Day of celebration

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:15 PM ET

As parties go, it was a modest celebration -- egg-salad, turkey and ham sandwiches, along with a plate of dainties.

But the real meat of the event had the Winnipeg Blue Bombers executive beaming like kids in a candy store: seven years after teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Bombers are in the black.

And not just barely. Thanks mainly to a $3.3 million Grey Cup, there's some $4 million in the kitty.

"A day of great celebration in Bomber land," board chairman Ken Hildahl said. "A day we've been waiting for, literally, for decades."

Only seven years ago, this was nearly impossible to see.

Mired in $5.5 million of debt and barely able to keep the doors open, the community-owned team was at the mercy of its public.

With the help of politicians tired of bailing it out, the club hatched a bold rescue plan, coupled with a restructuring of the way the franchise was operated, and seven years later the turnaround approaches $10 million.

"That would be cause for celebration in just about any business," Bombers president/CEO Lyle Bauer said. "It gets this football club in a great position to negotiate its future."

That future still faces questions about a new facility and the related debate over community vs. private ownership.

But first, a look back at how the Bombers came back from the brink.

They began by fund-raising like boy scouts, with the added incentive of matching grants by the city and province. That produced some $4.6 million.

The province forgave another $600,000, while the club settled another city debt of $1.2 million using the amusement tax on tickets.

But the real coup de grace came from Le Coupe Grey this past season, when hosting the game swelled the coffers by $3.3 million, a good $800,000 more than conservative projections.

"Finally, after two Grey Cups, the Grey Cup has actually delivered what it was supposed to," Bauer said, referring to two previous efforts, 1991 and '98, that failed to pay off, for various reasons. "So I guess maybe third time is a charm."

Toss in a one-time payment of $700,000 from the CFL for being forced to move back into the East Division, and the Bombers' 2006 profit was a record $2.9 million.

The flip side, of course, is that without the Grey Cup and the one-time CFL payment the Bombers would have lost in the neighbourhood of $1 million.

Expenses continue to climb, by some 20% compared to '05 figures. In its current state, the franchise appears to be a break-even venture, at best.

Which brings things back to the future.

"We recognize full well that one or two or three bad years in this business can absolutely eat up that $4 million," Bauer said. "We realize we have to continue to overturn every stone to find new revenue opportunities and lay that financial future for the long-term."

That future, Bauer says, must include a new facility.

The Bomber board is actively seeking proposals for private/public partnerships to develop not only a stadium, but commercial opportunities on the current site, which the club controls.

One potential partner, former board chairman David Asper, has already tabled a proposal that would see him take over ownership of the team in exchange for a contribution to a new stadium.

pfriesen@wpgsun.com

THE $10 MILLION TURNAROUND

* Debt in 2000: approaching $6 million

* Assets today: $4 million

How they did it:

* Fundraising: $2.3 million

* Matching government grants: $2.3 million

* Debt forgiveness: $600,000 (province)

* Debt repayment: $1.2 million (city, via amusement tax on tickets)

* Grey Cup profit $3.3 million

* Total: $9.7 million


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