
He’s old-school, and no doubt it’s an anachronistic view, but he’s also one of the most successful coach-GMs in league history and its winningest coach, so maybe his thoughts shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.
“We have captured the fans,” Buono said, disputing the idea that the Lions’ “brand” has suffered.
“Have we filled BC Place? No. But if you look at the last three games, there are more people paying to watch the B.C. Lions. It takes 10 years to build something and takes one year to destroy it. It’s not that we destroyed it (in 2015), but … the way life is today, football is on TV (constantly). The production is better, TVs are better, so now the in-stadium experience has to be good, and I think we’ve done that this year.
“It’s not a B.C. Lions issue; it’s an issue for the CFL and even the NFL. We live in a society where comfort is an issue, and people are sometimes going to make a choice to be a fan from a distance. We have to do more to attract the fan to come to the stadium.
“The people that came out the last three weeks saw an exciting football team, saw a good in-stadium product, and hopefully they go home and think about it.”
In Vancouver, the issues most often mentioned are lack of creativity in ticket pricing and packaging, the high cost of parking near the stadium, the absence of any place for fans to interact and tailgate prior to games, pricey and inefficient concessions…
All this will have to fall on a problem solver above Buono’s pay grade, because he’s got his hands full with two jobs.
Whether that’s current president Dennis Skulsky or a successor — Scott Ackles, son of Lions’ legend Bobby, most often mentioned — it’s a man-sized task. And owner David Braley, still on board despite all the talk about selling, needs to make sure the marketers are as on top of their game as the fellows doing the grunt work.