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Blue Bombers political playbook confounds news reporters

Professional football players are taught to read a play on the fly and to position themselves accordingly.

It's a skill that professional reporters don't have. That's why they missed the double-handoff the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football club executed right under their noses this week.

On Thursday, CJOB's Richard Cloutier announced a scoop. He really, really, really wanted to say that David Asper, executive vice-president of Canwest Global Communications, wanted to buy the Bombers.

Instead, he had to stick to the script and say only that Asper had proposed a new "corporate structure" for a private/public partnership. "That would end community ownership of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers." Cloutier said.

As best anyone can tell, that means Asper wants to buy control of the club and run it on the MTS Centre model, a private board of directors and a sports facility build with government help.

OB had acquired a letter Asper sent to the mayor and to the premier, as well as memos, giving the barest details of the proposal. Asper refused to go on air or on the record, saying everyone agreed not to discuss the matter until after the Grey Cup Game in November.

We immediately asked ourselves, who leaked the Asper deal to CJOB?

It wasn't hard to guess who.

Asper wrote his letter to the mayor May 24. OB said it had been circulated to 15 other people and groups. And it never leaked out until this week.

Why now?

The answer lies in the timing.

Only four days earlier, Chris Cariou of the Winnipeg Free Press had a story on the front page of the Sunday Sports: "The stadium question. Blue Bombers want to see project shifted out of neutral."

What a coincidence, eh? But why would the Blue Bombers orchestrate these two stories this week in particular? Again, look at the timing.

The first story ran on Sunday.
The next day was Labour Day Monday.
And the day after....well, it was the traditional start of campaigning for the civic election in October.

The Asper letter was leaked as a political football.

A football with an agenda.

Richard Cloutier even asked: do Winnipeg football fans want a team that's privately owned or community owned? The Bombers let Cloutier run with the ball but provided their own blockers.

His guests were Gene Dunn, past chairman of the Blue Bombers football club, and Paul Robson, CEO of the Red River Exhibition Association which wanted to partner with the Bombers in a new stadium project. Both men, Robson especially, waxed poetic about the glories of community ownership.

It's clear the intent of the play was to force Mayor Sam Katz to commit, now before the election even, to community ownership, thereby cutting David Asper off at the knees.

The Bombers quietly set up the play.

Would Katz, they implied, let Asper just waltz in and buy up a newly renewed, financially healthy community asset? The team was worth between $7 million and $10 million, said Bauer. It holds a 50 year lease on the property where the stadium stands at Polo Park, and that's got to be worth a pretty penny. And after the Grey Cup, why, the team will have a million or two in cash in the bank.

The team spokesmen never mention that David Asper wanted to buy the team in 1999 when it was on death's door and it took the provincial and city governments to bail the team out.
And that he chaired the committee that returned the team to financial health.
And that he's chairman of the Grey Cup committee which may finally get the Bombers back into the black.
So if David Asper was such an asset to the club when the Bombers needed him, why is he such a pariah to the board of directors now?

The answer goes back 20 months, to when the Bombers announced with great fanfare a proposal to build a new 30,000 seat stadium near Assiniboia Downs as part of a $185 million "destination complex."

They intended to partner with Leo Ledohowski who would build an attached hotel and a water park nearby. The location would be on land owned by the Red River Exhibition Association, which would bring events to the Bomber stadium to provide a new revenue stream.

Big plans. Pretty pictures. Lotsa press. Buzz galore.

Then ... nothing. The proposal was stillborn.

The stadium couldn't be built without public money, and the "public" in the form of the city and the province sat on their hands. They couldn't justify spending tens of millions of dollars on a facility on the far outskirts of the city when the Inner City was going begging for development funds.

The Bomber board decided they had to cut some strings to get the project going. String #1 was the stakeholders steering committee set up in 2000 when the team was on life-support.

The Bombers simply announced that they had met the obligations of the committee, and it was now moot. Problem solved.

But Mayor Sam has refused to play along. He says the city and/ or Winnipeg Enterprises, has given the Blue Bombers more than $10 million in free this, forgiven that, and a piece of the action there, since 1996 (the dreaded Jeff Reinbold era). By coincidence, that would be roughly what the team is supposedly worth today. Katz says the Bombers still owe $1 million to the citizens of Winnipeg and as far as he's concerned the stakeholders steering committee still exists.

The Bombers tried to refute that argument by putting Gene Dunn, a once-upon-a-time chairman of the steering committee, on Cloutier's show. The team went to the Mayor last year and told him the stakeholders were paid in full, he said.

At least, that's what he said right after he said he was appointed chairman of the committee in January, by Sam Katz, and right before he said he resigned from the committee earlier this year.

In other words, he was appointed chairman of a committee he says didn't exist, and he resigned from the non-existent committee later in the year. Uh huh.

But its important to the club to shake off the stakeholders committee. They want the Blue Bombers to be community owned, not community controlled. Cutting the link means the WFC are free to go looking for partners for a new stadium on their own.

And they have one in Leo Ledohowski.

There's no room for David Asper in their plans.

Ledohowski stuck with the Bombers board even after it was crystal clear the Downs idea was DOA. He whispered into somebody's ear when the city wanted to put a works yard at the St. Boniface Canada Packers site and, poof, the yard proposal was gone, leaving the land free for -- a new stadium.

( The St. Boniface site is the new choice of the Bombers board, not that you'd know it from any of the news reports filed this week.)

Officially, there's a feasibility study weighing the merits of a whole whack of sites where a new stadium could go. That study has been sitting on the Mayor's desk since March. He says its up to the Blue Bombers to make it public, since it's their study.

The study actually says the current Polo Park stadium site is at the top of every category they measured, except that it's too small for what the Bombers have in mind.

They want a new stadium that will hold 30,000 to 35,000 people, but which will be expandable to 45,000 or 50,000 for special occasions. The Downs site was to be partially weather protected. The board would prefer a domed stadium, but they know how expensive that would be. They even looked at building the stadium from wood to lower costs.

And those costs are growing exponentially. The Downs stadium was part of a $185 million complex. On Cloutier's show, Mayor Sam Katz let slip that a new facility would cost $250 million. In taxpayers' money (lowballing plus "unexpected costs"), that's about $320 million when all is said and done.

"If you're building a $250 million facility and the bill can't be paid, who will be left standing?" he asked. That's why he's interested in bringing a private investor with deep pockets on board.

But the Blue Bombers are not.

This would also go a long way to explaining those persistent rumours all last year about the new stadium going into Point Douglas. The Bombers went to great pains to squash those rumours whenever they popped up. But what if the people scouting out the Point Douglas location were not from the Bombers board. What if they were Asper's people?

A new stadium at the foot of Higgins Avenue, on the Red River, part of the development of the Red, contributing to the renovation of the blighted part of the city ..., you can write your own script.

We know David Asper was interested in buying the struggling Ottawa Renegades last year. He did his due diligence. He wants to do the same with the Blue Bombers. He wants to see the books before he outlines his offer. Lyle Bauer wants to keep the books out of Asper's hands.

In the days of cigar chewing sports editors like Jack Matheson or Maurice Smith, they would smelled right through this charade. The first thing they would have asked is: How much money do you make, Lyle ? and who guarantees your contract ?

And, if the answers (as Kirk Penton of the Sun reported) are $250,000 and, 'not the Winnipeg Football Club but the City of Winnipeg', the next question they would have asked would be: why is the only person with a vested interest in the future of the team, standing in the way of getting taxpayers off the hook ?

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