Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Honeymoon is over : Bombers expecting significant drop in season ticket sales

New Blue boss Wade Miller doing his best to put out fires of the past, but still has plenty of flames to fight

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Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO Wade Miller

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Winnipeg Football Club president and CEO Wade Miller Photo Store

Wade Miller has been running from one mess to the next, doing his best to clean up the operation and image of the Blue Bombers. But he can only manage one mop at a time and the spillage is beginning to show.

The Free Press has learned the Bombers are expecting a 12 to 13 per cent drop in season ticket sales this season.

This is a blow and the Bombers clearly have a perception issue, but Miller has begun to re-establish some confidence in the organization. Who knows how steep this drop would have been had Miller not begun the rehabilitation of the Bombers brand since taking over the reins last August?

Miller, the team's president and CEO, faces the monumental task of gaining back public trust, which the Bombers carelessly torched during the Joe Mack and stadium fiascoes of the last few years.

The Bombers are now into their renewal campaign, and the club is forecasting a season ticket base of just under 22,000 for the coming season. That's compared to last year's record mark of 24,620.

The drop could be as high as 3,000 season tickets when all is said and done. The team has currently sold approximately 20,000 season ticket packages for the coming campaign.

Give Miller credit as there's lots to like about the new look of the organization, with GM Kyle Walter and head coach Mike O'Shea making steps to improve the win-loss record. But the disastrous operation of the club over the last few years, before Miller was hired, is proving more than fans will ignore. And that has resulted in stress at the box office.

Miller must reverse the momentum of the current ticket slide. If not, more people will decide to stay away and the Bombers, saddled by stadium debt obligations, could decline into a financial miasma.

Unable to pay bills and unable to spend money on football operations is the prognosis for the Bombers if Miller can't win the day.

In the interim, Miller said he budgeted for this hit, and it won't affect the team's ability to meet its debt commitments or the product on the field.

"We're on target to meet our financial obligations," said Miller. "The budget for football ops is set and our entire budget was set on the expectation that we wouldn't have as many season ticket sales as last year."

Miller has proven adept at anticipating problems and then presenting solutions. While this dip in sales is large, it doesn't put the Bombers in crisis mode.

A similar drop next year, however, will do just that.

"This was expected. Our ticket sales rose due to the honeymoon period of the new stadium," explained Miller. "We've heard from fans the location of the stadium and team performance and natural attrition are why they're not renewing. And it breaks down to almost a third, a third and a third. I think 21,500 will be a normalized season ticket number for us."

Miller noted none of the failed ticket subscriptions are of the high-priced variety.

"Our premium seats, suites, loges, Blue and Gold club are all sold out. They all remain under contract for a number of years," he said. "We're in the middle of this, and we'll have all those numbers at the fan forum, which we'll be holding on May 12. We've just announced flex- and mini-packs. They have to be factored as well. We've just started our marketing campaign. It's too early to give final numbers."

Unfortunately, as bad as the obvious on-field problems associated with a 3-15 mark, the Bombers' issues go deeper. They inhabit a publicly funded stadium that has been marred by a poor transition plan, design flaws, failed promises and missed deadlines.

None of these problems is of Miller's making but mostly fall at the feet of his board of directors. The board, designed for governance, got involved in the day-to-day operations on the stadium file and the results have been disastrous.

Miller continues to fight those issues but can't let them drag on the progress needed today. Covering up the mistakes of the past can't be Miller's focus.

Recently, the stadium roof leaked, damaging a number of luxury suites. Miller blocked the media from access to the stadium to survey the harm. It smacked of a cover-up and it was unnecessary.

All he needed to say was, "We have a leaky roof and our builder is working on repairs. Come and take a picture if you must and then get out of the way of workers." End of story.

Don't get hung by the mistakes of others, Wade. Just ask your predecessor Garth Buchko how that works out. Buchko inherited a litany of board-generated problems and when he couldn't solve them, was made a scapegoat.

Miller has a number of strengths that are being revealed as he goes forward. Chief among them appear to be his zeal to win and his understanding the fans of the Bombers are the organization's lifeblood.

"We're going to have over 21,000 season tickets sold. This shows how loyal Bombers fans are. We're coming off a tough season, but they believe we're headed in the right direction and they're supporting us," said Miller.

"My job is to listen to them and I do every day. We're trying to meet the demands of our fans. We just have to work harder and get more people out to the stadium. That's my job. Every game should be like the Banjo Bowl. We have the fans to do it. That's what I hang my hat on."

Miller says he loves this job. He better. There's lots left to do.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2014 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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