Winnipeg has a stadium-sized debacle
by Stephen LaRose
Labour Day Classic
“If you’ve ever wondered what effect a first-rate facility and environment can have on a professional football franchise, 2013 will be the year we all find out.” —Retired Winnipeg Blue Bomber defensive lineman and Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist Doug Brown
The Canadian Football League goes to great lengths to reward failure. Bad teams pick first in the Canadian college draft. Teams not making the post-season receive the same money from the league’s television contract with TSN as the Grey Cup winner. Call it ‘corporate socialism’.
Despite all that, the CFL offers some pleasures — the league guarantees that at least one team will be a comedy of errors every season. And the 2013 Winnipeg Blue Bombers are living proof that shit indeed rolls downhill.
On the field, the club possesses a one win, six loss record. Off the field, the organization is melting faster than Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie. Chief executive officer Garth Buchko quit or was fired (depending which news outlet you believe) and general manager Joe Mack was canned Aug. 9. Offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton was sacked a little over a week later. Head coach Tim Burke, brought in just before last year’s Labour Day Classic, has proved little better than his predecessor, Paul LaPolice: the Bombers have fallen to a 5-10 record in his term.
A ‘consultant’, Marcel Bellefeuille, is overseeing the bloodletting like a medieval doctor who’s running out of leeches.
Wait, there’s more: one-time starting quarterback Buck Pierce has suffered so many concussions in his eight-year CFL career (missing 23 of 49 regular season games, as of the end of last season, due to injuries) that he shouldn’t risk more brain damage by playing again. Second-stringer Justin Goltz was proclaimed the starter five games into this season. After he led the team to a loss to the B.C. Lions on Aug. 5, third-string QB Max Hall was proclaimed the new starter, much to the anger of Pierce and Goltz (who vented to Winnipeg sports media outlets) and the confusion of Bomber fans and reporters.
Oh yeah. They’re also paying for a new stadium.
The $190 million University of Manitoba Institute For Mosquito-Breeding Studies Investors Group Field isn’t the reason why the Bomber organization is in complete chaos. But shelling out for a new stadium will be a drain on the Bombers’ bottom line when the front office will be paying people not to coach or manage for the next couple of years. (At the press conference announcing the comings and goings, Bombers board members estimated the costs of the dismissals of LaPolice, Mack and Buchko at north of $1 million.)
Casual fans aren’t willing to buy tickets to watch such ineptitude — according to the Free Press and Sun, the Bombers played to about 2,000 empty seats at IGF during their 37-24 loss to the Calgary Stampeders on July 26 (their last home game before Prairie Dog’s deadline for this story).
And, we should note, the Bombers were a year late in getting into their new park.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders have won far fewer Grey Cups than the Bombers during their 101-year existence (three for the Riders, 10 for the Bombers). As often as not, they’ve been run just as ineptly. (For puppies who thought the 2011 season was a disaster, study your history.)
For all the talk about how Saskatchewan is a prosperous place (true) where businesses and governments can work efficiently for the common good on projects such as a new stadium (BWAHAHAHA), there’s a lot to learn from the Winnipeg experience.
If the city, the province and the Roughriders are willing.
The Bombers built the stadium in the wrong place. Located on the University of Manitoba campus, the stadium is hard to get to and has poor parking. For the first few games this season, the Winnipeg Sun and Free Press were filled with stories about drivers not finding parking near the stadium (The City of Winnipeg exacerbated the problem with poor transit). In Regina, where thousands drive from out of town for the games, fans hang out at restaurants and bars well away from both Mosaic Stadium and the proposed new facility. And here, even more than in mega-sprawled Winnipeg, car culture is king — even the slightest hint of poor parking is enough to drive away people.
Building the new stadium on the exhibition grounds — even with the old indoor skateboard park and the Grain Show Building levelled — means it’ll be built on the exact site where many Rider fans who drive to games park their cars. So Mosaic Stadium will become a parking lot… oh wait, no it won’t. Under the city’s plan, the stadium site’s next life is supposed to be affordable housing.
Then you’ll have access problems. While you have two four-lane streets near the area — Saskatchewan Drive and Lewvan Drive — a lot of drivers will try to get in and out of the new facility through Elphinstone Street and North Railway Avenue. Unless there’s plans to convert Elphinstone and North Railway into four-lane drives as well, traffic snarls to and from the facility will be as predictable as drunk gomers trying to start The Wave.
Four-laning Elphinstone from Dewdney to Saskatchewan Drive would involve tearing down either the armouries or the Lawson Aquatic Centre, which at this point might spark riots in a Cathedral neighbourhood that’s already cheesed. These people flipped out over a Safeway reno, for god’s sake.
But one mistake that the Bombers didn’t make — and the Riders, the province and the City of Regina seem to be going full tilt with — is to consider a domed, or retractable-domed, facility.
“If we do some ‘cowboy engineering’,” says a Calgary engineer and friend of mine, “you’ll have to reinforce the walls, roof, and foundation of a stadium to support a retractable roof. That will mean they’ll spend an extra, what, 25 per cent on the building.”
“If they don’t put a lid on it right away, they’ll get busy paying for the stadium itself — and Regina’s soil is very unstable. So the building will shift,” my patient friend explains.
“If they don’t roof it right away, they never will.”
This may explain why the Riders, the City of Regina and the province will spend about $270 million on a 35,000-seat stadium, roughly the seating capacity of Investors Group Field, which cost $190 million to build.
But even the latter’s figure is suspect.
In 2008, Winnipeg developer David Asper promised to build a new football stadium for $110 million, if the city and province agreed to a complicated land swap. His company, Creswin, would get the old Winnipeg Stadium site for redevelopment into a shopping mall, and he’d own the team.
Two things happened almost as soon as the first foundation pilings were pounded into Winnipeg’s clay soil: Asper and his family got into financial trouble (Canwest Global, owned by the Asper family, went into bankruptcy proceedings) and Asper demanded more money to complete the project.
Instead, the city and province paid off Asper and took over the project themselves.
So, was the original $110 million figure for Investors Group Field lowballed to entice the public on a new facility before the sticker-shock reality sets in? Is the current $270 million figure for the new Rider stadium also a lowball figure? Will Reginans and the province pay closer to $400 million when the Saskatchewan Roughriders move into their new pleasure-semi-dome?
We still don’t know what a new stadium will do for a good football organization in Canada in the 21st century: the Bombers are farther from being a good organization than they are from a 2013 Grey Cup berth. The story of the new Bomber stadium is a story of hubris, stupidity and a belief that football fans and taxpayers will accept anything with a professional football jersey thrown over it.
It’s a depressing story. Too bad it’s going to re-run here.