When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hit the field at Canad Inns Stadium Friday, the CFL club will provide free water to fans who are steamed about its new food and beverage policy.
The team's senior managers, including Winnipeg Football Club CEO Garth Buchko, will also be stationed at every stadium gate to ensure entry procedures move smoothly and deal with any problems.
Buchko told the Free Press on Wednesday that the team will have 10 purified water coolers installed throughout the stadium Friday evening when the Bombers host the B.C. Lions. Fans will be allowed to fill up on free water, using either cups the team will provide or their own personal water bottles.
The decision comes amid an outcry from some fans against a new policy that bans bottles of water from the stadium on game days. The policy was made at the beginning of the season in preparation for the team's move into Investors Group Field in 2013.
"What we're trying to do is address the situation where the fan says, 'I can't afford a bottle of water and I'm dying of thirst,' " said Buchko.
The club had been providing paper cups through a dispenser in the stadium washrooms for that purpose this season, but Buchko said some fans complained they didn't like the quality of that water.
"People complained, 'Yeah, but it's just tap water.' "
But while the team is addressing some of the concerns fans have raised about the new outside-food and beverage ban, Buchko said the ban will remain in place. Fans will have to get used to the idea that they're not going to be able to bring their own food and drinks to a Bombers game, just like a Jets game, concerts or movies, he said.
Buchko said the club has been averaging sales of about 3,000 bottles of water per game. He said the Bombers' price for water -- $3 a bottle -- was deliberately set lower than the price the Winnipeg Goldeyes, Winnipeg Jets and movie theatres charge.
Buchko said the ban on beverages is a security issue aimed at stemming the tide of alcohol that used to get snuck into the stadium.
And it appears to be working. Buchko said reports of liquor infractions this season are down 75 per cent compared to 2010, while incidents in which security or police must get involved during games are down 50 per cent.
While bag searches at entry gates have been another frequent source of complaints from fans, Buchko cited an incident at last week's game against Hamilton in which a search turned up a six-inch knife in one man's bag. The man fled the stadium after security uncovered the weapon.
Buchko said some fans made a mockery of the club's previous long-standing policy, which allowed fans to bring their own food and drink from home. Buchko said coolers loaded with food and drinks were not an uncommon sight on game days and staff report some fans even banded together and brought potluck meals to eat during the game.
"We had people that had their whole Thanksgiving dinner in the stadium in their seats. Seriously," said Buchko.
In addition to security concerns, cold, hard economics plays a factor in the new policy, Buchko said. The Bombers move into a $190-million new stadium next season that will carry with it an $85-million mortgage for the team and an annual repayment of $4 million to the province.
"If we continue to run the team as a normal community-owned team, there's no way we can be responsible for the debt repayment and there's no way we can run a business. So somewhere, somehow, we need to be responsible to the community and run this like a business," Buchko said.
"We're in business to make some money, pay off some debt and be responsible to the community and the taxpayers of the province. Because if we don't make money, then we have a bigger issue."
Buchko wonders if some of the recent fan complaints are simply a function of people's frustrations with the team's failings this season, which include a 2-5 season to this point and abandoned plans to move into the new stadium this year.
"I believe if we were in Investors Group Field right now and the team was 7-0, I think we wouldn't be having a lot of these issues. But it is what it is and we need to deal with them," Buchko said.
Far from uncommon
WHILE it's a new policy this year for Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans, the Winnipeg Football Club's ban on outside food and beverages this season is hardly unusual.
Two of the other seven Canadian Football League teams -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Calgary Stampeders -- also ban outside food and beverages from their stadiums on game days. The B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes also ban all food, as well as glass bottles and cans but do not mention plastic bottles in their game-day policies.
All the teams in the CFL, including Winnipeg, ban alcoholic beverages.
Most NFL teams also have outright bans on outside food and beverages on game day, although some of those -- including the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals -- allow fans to bring a sealed bottle of water, unlike the Bombers. In the case of the Cardinals, fans are specifically allowed one 500-millilitre bottle of water, but flavoured water or sports drinks are prohibited.
The San Francisco 49ers are a notable exception. The 49ers allow both food and beverages into their stadium, provided the beverages are non-alcoholic and in either sealed bottles or Thermoses. Any fruit must be cut into pieces, presumably so someone couldn't use an apple or orange, for instance, as a projectile.