Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Community-owned? Punt that idea

Bombers should be run like a business, not a club

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The faces of two young Bombers fans Friday seem to sum up the season so far.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The faces of two young Bombers fans Friday seem to sum up the season so far. Photo Store

There are people who believe in all sorts of fanciful things in Manitoba that unfortunately do not exist. You know, like Sasquatch, Manipogo, balanced provincial budgets and a community-owned Canadian Football League franchise.

Contrary to popular belief, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are not a community-owned football club. What's officially known as the Winnipeg Football Club is a non-profit organization without any form of public ownership whatsoever.

Yet the myth persists that the Blue & Gold are somehow community-owned. The main culprit is the club itself, which gleefully perpetuates the fiction.

"As a community-owned team, we are responsible to our longtime and supportive fans," reads a misleading passage in the otherwise excellent history section of the official franchise website, www.bluebombers.com.

This simply isn't true. No public entity owns the club. The City of Winnipeg doesn't own the team. Neither does the province, Ottawa, a Crown corporation or any of the multitudes of quasi-non-governmental agencies -- "quangos," as the British gleefully call them -- that conduct the affairs of government without being subject to pesky governmental rules.

While the city and province did plunk down $190 million of the $200 million required to build Investors Group Field -- and only expect to recoup $160 million, plus interest, over several decades -- Main Street and Broadway don't own so much as the chinstrap on Max Hall's helmet.

Similarly, Bombers fans have nothing remotely resembling ownership of the Winnipeg Football Club. Yes, ticket buyers pay for the bulk of the club's expenses, but that doesn't translate into ownership. Being a customer does not make you an owner: No matter how many times you buy a Big Mac, you still don't own a piece of McDonald's.

So what is the Winnipeg Football Club? As governance expert Andrew Moreau pointed out in these pages a week ago, the club is a corporation without share capital. What that means is no individual owns any piece of the team, which is run by a board of directors.

In this way, the Winnipeg Football Club is no different than hundreds if not thousands of other non-profit organizations in Manitoba. Bombers fans have no more of an ownership stake in the football club than, say, Winnipeg Folk Festival patrons have in the annual summer shindig or Folklorama attendees have in the Winnipeg Folk Arts Council: Which is to say, no stake whatsoever.

There is such a thing as a community-owned football team. The NFL's Green Bay Packers, which operates in the smallest market in North American major professional sport, has sold stock to the public five times over the past 80 years.

No individual can own more than 200 Green Bay shares, which don't actually allow their holders to have any direct say in the way the Packers operates. But those shareholders do elect a board of directors, which in turn appoints an executive committee that actually runs the NFL club.

You would think Winnipeg would be eager to model itself after Green Bay, considering how this city wound up with its name. Winnipeg is named after Lake Winnipeg, which was accidentally handed the same name the French gave to an algae-covered section of Lake Michigan: Green Bay, which the Jesuits called "Baye des Puans." That translates into "Bay of Stinkards" in English and simply "Ouinipeg" in Algonquin. But I digress.

Instead, Regina would copy the Packers' model. The Saskatchewan Roughriders, which play in the CFL's smallest market, retooled their ownership model a decade ago to resemble that of the Green Bay NFL franchise. The Riders have sold shares three times since 2004, set a limit of 20 shares per person and are governed by an 11-member board of directors.

The Winnipeg Football Club has no shareholders. But the club has made a token effort to appoint one member of the public to the board. After accepting nominations from the public, the Bombers board will select a single person to sit within its midst. As Moreau pointed out, this isn't quite the same as actually allowing fans to elect someone.

Given the horrific recent performance of the Winnipeg Football Club, both on and off the field, fans can be justified in wondering whether it makes sense to run a professional sports franchise with an unaccountable board. It's also fair to consider whether the club would be better off with no board whatsoever.

Five years ago, this sort of talk was controversial. In 2008, many fans freaked out when lawyer-philanthropist-entrepreneur David Asper -- now vice-chairman of the Bombers board -- sought to purchase the club.

At the time, some fans were concerned about the spectre of privatization, not realizing the club is already a private entity, even if it does not exist to maximize a profit for any owner.

Today, many of those same fans might welcome a private owner. But there are few businesspeople insane enough to acquire a football club that's currently in the midst of paying off $95 million worth of stadium-construction debt. A deal to hand the Bombers over to a private owner would resemble the NHL's sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, which effectively involved paying an owner to buy the hockey team. But unlike in Glendale, Ariz., there is no sucker of a municipality in Manitoba to bankroll such a crazy plan.

In other words, don't expect True North Sports & Entertainment to suddenly skate into the Bombers picture, as much as many Winnipeg sports fans wish that would happen.

The best fans can and should demand: A) the elimination of the Bombers board's power to appoint its own members; B) a transition to a transparent appointment process; and C) the transfer of power over all operations to an executive management group that will succeed the crisis-management efforts of interim CEO Wade Miller.

As my colleague Gary Lawless wrote on Saturday, anything less than wholesale change will result in fans giving up on the Bombers. Fans can accept losing -- heck, they've got used to it over the past 23 years -- but they must be given hope.

Start with the little stuff. Stop pretending a pro sports franchise is a "community-owned football club" and start running it like a business, not a club.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 9:26 AM CDT: Changed Lake Superior to Lake Michigan

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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