Nearly 16 months ago the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup in Calgary, following a convincing win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The victory broke a decades-long title drought and there looked to be nothing but blue skies on the horizon for the CFL franchise.
Everything changed a few months later with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of a boon to the bottom line, 2020 was a bust for the club, as the CFL cancelled its season and mounted record losses.
Now there appears to be good news on the horizon.
While work still needs to be done, the WFC is working on playing in 2021 and, perhaps more importantly, welcoming fans back to IG Field.
At least that's the plan – known formally as the IG Restart Plan – in play.
"Credit belongs to our entire team. I get to talk about it, but everybody leaned in on this," WFC President and CEO Wade Miller said in a phone interview with the Free Press. "And other teams across the league are doing the same thing and getting ready to play in their stadiums. Every stadium will be different. We're lucky here at IG Field because we have a state-of-the-art facility that provides us the ability to spread out some people."
Predictably, given his optimism last summer about bringing the CFL bubble to Winnipeg, a plan that ultimately failed, Miller is confident the CFL will return this year, one way or another. He's just as confident in the IG Restart Plan, which he said has been "95 per cent completed."
Miller said his team have made tweaks based on what other sports clubs – notably college football and the NFL, with their abundance of outdoor stadiums – are doing to create a safe environment for staff and fans.
It remains unclear when — and how many — fans will be permitted. Miller said talks have begun with the provincial health authorities, but it is too early to speculate on numbers.
"Credit belongs to our entire team. I get to talk about it, but everybody leaned in on this." – WFC President and CEO Wade Miller
Whether it's 10,000 fans or a full house of 33,000, Miller is adamant the WFC is up to the challenge. Though he couldn't say whether proof of vaccination would be mandatory to attend an event at IG Field – "I don't know where that ends up" – he directly connected the number of people vaccinated to the number of people ultimately allowed to attend events.
To be clear, Miller doesn't expect to be allowed maximum capacity this season.
"This is the first time any of us have lived through a pandemic, right?" Miller said. "The more people that get vaccinated, the higher percentage there is, the less demand on our healthcare system, less death and negative outcomes, that will allow us to reopen as a society way quicker, including coming to a stadium.
"All I can say, just logically, is when it's your turn, get that vaccination because the more people vaccinated, the better off we are in society."
With the number of fans limited, who exactly will get first crack at tickets is also an issue being considered. There are some obvious privileges, such as first dibs for season ticket holders, with an emphasis on seniority. Miller said he plans to reach out to season-ticket members in the next six to eight weeks, once they have a clearer picture of when they can allow people through the door.
"Hopefully we can scale it up as the season goes on," he said. "It's about doing what's right and working with public health, both provincially and federally."
What is abundantly clear is the game-day experience will undergo a massive overhaul. Simply put, what you knew before isn't going to be what you know now.
"It is going to look different," Miller said. "But if I was able to attend an event I'd be happy to be able to go. It's been a long time since any of us have been together."
While a typical Bombers game-day would feature a variety of entertainment, fan safety will be this season's priority. That includes Valour FC, the club's resident soccer team.
Transportation to and from games will be adjusted. With limited attendance, Miller said all fans will be able to park on the U of M campus without problem. Traffic should be easier to navigate due to the unfortunate fact there will be no tailgating this year, Miller noted with disappointment.
"Hopefully we can scale it up as the season goes on. It's about doing what's right and working with public health, both provincially and federally." – Wade Miller
Plans for a bus system are up in the air. Miller said the obstacle in this case is being in close proximity to strangers in an enclosed area, which complicates the safety mandate.
The bike valet service has been doubled from one station to two. The usual valet at Gate 3 will remain, with the other station positioned at the other end of the stadium.
Fans will enter and leave from the same gate. The WFC has also gone completely paperless inside the stadium, meaning tickets are now digitalized and can be accessed on a smart phone. On the tickets will be a suggested arrival time.
"What that does is it allows us to identify all the fans in attendance, and if there was ever a need it helps us with contact tracing," Miller said.
The same goes for retail, parking and concessions, all of which will be cashless.
Miller didn't specify which food and drink vendors would be back but he did note a scaled down menu. The WFC recently took control of its food and beverage services, so the generic staples will remain.
The fate of some of the speciality vendors is unknown, but there will be a fight for space. To ensure fans are properly distancing through the stadium's concourse, Miller said they have created additional space by removing the pop-up vendors, the kind usually occupied by specialty vendors, such as Shawarma Khan.
The popular Rum Hut won't be shuttered, but it won't be the same raucous party it's become known for. Miller said plans are still in progress but there will be restricted access.
The concourse will be divided in half, with traffic keeping right. Other safety measures, Miller said, include additional staff on game day to ensure safety protocols are being executed, as well as an extra 250 hand sanitizer units throughout the stadium.
Miller said the total price tag of their IG Restart Plan will be "a couple hundred thousand, for sure." That's likely a tough pill to swallow after predicting as much as $10 million in losses in 2020 (that number is likely a lot lower).
"That's what it will end up being and that's what we need to do to keep our fans safe and work through a challenging year ahead," Miller said.
Once fans reach their seats, they'll find they are in pods, at least to start. Miller said pods will consist of one to eight people, comprising family members or "trusted acquaintances." All pods will be socially distanced from one another.
Masks must be worn at all times unless eating or drinking.
To offset some of the restrictions, Miller said plans are in the works for limited in-game entertainment, such as contests. One possibility, he suggested, would be someone winning the way-too-much-food Walby Burger.
"'How are we going to do things to make the best fan experience under difficult times, living through a pandemic?' Our entire team has had that focus." – Wade Miller
Fans will have limited access to players. While still able to razz the opposing team from the comfort of your seat, the tradition of kids tossing a football around with players has been postponed.
A victory won't feel as sweet to some, at least for those who cherish rushing the field after the game. That, too, will be dropped.
Football, however, could very well be back on track this summer. At least that's the plan.
"It comes down to developing a comprehensive plan to restart our stadium, for the safety of our fans, staff and players, which is paramount all the time and it's consistent with what we do at the Winnipeg Football Club," Miller said.
"'How are we going to do things to make the best fan experience under difficult times, living through a pandemic?' Our entire team has had that focus; everybody's working on that, from our stadium ops team to events and food and beverage. It's just been a team effort going into this, to say, ‘OK, this is our new normal for 2021. Let's roll with it and let's figure it out.’"
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.