Blue Bomber Report Record: 4–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Box office blues

Beleaguered Bombers have lost 3,000 season-ticket holders and sold only 22,500 tickets for their home opener, but club CEO Wade Miller hopes fans will flock back after team proves they're back on track

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The coaches have bought in. And you only had to watch the team's performance in two hard-fought and bitterly contested pre-season games to know the players have bought in, too.

But the increasingly urgent question now is how long is it going to take for fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to buy into the sweeping and systemic changes the beleaguered club made on and off the field during the off-season?

That question is urgent because with just a week now remaining until the Bombers open their 2014 CFL regular-season schedule at home against the Toronto Argonauts next Thursday, the club has sold just 22,500 tickets for its home opener.

That's two-thirds of the 33,500-seat capacity of Investors Group Field. If ticket sales don't pick up meaningfully in the next week, this year's first game will be the most sparsely attended ever at Investors Group Field, setting off alarm bells about what's potentially to come for the rest of the 2014 season.

The Bombers sold out Investors Group Field for last year's home opener -- which was also the first regular-season game at the new stadium. They went on to average 30,637 fans at home last season, despite a woeful 3-15 record and thanks in large part to record season-ticket sales.

But the Bombers don't have the luxury of a record season-ticket cushion this year. As of Wednesday morning, the club had sold just 21,311 season tickets, down more than 3,000 from last year.

What that means is the Bombers are going to need significant walk-up crowds to fill all those seats at IGF. And those have been slow in materializing, at least so far.

Bombers CEO Wade Miller said he's not surprised by the pace of ticket sales, noting the season-ticket numbers are right about where the club budgeted.

Miller said the team always knew it would have its work cut out selling tickets this year.

"We're coming off a 3-15 season for starters. And then we had a new stadium last year and the lustre of that has worn off a little bit. So we knew our season-ticket numbers would be down," said Miller Wednesday.

"And let's face it -- it's been a couple of years where it's been tough on the fans and tough on the city. So we're going to have to show them the changes we've made. And that's what me and Kyle (Walters) and Mike (O'Shea) are all about. We're not talking about it -- we're doing it...

"We've got work to do. But we've got a plan in place and we'll get there."

With a new head coach, new starting quarterback, new and expanded scouting department and sweeping player personnel changes across the field, this year's team is unrecognizable from the motley bunch that finished 2013.

Miller said the club is hopeful that once fans see all those changes on the field, they will buy in just as completely as the rest of the folks who work at Investors Group Field.

"We knew it would be slow to start, but I really do believe we'll get the fans back," said Miller.

Given the crater from which his team is attempting to extricate itself, Miller is careful not to guarantee more wins in 2014. Rather, the CEO said fans can expect to see the kind of gritty efforts that led to a couple of narrow losses to Toronto and Calgary in the pre-season.

"We didn't win those games, but we lost one game on a field goal at the end and the other was very close and I don't think anyone would question our effort," he said.

There has also been major change to the game-day experience at IGF for fans, Miller said. There will be a new tailgate party outside the stadium prior to games, a new on-field autograph session after the game and all kinds of new bars and gathering areas during the games to help reduce some of the congestion on the concourses.

Toss in a transportation plan that most agree is vastly improved and Miller said skeptical fans who have adopted a wait-and-see attitude this season before plunking down more cash will like what they see and hear from other fans as the season unfolds.

But what about that home opener? Miller is an optimist but also a realist.

"It's Winnipeg, there's still a week to go and no question we will sell more tickets," he said. "But June is a busy month. The schedule-maker didn't do us any favours" by giving Winnipeg the very first regular-season game of the 2014 season.

Miller said a little patience by fans will go a long way.

"We've changed the entire structure of this organizaton, plus all the players," said Miller. "That's a lot of change, whether you're a football team or a regular business. And it's tough, but we're going to get there."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

today's training camp report C2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 C1

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