August 18, 2019

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How is the Bombers' relationship with Winnipeg? Well, it's complicated

Opinion

They appear to be in great shape on the field, riding a red-hot 4-0 start to the season and looking every bit like a legitimate Grey Cup favourite.

But things are a bit more muddied off the field these days, with politicians threatening to punt the Winnipeg Blue Bombers right out of their hands.

You're likely aware the City of Winnipeg is a shareholder of Triple B Stadium Inc., the public agency that owns taxpayer-funded IG Field, along with having a spot on the Winnipeg Football Club's board of directors, which oversees operations of the team.

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They appear to be in great shape on the field, riding a red-hot 4-0 start to the season and looking every bit like a legitimate Grey Cup favourite.

But things are a bit more muddied off the field these days, with politicians threatening to punt the Winnipeg Blue Bombers right out of their hands.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman recently introduced a motion to sever ties between the city and the Winnipeg Football Club.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman recently introduced a motion to sever ties between the city and the Winnipeg Football Club.

You're likely aware the City of Winnipeg is a shareholder of Triple B Stadium Inc., the public agency that owns taxpayer-funded IG Field, along with having a spot on the Winnipeg Football Club's board of directors, which oversees operations of the team.

But that could change quicker than a Lucky Whitehead touchdown dash after Mayor Brian Bowman recently introduced a motion to sever ties, saying there's no similar arrangement with other local professional sports teams such as the Winnipeg Jets and Winnipeg Goldeyes. The motion was passed unanimously by the executive policy committee, and a detailed report on how to divest is now being prepared, with a deadline of some time this fall.

"I’m not sure having political appointments on the board of a professional sports team makes sense at this stage," Bowman told reporters earlier this month at city hall.

"I’m not sure having political appointments on the board of a professional sports team makes sense at this stage." – Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

He's right, too. A clean break makes plenty of sense, not to mention potentially saving the public plenty of cents.

It's worth noting the province, under Premier Brian Pallister, has left its seat vacant on the WFC board for several years while also having a financial stake in Triple B. With an election looming, it's hard to predict where the ball may ultimately land. But change appears to be in the air.

These arrangements were made by former NDP premier Greg Selinger and former mayor Sam Katz prior to Pallister and Bowman coming into power, and it's clear the current leaders don't think much of what they inherited.

Under Manitoba premier Brian Pallister, the province has left its seat on the Winnipeg Football Club board vacant for several years.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Under Manitoba premier Brian Pallister, the province has left its seat on the Winnipeg Football Club board vacant for several years.

If the Bombers and their government partners were to update their current relationship status on Facebook, there's a good chance it would read "It's messy — and complicated."

All of which has led to speculation that privatization of the Bombers might be where this is ultimately heading.

Of course, the idea that this is a community-owned club has always been a bit of a red herring. Yes, taxpayers were on the hook for the $210 million construction of the stadium, which opened in 2013 and remains the source of great controversy to this day.

But you and I have no actual say in the day-to-day functions of the team, which is run as a non-profit organization and has been thrown a life preserver in the form of government bailouts numerous times over the years.

Last September, the PCs announced they had written off an $82-million stadium loan. The government had previously written off a loan for $118.7 million that was supposed to be repaid with tax revenue generated by developments at the old Polo Park stadium site — a location that remains largely undeveloped.

Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris celebrates a touchdown with Bombers fans during a game against the Toronto Argonauts last Friday. Despite a 29-year championship drought, the Bombers have continued posting operating profits for years.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris celebrates a touchdown with Bombers fans during a game against the Toronto Argonauts last Friday. Despite a 29-year championship drought, the Bombers have continued posting operating profits for years.

There are concerns, naturally, about who's going to foot the bill for future stadium costs, including maintenance and repairs. And it's clear the city, and perhaps the province, may be trying to distance themselves, essentially saying "enough's enough."

In essence, this deal seems to be all risk and no reward.

"If we can mitigate the financial risks of taxpayers going forward, that’s something I’d like to look at," said Bowman.

Will some deep-pocketed private entity or corporation come along and see this as a sound investment? If the right fit can be found, it might just be the best thing possible for all parties.

Despite a 29-year championship drought, the Bombers have continued posting operating profits for years, to the tune of $2.6 million in 2018 and $5.1 million the year before. Throw in additional events — such as Valour FC soccer games this summer and next month's NFL exhibition game between the Green Bay Packers and the Oakland Raiders — and the bottom line will likely look even better.

The Bombers continue to make annual payments to the province, which includes entertain tax, facility fees and excess cash. Last year's payment was $2.7 million.

David Asper took a run at a privatization several years ago but ultimately came short of the end zone. But that doesn't mean it couldn't work down the road. Might True North Sports & Entertainment, the owners of the Jets, be interested in adding a football club to its growing list of assets?

With the primary focus currently on a very talented team hoping to make a Grey Cup run in the fall, the games playing out behind the scenes are also worth keeping an eye on.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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