Bombers of 2009 looking a lot like disaster of 1999

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:07 AM ET

People like to talk about how far the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have come in the last 10 years, and I've been one of them.

This franchise was an absolute disaster a decade ago, in the midst of its second financial crisis in four years and teetering on the brink of insolvency.

It had an empty bank account, owed money to all kinds of local creditors, had a budget that was spiralling out of control and carried an overall debt of more than $5 million.

Not only was the football team community owned, it was also community supported, literally, at the end of the '99 season -- without government bailouts, it would have been forced to close the doors.

SCRATCH DEEPER

The on-field picture wasn't much prettier, coming off a 6-12 campaign, its third straight year out of the playoffs.

Many of its players were old, near the end of their careers, CFL castoffs. Its quarterback, Kerwin Bell, would turn 35 the following year, and there was no promising, young star of the future.

Fast forward to 2009, and a question I never thought I'd ask.

Is this organization in equally bad shape today?

On the surface, no.

It's got money in the bank, for instance, some $5 million, we're told.

Scratch a little deeper, though, and you'll find a debt that doesn't show up in the books.

I'm talking about the infrastructure debt that comes with that crumbling stadium.

Since signing an agreement with the city that saw the team take full control of the facility, it's on the hook for repairs and maintenance.

And with David Asper's plan to build a new stadium delayed for at least a year, maybe more, the Bombers are staring at millions in upgrades. The longer the delay, the more money will have to be thrown into a black hole that's on the demolition list.

That's a debt which, eventually, will be called in.

If that's the dark cloud looming over the franchise, then there are already a few isolated showers preceding the storm.

For instance, the board of directors is in a serious pickle after the sour taste left by first-year head coach Mike Kelly this past season.

Some board members may want Kelly gone, but that decision comes saddled with a serious price tag: Kelly's estimated $200,000-plus salary for another two years, plus that of his assistant coaches, all of whom are under contract for another year.

And what happens to president/CEO Lyle Bauer, who's already stated his desire to have Kelly return, if the board overrules him?

Bauer's pink slip could be worth double that of Kelly's.

No wonder it's taking board members so long to determine a course of action for 2010. This is one conundrum the Bombers didn't have 10 years ago.

Head coach Dave Ritchie, a proven CFL winner, was coming off his first season and still had the confidence of the organization and its fans.

Yes, the team fired GM Ken Bishop and brought in Bauer, but Bishop wasn't holding the team for ransom.

We haven't even got to the on-field stuff, yet.

While the Bombers defence is as promising as its been in a while, that offence is loaded with question marks, none more pronounced than at quarterback.

Just like 10 years ago, this team has an aging veteran, Michael Bishop, and little else.

It's one thing to not have a quarterback of the future, as long as you have one for the present. The Bombers don't.

Ten years ago, this team made some dramatic off-season changes, going to a youth movement and swinging an off-season deal to get Khari Jones from the B.C. Lions.

At the same time it worked out a debt repayment/forgiveness strategy with the city and province.

All seemed peachy for the next several years.

Yet, here we are, exactly a decade later, still in the same championship drought.

And wondering if this team is really any better off.

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788.


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