Winning mark a must for Bombers

PAUL FRIESEN, Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 PM ET

Watching the Winnipeg Blue Bomber big thinkers lay out their plans to pay for a new stadium, Tuesday, I couldn’t help but think the two most important people in the equation weren’t even there.

That would be head coach Paul LaPolice and GM Joe Mack.

Because you can toss around fancy terms like “enhanced hospitality” and “operational revenue streams” all you want.

The truth is this $190-million deal ($85 million, plus interest, from the Bombers) is still mostly about football. Specifically, how much fans in this wholesale town are willing to pay for it.

The team’s business plan assumes an average crowd of 28,000, up about 2,000 per game from current gatherings, a reasonably conservative projection — if the team is worth watching.

“If we had a winning record and a home playoff game we could have 30,000 or 31,000, and that’s all gravy,” Bomber chairman Bill Watchorn said. “We’re committed to that, but we can’t count on it.”

You can count on the opposite reaction, though.

Increasing ticket prices by 10% in 2012, not to mention tripling the facility fee from this year’s $2 per ticket to $6 per ticket, won’t go over well if the Bombers are coming off another season in the CFL East cellar.

The 40 new luxury suites and thousands of club seats won’t sell out if this team doesn’t have a quarterback that stays upright and completes passes.

I’d guess even the naming rights to the new digs, pegged by Watchorn as being worth “about a million bucks,” might fetch more if this club has a healthy vibe around it a year from now, although that’s less dependent on immediate wins and losses than it is on the CFL’s national TV ratings, which are boffo.

But the team’s performance is a wild card no business plan can predict.

Which makes next season one of the most critical in this team’s 80-year history.

A new stadium will sell itself, up to a point. But the thrill of bells, whistles and huge video boards only lasts so long.

If this team wants to maximize the bang it gets in 2012, it’ll have to buck up in 2011.

That same theory holds true for the long-term.

If the Grey Cup starts making a semi-regular stop here again, the place will develop a buzz. If our two-decade championship drought reaches, say, 30 years, the sound emanating from the 33,000 seats will be more like a collective “zzzzz,” and we’ll start wondering if those tax dollars would have been better spent on potholes.

It’s a risk this former mom-and-pop operation wouldn’t have been willing to stomach when the stadium discussion began.

“We wouldn’t have taken it on,” Watchorn admitted. “But then we didn’t know much about running a brand new stadium and what revenue numbers could come out of that stadium.”

When David Asper’s plan began to stall, the Bombers, behind board member Jeff Thompson, began researching a backup plan, just in case.

Today, Thompson, a low-key but highly successful guy who helped restart the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the mid-1990s, is the newest Bomber employee, hired to oversee the transition, and maximize the revenue, in the new facility.

Thompson and the rest of the big-thinkers are promising us one thing: the team’s new debt won’t keep it from hiring free agents or quality coaches.

“Everybody’s committed to winning, having a competitive on-field product at all times,” Thompson said. “No one would jeopardize that in any way.”

They’d better not.

So it’s your move, Mr. Mack and Coach LaPo.

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

Twitter@friesensunmedia


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