October 20, 2019

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IG Field becomes Raider Nation for NFL pre-season game

Three nights, 650 staff and a seven-figure budget — that’s what it’s taken for the NFL to transform IG Field into home turf for the Oakland Raiders.

On Thursday, the Raiders are taking on the Green Bay Packers in a NFL pre-season game in Winnipeg. But for regular Blue Bombers and Valour FC fans, the stadium may look a little different — it has been completely transformed into Raider Nation.

John Graham and his company, On Ice Entertainment Ltd., has been a driving force in helping bring the NFL to Winnipeg. It also works to bring pro soccer teams and NHL games to Canadian cities without a franchise.

Three nights, 650 staff and a seven-figure budget — that’s what it’s taken for the NFL to transform IG Field into home turf for the Oakland Raiders.

On Thursday, the Raiders are taking on the Green Bay Packers in a NFL pre-season game in Winnipeg. But for regular Blue Bombers and Valour FC fans, the stadium may look a little different — it has been completely transformed into Raider Nation.

John Graham and his company, On Ice Entertainment Ltd., has been a driving force in helping bring the NFL to Winnipeg. It also works to bring pro soccer teams and NHL games to Canadian cities without a franchise.

"It’s a premier event. In musical terms, it’s like the Rolling Stones or U2 type of thing. It’s not just something where we’re putting a ball down on the field and it looks different. The TV response, the coverage in the States, it’s an event. We want fans to experience that," said Graham.

Since Valour FC stepped off the field as winners — for the first time in a long time — on Monday night, the Oakland Raiders have stepped in, working around the clock to convert the CFL stadium into an NFL fan’s dream.

A lot of transformations have been made to IG Field in preparation for Thursday’s game. In turn, those transformations have meant some major profit for a handful of local companies.

John Graham, President of On Ice Entertainment, in a press box that had to have a wall removed to ensure NFL regulations regarding suite size were met.

PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

John Graham, President of On Ice Entertainment, in a press box that had to have a wall removed to ensure NFL regulations regarding suite size were met.

Because CFL and NFL goalposts differ in size and positioning, new posts were anchored and secured to the field late Monday night. The anchoring alone was a cool $20,000.

While asphalt lines the perimeter of the field at Valour and Bombers games, the NFL Players Association insists the whole field is turfed, to prevent any athlete from slipping in their cleats on the asphalt — an extra $100,000.

When you tack on the field prep and repainting of the lines and end zones, that’s another $75,000. But the biggest cost of all, which people don’t even get to see? The IT department.

The communications system used for communicating on the sidelines and with the players cost US$330,000 to bring in. It was what the Raiders used in Hawaii for their pre-season game there last weekend.

“It’s a premier event. In musical terms, it’s like the Rolling Stones or U2 type of thing. It’s not just something where we’re putting a ball down on the field and it looks different. The TV response, the coverage in the States, it’s an event. We want fans to experience that." – John Graham of On Ice Entertainment Ltd.

So, why is the NFL doing this if it’s going to cost the Raiders a bunch of cash?

"Why not? We’ve always liked to do things nobody has done. The original idea was to have a game in Western Canada and we never had one. There’s the situation where the Raiders are relocating and it was an opportunity. The venue is a great venue and there’s no way you could do it without the right people, and they have the right people," said Graham.

"The NFL is a different game, it’s not a better game. It has different rules and as a result has a revenue source that allows them to pick the best players in the world. That’s not putting the CFL down in any way, but it’s one of the top two leagues in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to have it in your own backyard at least once?"

Field maintenance workers Kunmi Asa (left) and Jeremie Gauvin adjust stencils as they paint numbers onto the playing surface of IG Field in preparation for Thursday's NFL pre-season game between the Oakland Raiders and the Green Bay Packers.

PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Field maintenance workers Kunmi Asa (left) and Jeremie Gauvin adjust stencils as they paint numbers onto the playing surface of IG Field in preparation for Thursday's NFL pre-season game between the Oakland Raiders and the Green Bay Packers.

Graham admits that getting the NFL, CFL and soccer's Canadian Premier League (CPL) to co-ordinate their schedules has been one of the biggest challenges in making this event happen. But now that it is, he believes the payoff is going to be worth it.

When fans head to the game on Thursday, they won’t be walking into IG Field, home of Valour FCand the Bombers. They’ll be able to walk into Raider Nation and live out a true NFL experience.

Where Bombers and Valour banners once hung, Raiders banners have been rolled out. Lines and logos have been repainted on the field. The field has even been given the "OK" by Ed Mangan, head groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves; the same groundskeeper who prepares the field for the Super Bowl each year.

At every Raider home game, a torch is lit in their end zone in memory of Al Davis, the team founder. The same torch will be burning bright at IG Field on Thursday.

"It’s more than ‘hey, let’s go play football and use a different-sized ball," said Graham. "Even things like locker rooms and coaching areas have been redone."

An example of that is the visiting team’s coaching booth. In the NFL, one of the rules is that everything has to be equal. At IG Field, the home team’s coaching booth was larger than the visiting team’s. Even though the NFL is only in Winnipeg for one game, they wanted to meet protocol — so they knocked down the wall between the visiting team’s coaching (booth) and the radio booth, converting into a room the same size as the home team’s.

While some Winnipeggers may have a hard time swallowing the price of tickets, its recently become a bit more palatable. Two weeks ago, On Ice Entertainment and beer sponsor Molson Coors partnered up to drop the price of nearly 6,000 end-zone tickets. Now, it’s $92 on Ticketmaster — taxes included — to grab a seat in the lower bowl end-zone area. The seats were originally prices at $164 before taxes and fees.

"I get it. I’ve been in this business for a long time and I get the same complaints, say if I bring the (Edmonton) Oilers and (Winnipeg) Jets for a game in Saskatoon. There’ll be people going ‘Well, why am I paying this price?’ The economics of bringing something this big to town dictate that… It’s not a cash grab, but rather an event that we think would go really well in the market and open up new fans and everything else," said Graham.

devon.shewchuk@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @devonshewchuk

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