Bombers need attendance blitz

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The team has built it. The question now is whether the fans will finally come back.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/05/2017 (1897 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The team has built it. The question now is whether the fans will finally come back.

For the first time in recent memory, the biggest question hovering over Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp isn’t how the team will perform on the field this coming season, but rather how the club will perform off of it.

On the field, the Bombers look like a legitimate Grey Cup contender. Matt Nichols, as long as he stays healthy, looks like he could finally be this team’s long-awaited answer at quarterback. Big upgrades along the defensive line in the off season should give Winnipeg a push along the line of scrimmage like they haven’t had in years. And a talented returning nucleus that got this team to its first playoff appearance in five years last season will give the Bombers an excellent chance to get there again this season.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Empty seats in Investors Group Field as Bombers defeat the B.C. Lions, Saturday, October 8, 2016.

After years of being the Free Space on the CFL’s bingo card, the Bombers appear to have finally gotten it right on the field and built something to last.

But off the field — and by that I mean in the stands at Investors Group Field — it is a very different story heading into the 2017 season.

When last we saw this club in November, the Bombers were wrapping up a 2016 season that saw them put a winning product on the field for the first time in years, while at the same time continuing to post worrying attendance declines off of it.

Attendance for Bombers games at IGF declined for the third year in a row last season, with overall attendance now down 18 per cent since Investors Group Field opened in 2013 and at its lowest level since 2009.

That’s a very worrying trend line for a club that owes the better part of $200 million to provincial taxpayers for the construction of its troubled football palace. While the club recorded a $2.8-million “operating profit” last season, they actually had to dip into savings to make its $4.5-million annual stadium payment last year.

That’s unsustainable, as any guy or gal with a mortgage can tell you.

But what made last year’s attendance decline even more concerning was the fact it came in a season in which the Bombers otherwise put an exciting — and winning — brand of football on the field.

Because if winning cannot fix the apparent free fall in Bombers attendance, you have to seriously begin to wonder if all the years of losing and dysfunction — not to mention a very unpopular new stadium and, oh yeah, a 27-year championship drought — have done irreparable damage to the Bombers brand.

And that’s why what happens off the field at IGF this coming season promises to be at least as interesting — and a lot more consequential — than what happens on it.

Because if attendance continues to decline, at some point this ceases to become an argument about what have the Bombers done for their fans lately, and becomes instead what have the fans done lately for the Bombers.

I would argue that while Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters has had growing pains in the job and made some big mistakes — see: Willy, Drew — his reconstruction of this team from the tire fire he took over from Joe Mack midway through the 2013 season has been nothing short of a masterpiece.

There was a lot to like about the team Walters put together last season, not the least of which was a seven-game winning streak. And on paper, there’s even more to like about this year’s team.

In other words, if all those empty seats at Investors Group Field the last few seasons has simply been about a fan base waiting for something to cheer about, well that excuse ran out about Week 6 last year when Nichols took over from Willy and it rings even more hollow heading into this year.

And the same goes for the argument — which brews in the comments section under this column every time I write about the Bombers’ attendance woes — that the location/construction flaws/traffic flows of the new stadium are to blame for the attendance declines.

I’m not going to defend a stadium that was erected on a cul de sac and is still being fixed four years after it first opened. The entire project has proven a debacle.

But at some point the five stages of grief dictate that you arrive at acceptance: we build football stadiums once every 50 years in this town, and IGF, for better and worse, is what we’ve got to work with for decades to come.

So, like, get over it already.

To their credit, the current Bombers regime — which, it’s worth remembering, had absolutely nothing to do with the construction of IGF — has done the best they can to make attending games at IGF a more palatable experience.

The club pays big bucks every year to Winnipeg Transit to bus fans in for games and they’ve done everything they can — on the field, in the stands and even out in the parking lot with the tailgate parties — to make the game-day experience worth the hassle of getting there.

And yet there are still huge swaths of Winnipeggers who remain unpersuaded and have instead chosen to add the Bombers to weather and road conditions as the things we like to most complain about in this town.

I find it fascinating how often I see the same Winnipegger who thinks nothing of plunking down a couple hundred bucks, plus parking, to watch the Jets get drilled on a bitterly cold January night complain that Bombers games are too expensive and too much of a hassle.

The Jets have made the playoffs once in six years, and still MTS Centre — whoops, Bell MTS Place — is sold out, or close to it, every night.

And IGF? Not so much.

I’m not going to argue the Bombers aren’t a frustrating outfit to cheer for, beginning with third and four with the season on the line? Let’s try a 61-yard field goal.

Mike O’Shea is a frustrating man and a bewildering head coach, and club CEO Wade Miller may be the most polarizing figure in the province after Premier Brian Pallister, but after years of futility on the field, the Bombers have finally given fans something to cheer about again.

The big question heading into 2017 is how many Winnipeggers will actually turn out to do so.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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