The first I heard of Paul Barber's interview with the Canadian Press about the Vancouver Whitecaps' ticket sales was on Twitter, you'll be unsurprised to hear. You'll also be unsurprised to hear that what I heard was surprisingly negative.
Barber indicated that the Whitecaps are about 1,000 season tickets below their cap and that 3,000 tickets remain for the first game in our Major League Soccer history against the Toronto FCs on March 19. Those are both large numbers, but take them in context. The Whitecaps' season ticket cap is 16,500, and a bit of Grade One subtraction tells us that means the Whitecaps have sold approximately 15,500 season tickets. That meshes nicely with all the unofficial numbers that have been seeping out over the past weeks. It also means that the Whitecaps have sold 94% of their cap. On season ticket sales alone, the Whitecaps will already outdraw the 2010 attendance of the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, Chivas USA, DC United, Colorado Rapids, New England Revolution, FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City, and the San Jose Earthquakes. In short, nothing to worry about in the least. Anybody complaining about hitting 94% of a ticketing cap should pull their heads out of whereever they've stuck it. While we'd all prefer the Whitecaps had sold every ticket (at least, those of us who have already bought tickets), this is excellent.
Similarly, those around-3,000 tickets available for the home opener include 1,000 season tickets still waiting to be sold. It includes 250 tickets allocated to Toronto FC supporters groups for sales to their members that otherwise would have been available to Vancouver Whitecaps fans celebrating their new team instead of existing fans to whom this is another road trip of many. More is being held for group sales or community use. Most of the good tickets, apart from season seats, are long gone with three weeks left until the game, and the game will all-but-certainly be a sellout.
Yet the Toronto fans are dissatisfied. There have been some problems getting the Toronto fans a ticket allocation at all and others with where they'll be seated: nothing that's unfamiliar to us home Vancouver fans! They want to come to the game, they want to sing and chant with their friends, and they want to enjoy the day. That's all commendable.
But I'm wondering if the Whitecaps aren't being a little too gracious hosts as it is.
Let me re-iterate a point I've made earlier: I love away fans. They add something to the atmosphere at a soccer game; something that you can't get any other way. When the Toronto fans come to Empire Fields, I hope they have an absolute ball, sing and chant their hearts out, watch their team lose (of course), then come out for some beers with the Vancouver contingent. That's the way soccer should work.
Nor do I blame Toronto fans for wanting to go to the game. It's the first all-Canadian game in MLS, the first game in Toronto's season, a chance to visit beautiful Vancouver... if I were in their shoes, I'd take the chance. So, please, Toronto FC supporters, hold your tongues before you accuse me of taking shots at you. I think you're doing just what I'd do in your position. Nor do I wish to defend the conduct of the Whitecaps front office: once they decided to sell you guys tickets, they should have done a more professional job of it and made sure your away section would actually be segregated. Shades of the Canada - Honduras match in Montreal back in 2008! Long-time readers will remember how much I enjoyed that.
Toronto fans, I fully respect your wanting to come out. I'm just not sure you should be at this game at all. I mean, this is Vancouver's first ever MLS game. This isn't for you. This is for us.
March 19 will be, essentially, a celebration of soccer in Vancouver. Twenty-seven years after the demise of the original NASL Whitecaps and nine years after the demise of the Canadian Soccer League cast the then-Vancouver 86ers into the second division, first division soccer is back in Vancouver where it belongs. There's no doubt that it could sell out with Vancouver Whitecaps fans without letting a single Toronto FC fan through the gates. Now, there's also no doubt that some Toronto FC fans would come anyway, section or no section, and wind up speckled through the stadium in singles or small groups. But it's not like there'd be a safety problem; TFC fans are as well-behaved as anybody.
Offering to sell 250 tickets to established Toronto FC fans in this context is exactly the opposite of what the Whitecaps should be doing. They should be trying to convert Vancouverites to the beauty of soccer, not trying to give Torontonians a good night out. Every ticket grabbed by somebody from Toronto who's been following the FC since day one is a ticket denied to somebody from Vancouver who would like the opportunity. In BC Place this might not be an issue: if demand was really that high they could open closed-off sections in the upper bowl. But Empire Field's facilities are far more limited. The TFC supporters are right to resent how their chains have been yanked by the Whitecaps front office, but I think most Toronto fans would understand if we wanted to enjoy our opening day, well, on our own.
Toronto FC fans are complaining that the Whitecaps took so long to sort out their ticketing arrangement: long enough that some of those who would have made the flight have had to back out. It would have been better for everyone if the Whitecaps had come straight out and said "sorry, no. You guys are welcome any other time you like. We look forward to hosting 500 of you guys when you play at BC Place next year! But this game is for Whitecaps fans." I don't think the atmosphere at our first MLS game is going to need any help, and 250 more Vancouver fans introduced to Major League Soccer in style is 250 more future supporters.