“Ahead of the Curve”: Vancouver Whitecaps aiming to remain proactive during COVID-19 pandemic

The Vancouver Whitecaps held a conference call on Tuesday, giving the latest update on how the club was dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Here is some of what stood out, including one key message: stay home as much as possible, and let’s all play our role to help fight this virus.

In these unprecedented times, sometimes communication can play a big role. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s something they’ve understood from the get-go, as they’ve gotten well ahead of the curve when it comes to their response to COVID-19. 

From twice-a-day updates on their website, to constant reminders for fans to stay inside, they’ve kept up a constant stream of verbose for people to digest. 

It’s something that their new CEO, Mark Pannes, has been keen to push forward over the past few weeks.

“The idea that we can communicate frequently with the public is really important,” Pannes told media over a conference call on Tuesday. 

His rationale behind that decision? As a leading brand in British Columbia, people tend to listen when they speak, so he’s been happy to have the Whitecaps help lead the way in terms of sharing messaging that can help fight the spread of this virus. 

“We realized that we’re kind of a leading corporate citizen in BC, and it’s important for the city of Vancouver that we have the opportunity to help emphasize and reinforce a lot of the public health messaging that’s going on right now,” Pannes said. “And if we have that opportunity, we should take it. So we’ve done a significant amount of work over the last, I would say, month, but certainly in an escalating format over the last two weeks to make sure both internally and out in the greater public.”

“We’re trying to be as convenient as possible, always with a mantra that we do not have to be fastest, we do not have to be first, but our emphasis is on accuracy. And we’re really trying to express that across the organization. So not fastest, not first, emphasis on accuracy. Because it’s so important right now, this is such a critical issue for people, that accuracy is paramount.”

As a corporate brand, the Whitecaps have recognized the role they can help play in public health messaging, and have been happy to lend a hand to help spread the word. 

That’s not to say they’ve just sat by idly, receiving instructions and transmitting them to the masses. There have been several efforts to stay on top of things, not only coming from Pannes and the rest of the front office, but also elsewhere in the club, led by Chief Medical Officier Dr. Jim Bovard, who’s been setting the pace in terms of the handling of COVID-19 within the club.

Given that Dr. Bovard is not just someone who works exclusively with the ‘Caps, as he also does practice in the North Shore, it’s allowed him to see the impact that this virus has had on his community.

While he’s been doing most of his work over video, he’s been in contact with infectious disease specialists on the daily, keeping tabs on the latest news to drop each day. He has also seen what this virus can do first-hand, having treated several people who reside in the Lynn Valley care home that has been the epicentre of the BC COVID-19 outbreak, so he’s used that knowledge and experience to try and help the team stay ahead of the curve each day. 

“I’m fortunate that I have access to an infectious disease expert that I’ve worked with for many years in my regular practice,” Dr. Bovard told reporters. “And he’s helped me with the professional teams I take care of, and he’s been integral in making sure that I have the right information, the closest information as it’s evolving and be able to share that.”

“It’s unfortunate, but a reality I work on the North Shore, I have patients in that Lynn Valley care home. So as a result, I’ve been intimately involved in this right from the beginning. So to speak, we’ve been ahead of the curve in managing this.”

Luckily for Dr. Bovard, the club hasn’t had to deal with any outbreak from within, so they’ve been instead able to concentrate on preventative measures, instead of having to react to any potential outbreak.

Considering that the team travelled to California just over two weeks ago, with that state being a big hub for the disease in the United State, they’ve been fortunate to not have any problems, at least aside from a false alarm. 

That has meant an increased focus on delivering his message of ‘stay home, stay safe’, while also encouraging the players to stay connected and fit during this unprecedented times.

Which according to Dr. Bovard, has been a message that has certainly been well-received by his charges. 

“We’ve had daily morning meetings where I can give an update,” Dr. Bovard said. “And again, as he (Mark Pannes) reported on his report, we have had nobody in the club test positive for COVID-19, we are following all the guidelines as set out by the government, and those change on a regular basis as the situation changes and we just adapt to that. We’ve only had one person who needed to be tested and that was very early on, they tested negative and currently we have nobody in the soccer operation side that has any kind of illness of any sort.”

“And we have good channels of communications with the players, so that I am made aware of anybody who is ill, so I can follow up on that. It was made very clear to them, the concepts of staying at home and physical distancing, and I’m pleased to say our players are doing their utmost in these challenging times to follow that.”

Along with regular conversations with their head coach, Marc Dos Santos, and Whitecaps Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, it has allowed the players to remain connected. 

Self-isolation can sometimes feel like a drag, especially for those who are new to the country, so the team has made sure to keep the informed and in the know, communicating wherever and whenever possible. 

“Our sporting director, Axel Schuster, and our head coach, Marc Dos Santos, have been in regular phone contact, (making) concerted efforts to make sure they call and talk with each player on a very regular basis,” Pannes said. “The players themselves are in contact with each other. Of course, we have a first-team WhatsApp chat, where there are daily updates posted as well. We have a multi-person football operations team who are in constant contact with the players as well. So there’s a lot going on.”

Whitecaps fans gathered at BC Place ahead of their last home match before the postponement of the league (Keveren Guillou)n

It may seem silly in light of the wealthy ownership groups of teams around MLS, but the league does typically operate on tight budgets, with matchday revenue playing a big role in keeping teams afloat. 

Until a new TV deal is negotiated, and other streams of revenue pop up, matchdays are going to remain crucial to the business of MLS, which is why an event like this could hit them harder than it would a competition such as, say, the English Premier League.

For the Whitecaps, however, Pannes says worry not, as he says the club is yet to announce anything negative concerning the future of any of his staff, and nor does he plan to announce any such information in the future. 

The club wants to protect those staff, even if money starts to become tighter as this outbreak continues to play out.

“What I’d say today is that, obviously, when you’re not playing games, when you’re not broadcasting games, not selling tickets, when you’re not selling f&b, it’s very, very difficult financially, right?” Pannes said. “We made the decision that today everyone is still fully employed at the club. And it’s a big goal of ours to protect our staff as much as possible in this really difficult and unprecedented period.”

“So on one hand, we say we have a big structural set of costs, and on the other hand, we don’t have the normal set of revenue, and it’s not just like that for us, right. I’m sure it’s like that for many businesses in Vancouver, in BC, in Canada, in sports and in a whole host of other things.”

So for now, the main goal and main message are: stay safe, stay home and let’s all do our part to help flatten the infectious ‘pyramid’, as Dr. Bovard calls it.

Everyone’s taken care of in the club, staff and players, so now the focus is on taking things day-by-day, staying ahead of the curve, and being prepared for anything. 

So keep up that self-isolation and social distancing everyone, and hopefully we can soon all be back together enjoying the sport we love.

“As I said to the players, the information we gave them 13 days ago, the core principles about this illness, how it is spread, how you can protect yourself, how you can protect others virtually, has not changed,” Dr. Bovard said. “It’s the exact same message all along. What’s happened is that (information) is getting lost in all the other issues that are going on out there, people trying to project what tomorrow will look like, and it’s hard to know what happens next week, let alone next month.”

“But my focus is looking at right now, what do we need to be doing each day?”

And what can we all do to help that?

“Again, it’s that simple message: ‘stay home as much as possible’. And that should be the focus,” Dr. Bovard answered.

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