They like it that way

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 11:46 AM ET

If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers decide to go private, the other two community-owned teams wish them well.

But they won't be joining the Bombers any time soon.

The people who operate the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders say selling those franchises to a private owner is an idea that's not even on the radar.

"I don't think so," Eskimos president Rick LeLacheur said. "The only time it would be privatized, that I could see, is if the Eskimos were in trouble financially."

In fact, the Eskimos are one of the wealthiest teams in the CFL, averaging well over 30,000 fans per game at Commonwealth Stadium.

The team also enjoyed a huge windfall ($14 million) in 2004 from the sale of the Edmonton Trappers baseball team. That's right, the Eskimos are so well off they're buying and selling professional teams.

"In our case, community ownership's been around since '48 and it's worked very well," LeLacheur said. "Our board of directors has always been made up of pretty significant business people in the community. Second of all, we've had continuity in the management of the football club, and there's a clear line: the board of directors manage the overall affairs of the club, but they stay away from operating the club. That's been a very successful formula."

The 'Riders have travelled a much more rocky road. But that doesn't mean they're anywhere near turning the franchise keys over to anybody.

"The (community) model has kept the 'Riders part of the CFL," said team president Jim Hopson, like Lyle Bauer of the Bombers, a former player now running his old team. "And we seem to be on a very good footing right now and heading in a good direction. Not saying that someone couldn't approach the club with an offer to buy, but I've never been aware of anybody that's had that interest."

Most people Sun Media spoke to seem to think Saskatchewan is the franchise most grounded in its community, where fans believe they have an ownership in the team.

Like the Bombers, the 'Riders have, during the last decade, discovered exactly what community ownership means, particularly during a crisis.

"It was only 10 years ago we were in pretty dire straits, financially," Hopson said. "It was the fans that said, 'These are our 'Riders and we need to save them.' If we had been privately owned during that time, I don't know if the fans would have stepped up in the same way because of that emotional connection with the team. You wonder."

Politicians stepped up, too, forgiving about $2.8 million in loans, much like in Winnipeg.

The origins of Saskatchewan's stadium, Taylor Field, go back even further than Winnipeg's, but it's undergone several extensive renovations and there are no plans to replace it.

In recent years, the 'Riders and Bombers have emulated the Eskimos, slimming down their boards and hiring CEOs to run the team. The results have been encouraging.

Both LeLacheur and Hopson believe the future of community ownership in the CFL is strong, no matter what happens to the Bombers.

"I think, too, there could be a future for new franchises. I'm thinking particularly about the Maritimes," Hopson said. "The community model could work in the Maritimes... and I know that's been the talk down there. I don't think it's going to be extinct any time soon."


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