When the B.C. Lions played their home-opener last season, they thought they would give their fans a treat: a concert from a legendary rock band.
“Chilliwack, the town?” a confused Nathan Rourke asked.
Therein lies the big difference between that day, and today. When your B.C.-born 23 year old starting quarterback has no idea who your headliners are, it’s a pretty good indication that the same age demographic you’re trying to attract doesn’t know either.
Chilliwack (the band) was entertaining enough for the fans of the team, the majority who live in the region east of Boundary and west of Chilliwack (the city). But it represented the same conservative thinking of trying to preserve a fan base that is eroding slowly through age, attrition and apathy.
But the team’s new owner, Amar Doman, has been a splash of colour in the city, and not just his fresh-and-so-clean orange Nike high-tops. He’s brought fresh energy, ideas and enthusiasm to the team, and it’s filtered down through the organization.
On Thursday afternoon, the team announced a pre-game concert before their June 11 home-opener, and it was the choice that was equally surprising and canny: the pop mega-group OneRepublic.
The group first gained recognition in another forward-thinking platform for its time — on MySpace in the early 2000s — before going on to platinum success in more traditional avenues for the next 20 years.
“It’s music for everybody. It’s great energy. They have so many different great hits, and we were very fortunate to get them,” said Doman. “We didn’t want to go too hard rock or too rappy; we just want to be something that everybody knows. It won’t be painful for everybody. It’s gonna be very enjoyable.”
The concert will be preceded by a five-hour tailgate party outside the stadium on Terry Fox Plaza, an event that will shut down part of Robson Street and have two different DJs spinning sets.
It’s, admittedly, window dressing, a completely shameless attempt to get fans in the building, to get people talking about the Lions again. And Doman is fine with that.
The major sports teams in Vancouver have had an underwhelming decade, with playoff runs few, waning excitement and a trophy case bare but for the sports equivalent of participation awards. Neither the Canucks, the Whitecaps nor the Lions have grabbed the brass ring and captured the heart of the city.
But the Lions’ owner is well-aware of what drives that adoration: a winner.
“The first goal is make the tournament; we gotta get into playoffs. We’ve struggled there,” he said of a team that has just one post-season appearance in the last five years, a 48-8 smacking at the hands of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a crossover team in 2018.
“I do feel like the spark is here. And I don’t want to start talking Grey Cup, but I do want to say, let’s make our goal just to get into the tournament. And I think if we can do that as our first short-term goal, just make it in, we’ve done our job.
“I really believe if I can’t get the Den filled, no one can. We’re gonna work our butts off to fill the whole place right to the rafters.”
And the team is built around a bet. But again, it’s a smart one.
Putting the mantle of responsibility on the second-year Rourke to lead the team is a gamble, but one the staff, players and owners are confident in. And having a Canadian as your starting quarterback in the CFL is another bold move, one commissioner Randy Ambrosie pointed out today as a talking point he’s asked about constantly in his trip across the country.
Rourke carried the clipboard for starter Michael Reilly for almost all of last year, but he actually got more practice time with the first team than Reilly did because of the 37-year-old’s elbow injury. Rourke was a last-second starter in the first game of the season in Saskatchewan — a game that saw him throw a pick-six, then a 75-yard bomb to Lucky Whitehead, his first of two passing touchdowns that night — and then was anointed the starter in the season finale, throwing for 359 yards and four total TDs in a 43-10 win.
His second season will see him surrounded by top-tier pass catching talent in Whitehead, Bryan Burnham, Dominque Rhymes and Jevon Cottoy, and an upgraded offensive line.
The defence was a priority in the CFL draft earlier this week, with eight of their nine picks coming on the defensive side of the ball, looking to add to a unit that was among the league leaders through the first half of last season.
Rourke is aware of the chips being pushed to the middle of the table, and is embracing the responsibility that comes with that faith. But he has as much faith in his teammates and staff as they do in him.
“There’s a right way to look at it and there’s a wrong way to look at it. The wrong way to look at it is this is all on my shoulders and it’s up to me to be able to bring this franchise back from the dead,” he said. “The right way to look at it is the organization has done an amazing job bringing in some absolutely unbelievable playmakers in free agency. And they’ve kept people who are absolutely imperative to our success … like Brian Burnham and T.J. Lee, who have just been here and deserve to win here.
“There’s no added pressure on me. We’ve got a great aura around. The guys, they want to win. This is a good group. And we’ve got some pieces, it’s just about coming together.”