Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION


Bombers' on-field losses distract from off-field fumbles

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It's tough to be a Canadian Football League fan in Winnipeg this July, thanks to the Blue Bombers' woeful zero-and-three start.

The offence needs a GPS unit to find the end zone. The defence looks softer than a bowl of pudding. The injury bug has gotten nastier than Norwalk. There are serious concerns about player-personnel decisions.

Happily, there is a silver lining amid this blue-and-gold mess: The disaster on the field this season may be distracting many fans from the disaster in the offices of the Winnipeg Football Club, which appears to be offering public-relations students an object lesson in what not to do.

As most of Winnipeg is very much aware, the CFL team's new stadium, Investors Group Field, did not open in June as originally planned.

It also won't open on July 26, when the Bombers play their first home game of the season after four games on the road. Nor will it open this year at all, thanks to construction delays the club brass has blamed on that most unusual of Manitoban weather events -- wind.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are few members of the Bomber faithful who bought this breezy explanation when rookie football-club president and CEO Garth Buchko trotted it out in March. While it's plausible high winds did delay specific aspects of the Investors Group Field construction, it's disingenuous to suggest that alone is responsible for backing up completion by half a year or more.

The football club has not denied reports of poor construction-site planning hampering access for some workers and equipment. There are also questions about why more work wasn't conducted during evenings or weekends -- when labour costs are of course higher -- or during the winter, when the use of insulated fencing also drives up costs.

Is the delay due to the project's guaranteed maximum price of $190 million? If I knew the answer to that question, this would be a news story, not a column.

Regardless of the specific reasons behind the delay, the entire project-management team can be called to task for either failing to observe the stadium work was behind schedule or failing to report this fact to the football club's brass, as well as its board of directors.

The former scenario suggests incompetence, while the latter amounts to a coverup. Generally speaking, incompetence is far more common in any industry than deliberate wrongdoing.

What I'm suggesting here may be counterintuitive to angry fans who want to pin the delay on some particular scapegoat: It's entirely possible everyone involved in the oversight of this project had no idea how messed up it was last fall, when the club went ahead and started selling season-ticket packages to fans who believed the Bombers would be playing at the University of Manitoba in 2012.

This in no way amounts to an apology on behalf of Buchko or the befuddled folks at Stuart Olson Dominion Construction or former project manager Ossama AbouZeid, now a member of the Bomber board.

AbouZeid, by the way, has the dubious distinction of being associated with not one but two messy Winnipeg construction projects this year: He's also worked on the conversion of the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue into a new headquarters for the Winnipeg Police Service.

That project now has a $193.6-million price tag, thanks to a combination of incomplete due diligence when it came to the state of the building and imprecise cost projections that led to a $35-million jump in the overall cost between 2011 and 2012.

But just as is the case with Investors Group Field, it's also unclear who precisely is to blame for the police-headquarters hiccups, as a number of police and civilian officials at city hall, outside consultants and elected officials can take credit for the job.

As anyone who ever worked on a failed group assignment in high school can tell you, the diffusion of responsibility involved in a team effort can makes it difficult to dole out credit or blame.

But the Winnipeg Football Club should assume responsibility for compounding the stadium-delay fiasco with a bone-headed public-relations effort of its own.

Last week, the club mailed notices to thousands of season-ticket holders, informing them about the difference in cost between a season where the Bombers split their 10 home games between Canad Inns Stadium and the new Investors Group Field, and a season played entirely at Polo Park.

On average, tickets at the U of M venue will be higher than Canad Inns Stadium tickets. But in some cases, fans wound up with more expensive actual seats at Polo Park than their intended seats at the U of M.

This means hundreds of season-ticket holders -- all of whom believed they were completely paid up for 2012 -- were asked to pony up more cash, mid-season, to play at the old stadium.

"We have made any necessary adjustments to all our season-ticket accounts to reflect the entire 2012 season being played at Canad Inns Stadium," the club announced, noting it has mailed additional invoices "to our season-ticket holders where the cost of their season tickets at Canad Inns Stadium is at a higher price point than the seats selected in Investors Group Field."

To add insult to injury, the club sent out another email late in the week, thanking fans for their support this year and urging them to continue their support in 2013. As far as marketing goes, this is at best emotionally tone-deaf, at worst utterly deluded.

The good news, of course, is most fans are more concerned with the lousy record on the field so far this year. Hooray for that, you're probably thinking.

Some readers may wonder, justifiably, whether any of this is important, given the wide range of serious issues facing this city.

But with $190-million worth of public funds underwriting the stadium construction in the short term -- and no less than $105 million in the long term -- it matters to all of us what the Winnipeg Football Club does and how it does it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2012 A8

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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 and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

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


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