Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg's professional sports scene has never been better

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If the Jets come back everything else will suffer and maybe even die. The Bombers won't sell any tickets and the Goldeyes won't be able to drum up any corporate support. Or so went the thinking among some naysayers -- it just isn't true.

The Jets are sold out for at least two more years and have a waiting list of 8,000 should any contracts come open. They have lucrative TV and radio deals running for nine more years. Their corporate sponsorship and merchandise sales have exceeded anyone's expectations.

The Jets are far bigger than anyone thought they would be and occupy far more of the pro sports marketing landscape than expected. Still there is room for everyone else to not only exist but thrive.

The Blue Bombers had unprecedented profits last season and with a new stadium on the horizon are on the cusp of a new financial reality. Yes, they will have debt obligations to meet, but if the trend continues the football club will be able to handle those commitments and build significant cash reserves at the same time.

The Goldeyes remain the flagship franchise among independent baseball leagues with a gem for a park, a loyal fanbase and regional broadcast deals in radio and TV.

When the Bombers' new stadium is completed, Winnipeg will have three newish facilities with teams playing in front of near capacity crowds. Big cities have large entertainment menus but for a long time it was believed Winnipeg couldn't sustain more than one option. We're finding out that simply isn't true.

"We sold 2,000 season tickets within 24 hours of the Jets selling out last May," says Blue Bombers CEO Garth Buchko. "People realized they were going to be shut out of the Jets for three, five or seven years. There's always been a belief in Winnipeg that there was no need to buy season tickets because there would always be lots of tickets available for walk-up. The Jets proved that if you don't get in early enough, you might not get a seat to the Goldeyes, Jets or Bombers."

Turns out that in Winnipeg, we can have our cake (Jets) and eat it (Bombers and Goldeyes) too. Admission into major league sport hasn't cannibalized the smaller set in Winnipeg. Winnipeg has something for everyone. A family of four can still take in a Goldeyes game and have dinner at the park for under $100 and a Bombers fan can buy a season ticket for as little as $200.

The Bombers sold 21,500 season tickets last year and Buchko says the club could sell 30,000 for the coming season.

"We've got around 98 per cent renewals so far and we still have a few days to go. Once we get through that process, we'll open up to current season-ticket holders to purchase additional tickets. We also have a waiting list we need to get to. We will cap season tickets. We're not at a point to do that yet. But there will be some tickets available for walk-up," said Buchko.

At Shaw park, Goldeyes GM Andrew Collier says his club is right on pace with ticket sales from a year ago.

They averaged 5,740 fans per game last season and saw 275,531 come through the park, an increase from the year before.

"We're right where we were a year ago in terms of ticket sales and corporate sponsorship is a little bit ahead," said Collier.

"I was interested to see if we would have any ticket cancellations because people had spent all their money at the MTS Centre but that number is less than a handful. I always thought the local businesses that like to advertise with the Goldeyes would still be here and that's been the case."

The Goldeyes will open their season on the road and won't hold their home opener until May 29. That's already proven to be an advantage.

"We've done a really good job pre-selling our first series and I expect those first three games to sell out or be very close," said Collier.

There have been moments over the last year when Winnipeg has been the best place in Canada for a sports fan. There will be more of those days going forward. No one will ever mistake us for New York and its endless options but we also can't be compared with Green Bay or Regina where the list is limited to one.

Winnipeg doesn't have it all but we've got a lot and what we have has never looked stronger. Now if someone could only win a championship. Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 C1

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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
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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