Turning point for Blue

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

I can't help but feel a little sorry for the those who sit on the board of directors of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

They're volunteers, all 11 of them, with important day jobs and families and hobbies, like the rest of us.

But this side project they've taken on threatens to not only consume them, but leave them open to public second-guessing for years to come.

It's already been called the most important decision in the history of the community-owned football team.

Within the next several months, the board will have to decide whether or not to privatize the 76-year institution, a decision that would be tough enough without the whole stadium issue complicating it.

Either choice will alienate a good number of Manitobans, while the wrong one could threaten the very existence of the team.

This isn't what they signed up for, certainly not chairman Ken Hildahl, one of the original appointees to the steering committee formed to oversee the team's financial recovery seven years ago.

"Everybody in 2000 came to the same conclusion and came together to work on the problem," Hildahl was saying yesterday, as the Bombers showed off their $4 million bank account. "The city was there for us, the province was there for us. Corporate Winnipeg was there, the fans were there... I can't speak enough about the support we've got from the community."

So what does that say about the type of team this should be?

"That's a loaded question," Hildahl said.

Definitely. So's the whole debate.

There isn't a Manitoban who doesn't have a stake in this team, whether they care or not. That $4 million bank account? Some if it's yours.

"I guess the one positive about having a positive bank account is it puts us in charge of our own destiny," Hildahl said. "We knew we had to achieve a certain level of financial stability, then host a Grey Cup and use that as a stepping stone to the next part of our recovery. So this is sort of the completion of Phase 1. The challenge to the board now is to move it to the next level. "

Nobody knew the next level would include bartering with the very soul of the club.

If the Bombers didn't need a new stadium, privatization likely wouldn't be an option.

But the release of their financial statement yesterday -- possibly the last time we'll get to see it, as the books would be closed under private ownership -- underlines the dire need for a facility.

It's a race between revenue and expenses, and expenses are winning.

Without the Grey Cup, the ink would have been red for a second straight year, and that was with a playoff team during one of the nicest summers on record.

True, the Bombers spent more knowing they were hosting the Cup. And the CFL's new salary cap should bring that amount down a little.

But as president/CEO Lyle Bauer said, a few bad years would eat up that bank account quickly.

As the Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Goldeyes have proven, a new facility means more fans and significantly more revenue. So how do you build it on your own?

You don't, as the Moose and Goldeyes also proved.

The question is, can the Bombers be a major contributor as they are, or will they have to hitch their wagon to someone with deeper pockets? Perhaps a private/public partnership?

"As we saw from the arena debate, they're not easy debates," Hildahl said. "It's going to be a very slow, deliberate process. I mean, this is a huge asset. We have a heavy responsibility. We hold the team in trust ... so we've got to look for every answer, look under every stone."

And be prepared for people to start throwing them.


Videos

Photos