Opinion

It's the kind of week we've been waiting for around here, a sporting buffet that should have locals salivating. And it's the surest sign yet that life as we've come to know it — some would say dread it — during the global pandemic is about to shift in a significant way.

It's the kind of week we've been waiting for around here, a sporting buffet that should have locals salivating. And it's the surest sign yet that life as we've come to know it — some would say dread it — during the global pandemic is about to shift in a significant way.

Myopic favoured in Manitoba Derby

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn and Francine Fournier with a giant cheque representing the big bucks to be won Monday at the Manitoba Derby.						</p>
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn and Francine Fournier with a giant cheque representing the big bucks to be won Monday at the Manitoba Derby.

Posted: 7:49 PM Jul. 29, 2021

The $100,000 Manitoba Derby and a guaranteed million-dollar payoff for a single winning ticket holder on the Jackpot Pick 5 will have fans, horseplayers and lottery players alike out in droves both online and offline at Assiniboia Downs on Monday.

Post positions for the full field of 12 evenly matched runners in this year’s Derby were drawn at a virtual press conference Thursday for the 73rd running of Manitoba’s most prestigious race, and it’s the largest field we can remember since Jan Artic led 11 rivals on a merry chase to win the Derby at 50-1 on Aug. 3, 1992. And Jan did it from post 12, which is a perfect example that anything can happen when you load a dozen thousand-pound combos of courage, class, muscle and speed into the gate to chase a $100,000 carrot.

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The Manitoba Derby in front of a live audience at Assiniboia Downs on Monday night. The vagabond Winnipeg Goldeyes coming home to Shaw Park on Tuesday night. And the Winnipeg Blue Bombers kicking off their long-delayed campaign and finally getting to celebrate their Grey Cup championship at IG Field on Thursday night.

I'll be at all three events. How about you?

Personally, I've missed experiencing the thundering hooves down the stretch, the crack of the bat at the ballpark and the roar of the crowd with every long reception or sack that we likely all took for granted until the sports world came to a screeching halt way back in March 2020. That meant racing for an online audience only at the track last summer, the Fish having to fly south for an entire season (along with the first half of this campaign), and the Bombers and the rest of the CFL going completely dark.

Now, they're all back, a glorious, week-long leap back into some sense of normalcy following recent baby steps which began with the Winnipeg Jets hosting 500 double-dosed health-care workers for the playoffs in May, and Valour FC recently hosting a select number of socially-distanced spectators. With more relaxed public health orders expected to be unveiled shortly as the province hits September vaccination targets much earlier than anticipated, it truly feels like we're turning a long-awaited corner.

As exciting as this all is, there's plenty of trepidation and hesitation among local fans. Turns out that just because you open it, doesn't mean they will automatically come.

Bombers president Wade Miller uttered the four words sports executives hate — "good seats still available" — earlier this week, suggesting a sell-out crowd of 33,000 isn't the slam-dunk I thought it would be for such a highly-anticipated event.

No question it will be a large and lively crowd. But I've heard from plenty of people, including die-hard, lifetime supporters of the Blue and Gold, who are at least a little wary of what this is all going to feel like after more than 16 months of relative isolation. An online Ticketmaster search on Friday afternoon shows at least a couple thousand tickets still up for grabs, and that doesn't even include the secondary resale market.

There will be no capacity limits, and no mask mandates outdoors, for spectators who must be fully vaccinated to get in. From being close to so many fellow fans — "too much, too soon" is a common refrain — to the expected lengthy time just to screen people getting into the stadium, I suspect many are taking a more cautious "wait-and-see" approach.

The 73rd running of Manitoba’s most prestigious race will take place Monday at Assiniboia Downs.

JOHN WOODS / FREE PRESS FILES

The 73rd running of Manitoba’s most prestigious race will take place Monday at Assiniboia Downs.

Which is perfectly understandable — and not at all surprising.

We've all become so conditioned to the so-called "new normal" that a return to the old ways of living, particularly when it comes to crowds, is going to take some getting used to. I certainly felt that way last month when I was down in Tampa Bay covering the Stanley Cup Final. The sight of 18,600 unmasked fans around me — vaccination-status wasn't screened for entry — had me cinching my mask extra-tight as I walked through the concourse, despite being double-dosed

Back in March, just as the vaccine rollout was just starting to pick up steam, an American-based research company (Morning Consult) found only 22 per cent of U.S. adults and 27 per cent of sports fans would be open to attending a sporting event in the current climate. Not surprisingly, younger adults produced more favourable results: 30 per cent of millennials said they would be comfortable going to a game, while 24 per cent of gen-Xers and 15 per cent of baby boomers felt that way.

They've been tracking data on a weekly basis ever since. And while the numbers have been slowly increasing, they are still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

The Bombers no doubt cater to a younger demographic than the Goldeyes, which might explain why a similar online search Friday showed hundreds of tickets in every single section still available for Tuesday's first home game since the summer of 2019. In the past, the Goldeyes typically averaged crowds in the 4,000 to 5,000 range, but time will tell if they can immediately get back to that kind of range, with 20 games on the docket in the coming weeks.

The Winnipeg Goldeyes come home to Shaw Park on Tuesday night.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Winnipeg Goldeyes come home to Shaw Park on Tuesday night.

I truly hope they do. Given all they've been through, and what they mean to the community, the Fish deserve our full support. I give all local organizations credit for putting together detailed health and safety plans, in accordance with provincial measures that are allowing them to open the doors. Masks are optional outdoors but have to be worn at indoor locations such as washrooms and merchandise stores.

But that still may not be enough for some, at least not just yet.

In addition to having second thoughts about rushing back to their seats with COVID-19 still very much in the game, there are other factors at play as well. Many have been hit hard by the harsh economic realities of the pandemic, with disposable income at a premium. For others, it's simply a case of out of sight, out of mind, and absence not necessarily making the heart grow fonder.

Data released last month by Vancouver-based Research Co. concluded that sports fans in that province were 25 per cent less interested in all the local teams. Their conclusion was that this may ultimately be temporary, and the passion could be re-ignited once the old flame returns.

"Has the sports fan found a different way to relate to the sport that’s going to compel them to spend less money?" Research Co. president Mario Canseco told The Province. "Once things go back to normal are they (fans) going to be going back to how they used to do things?"

The good news is we're finally in a position to start finding out. And the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel will be shining brightly around here next week. Regardless of whether you'll be in the crowd for any or all these events, that feels like something worth cheering about.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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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