Bombers blue about bucks

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:23 AM ET

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers could still have a winning season on the field, although after going 3-6 in the first half, the odds are against them.

Winning off the field this year might be even tougher.

Despite a dramatic improvement in the weather over the first five home games from last season, the thermometer that measures fan interest -- attendance -- remains relatively low.

That means there's a good chance this team could lose money for the first time in five years, putting a hitch in president Lyle Bauer's rebuilding plan.

"This year is going to be a tough year, financially, there's no question," Bauer told The Sun yesterday. "It'll be a difficult year on the books. To break even or make a few dollars will be extremely good."

The main reason: the team's lousy start.

You see, it can be pouring sunshine on game day, with just enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes down, but if the Bombers look like they're playing in a fog, their crowds will bite.

Which is exactly what happened through the first four regular-season games here, when an average of just 23,000 clicked the turnstiles.

Thanks to a season-high 26,595 against Ottawa last week, the average has passed 24,000, but that's still only about 350 fans per game more than at this point last season.

PRODUCT IS IMPORTANT

"The product is important," Bauer said. "You never want to get behind in the standings, and you never want to get behind in attendance. It's very difficult to recover. But we're realistic in our expectations."

Actually, Bauer says the numbers are about where he'd expect them to be, considering the team's early performance.

Compounding the problem is a stiff increase in expenses, due to rising salaries and a few major injuries that set the Bombers back a cool $150,000, or so, right off the bat.

Losing veterans Cory Olynick and Travis Ortega to season-ending injuries in training camp, then watching Cedric Dickerson go down for the count early in the year, means the Bombers are paying three players who aren't even suiting up.

"Our injury budget isn't in great standing," GM Brendan Taman admitted. "It's tough to forecast. Two guys went down before we even stepped on the field."

There's also the airlift of players that took place during the team's 1-6 start.

Add it all up, and the community-owned franchise will be hard-pressed to match the modest, $75,000 profit it managed in 2004.

"I'm not sure anything's a sure thing this year," Bauer said.

The man in the big chair is encouraged by the team's improvement of late, and back-to-back wins at home.

And he promises the Bombers will spend what they must in order to be competitive. He points to the trade for high-priced receiver Chris Brazzell as an example of that commitment.

But if the team loses money and can't erase the remaining $217,000 of its debt, it has implications beyond the current year.

As we told you back in April, the Bombers must be debt-free before they have access to their rainy day fund, which is approaching $1 million. The plan is to use some of that money to ensure they'll field a Grey Cup contender next year, when the big game is in Winnipeg.

"Not only are we trying to improve our football team for this year, we're trying to get it situated for 2006, which we all know is a very important year," Bauer said. "Retiring the debt is a key ... because that opens the doors for us to do some other things."

So all in all, the second half of the season will be a critical time for the Bombers.

They'll kick it off in Hamilton this Friday, then visit Saskatchewan -- two road games that could, in the end, make all the difference at home.


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