Winnipeg sports fans are struggling with too much of a good thing and have thrown out a challenge flag to the NHL and CFL.
The NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers lay claim to some of the most die-hard and passionate fans in professional sports — often sharing those same fans. While that’s usually a good thing, it’s become a bit of a problem these days, says Alon Weinberg.
“We’re a small market … probably second or third-smallest in the CFL. And in the NHL, possibly the smallest market,” Weinberg said.
“So economic wise, this city needs every butt in every seat possible.”
That’s not possible when the teams are playing at the same time and vying for those fans hungry to see live sports after a lost year due to the pandemic. The entire 2020 CFL season was cancelled while a shortened NHL season was held in arenas with empty seats as fans were not allowed.
Uncertainty over public health orders forced a delay in this CFL season, which kicked off in August rather than June. That means more overlap with the NHL season, which began in October.
It was Nov. 24, 2019, when the Bombers claimed their first Grey Cup in 29 years. This year’s big game won’t take place until Dec. 12.
A rejuvenated Bombers fanbase, after waiting two years to see the team defend its title, has not been disappointed. The Bombers have dominated the league en route to a 10-1 record so far, clinching top spot in the West Division and getting set to host their first western final since 1972.
Meanwhile, the Jets are projected to be one of the NHL’s top teams with their high-end offensive skill, a vastly-improved defence corps, and one of the league’s best netminders.
That CFL west final on Dec. 5 happens to also be when the Jets host the Toronto Maple Leafs — one of the NHL’s original six teams — in what is always a fan favourite match-up and Toronto’s only visit this year.
It will be the third time this season the Jets and Bombers home games have clashed. That includes upcoming games on Nov. 6 as well as a pair this past weekend when the Bombers trounced the B.C. Lions 45-0 at IG Field on the University of Manitoba campus as the Jets dropped the Nashville Predators 6-4 at Canada Life Centre in downtown.
“These are big moments and they should be shared by as many Winnipeggers as possible,” said Weinberg. “I think it’s really a lack of coordination and a mistake to hold them both on an overlapping time.”
He has launched a petition on the website Change.org, hoping to get enough signatures to convince either the CFL or NHL to adjust the schedules on Dec. 5.
The petition suggests the CFL flip the times for the east and west finals, putting the Bomber game at noon instead. That, or the NHL reschedule the Jets-Leafs game to 7:30 p.m. CT.
“The lack of coordination between the teams, leagues & television networks is a gross misreading of the local Manitoban sports market,” the petition states.
“Either one of these solutions will appease Winnipeg sports fans on this historic sports day. We call on the Jets and Bombers to work together to make this change and to work together in the future to avoid conflicting home game start times.”
The Bombers have posted on their website that they intend to offer bus transportation from IG Field to Canada Life Centre for fans wanting to attend the 6 p.m. Jets game after the 3:30 p.m. western final.
It’s a nice gesture but not a solution, said Weinberg. By the time fans file out of the stadium and the bus makes it way through traffic to downtown, there’ll only be half of a hockey game to see, he said.
Weinberg is fully aware people can set their TV devices to record one game and watch it whenever they want. But that doesn’t solve the problem for two organizations who rely on fans to be live in the stands.
“They’re not selling out the games right now. The Jets didn’t sell out their home opener — obviously it’s the pandemic — but also not just the fear of being in a large crowd, but people don’t have the dollars they used to have,” he said.
There has been no response from the Jets to the petition or an interview request from CBC.
“This is a first world problem, I acknowledge it. It’s not water on First Nations. This is not poverty,” Weinberg said. “But it’s still important to those who do follow sports, that they be able to watch both these games and that [the teams] have as many people in attendance as possible.
“I’m more concerned for the Bombers than the Jets because they’re a community-owned team and they don’t have the deep pockets to sustain them like the Jets do.”
As of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the petition had 125 of its targeted 200 signatures.