Fans will pay the price as Blue Bombers freed from financial tether


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The Manitoba Tories said this week they’ve “saved” the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/09/2018 (1712 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Manitoba Tories said this week they’ve “saved” the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

I’d argue quite to the contrary, they’ve doomed the Bombers — and the rest of us suckers — to decades more of lousy football on the field and mismanagement off of it.

In a classic example of government coming up with a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, the province announced this week it has written-off another huge chunk of the loan it gave the Bombers to help build Investors Group Field, and is now in negotiations with the CFL team to lower the annual mortgage payments it has been making.


How low can they go? Strap in — this is going to be a free fall.

According to Premier Brian Pallister, the annual payments of $4 million and change the Bombers had been making on the stadium were unsustainable “no matter how hard they tried.”

Pallister’s evidence for this? It certainly wasn’t the facts.

Because here are the facts: since the new stadium opened in 2013, the Bombers have successfully made their annual mortgage payment every single time. And they’ve done so despite torturing their fanbase with some truly dreadful football during a large part of that period.

Imagine how profitable they’d be if — dare to dream — they ever won a home playoff game?

Here’s what I know, and what Pallister should know, too: the Bombers are consistently a modestly profitable enterprise that has proven itself more than capable of doing exactly what they’ve been doing, which is to say, paying down their agreed-upon obligation to the hardworking people of this province who built them a shiny new football palace.

Since the Bombers moved into IGF, they have recorded the following annual operating profits: $2.9 million in 2013; $3.9 million in 2014; $11.5 million in 2015 (which included revenue from hosting the Grey Cup game and festival); $2.8 million in 2016; $5.1 million in 2017.

And with attendance in 2018 on pace to be roughly the same as last season, you can expect the Bombers to announce this year’s profit will again be in the range of $4 million to $5 million.

There are two conclusions to be drawn.

First, like all pro sports teams, the Blue Bombers revenues are driven largely by their on-field performance, with dips in revenue in seasons in which they’ve played poorly (and the season following) and rises in revenue in seasons in which they’ve played well (and the season following).

But second — and more importantly — on a rolling average, what the numbers show unequivocally are the Bombers are profitable enough to make their annual scheduled payments, even with those payments now scheduled for a small increase.

The Bombers make enough to pay all their bills and their mortgage, and still have a rainy day fund. That is precisely the way you’d expect a non-profit enterprise such as the Bombers to operate.

So where did Pallister and the Tories get the idea a mortgage payment the Bombers have never missed is now suddenly “unsustainable?”

Maybe I’m the suspicious sort, but I suspect it came from Bombers chief executive officer Wade Miller, who, after four years of boasting over and over again in public about how the team was meeting its financial obligations, came forward this week to announce the franchise is actually a financial basketcase that couldn’t possibly continue to do, well, exactly what it has been doing.

Calling the current payment schedule “unsustainable” in the long run — there’s that word again — Miller called for a new arrangement to replace the one that’s been working just fine until now.

“We look forward to working with the province and other stakeholders to arrive at a viable long-term solution for all parties,” he said.

A couple of things: first, if the current payment schedule isn’t “a viable long-term solution” for the Bombers, the time to say so was years ago, when the team entered into a 45-year agreement with the province to build the stadium; second, bravo, Wade Miller.

Say what you want about the guy — and no one is neutral on Wade Miller — but you’ve got to tip your hat: Miller appears to be on the verge of pulling off something the average homeowner could only dream of.

Imagine going into a bank and saying: “Look, I know we both agreed to amortize my mortgage over 45 years. And I know I’ve successfully been making my payments for the last five years. But I’ve decided paying my debts is no longer ‘sustainable’ for me, despite the fact nothing has recently changed with my financial situation, except that it has improved.

“So how about you write off the entire loan and, from now on, I will give you 10 bucks a month and we’ll call it even. Deal?”

You’d get run out of any respectable bank. But, well, government…

I understand why the Bombers and Miller would be willing to swallow a little pride and announce, after further review, they’d prefer to be just another deadbeat living off the taxpayers. A little pride is a small price to pay for an almost-free stadium.

I understand why the Tories — a party that sells itself on its supposedly prudent financial stewardship — would do so: it’s another chance to blame the previous NDP government for something.

In the end, the only losers in this shady deal are the taxpayers and the fans of a football team that now, once again, has zero incentive to improve its product.

Do you know what was great about having the Bombers owning a mortgage that tested their limits every year? It forced them to get better — on the field and off — after decades of gross incompetence.

You can argue everything good that has happened to this team in the last few seasons — from the upgraded Canadian talent on the field to the improved gameday experience off of it — has its roots in a financial arrangement that demanded, if not excellence, at least competence in a way not the case when they played at old Canad Inns Stadium.

Not anymore. No, the free ride is back for a CFL team that hasn’t won a playoff game in seven years, and hasn’t won a Grey Cup in 28.

What could go wrong?


Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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