On July 14, Premier Brian Pallister and top provincial doctor Brent Roussin announced new COVID-19 restrictions for Manitoba starting July 17, the most exciting of which, for many sports fans across the city, is that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be allowed an audience at 100 per cent capacity for its home opener on Aug. 5.
This was a significant win for the Winnipeg football club. After winning the Grey Cup in 2019, the club was robbed of the opportunity to defend its title after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Canadian Football League (CFL) to cancel its 2020 season.
Due to the pandemic, the league and its teams suffered significant financial setbacks, with the league itself reportedly losing over $60 million.
This season is expected to look very different. More vaccines are entering the arms of Canadians, and an increase in resources available to teams has helped make possible a CFL season that emphasizes safety just as much as the product on the field.
For the Bombers, president and chief executive officer (CEO) Wade Miller is overseeing the preparation for this unique season. The 48-year-old Miller — a former player himself — explained that Bomber players will undergo strict measures in order to make this upcoming season possible.
“For the players, which we call tier one, they’re in a CFL health and safety protocol for the year,” he said. “That means reduced interactions with people outside of people in that tier one. They go through COVID testing twice a week, so […] very little interaction with people right now during training camp, other than the people on the team.”
Miller says fully immunized fans will also see some changes when they return to IG Field on Aug. 5. The Bombers have made some adjustments to concessions, kiosks and staffing to make the fan experience a safe one.
“You know, it’s not [going to] look a ton different,” Miller said. “It’s [going to] be the first time we’re all back together, but there will be more sanitization going on with additional staff that are […] cleaning any high touch-point surfaces, […] less concession equipment, less kiosks on the concourse, so we’ve taken a few of those away, opened it up. There won’t be tailgating this year, so those are the basic changes.”
Bringing fans back to IG Field was imperative for the CFL and the Bombers. Consultation with Manitoba Public Health was ongoing throughout the pandemic to make sure that seats were filled. Miller detailed the importance of this relationship in garnering ticket sales for the club.
“We’ve been having ongoing discussions pretty well since COVID started, so we’ve worked together to get to a place where you bring fans back to the stands,” he said.
“We’re a gate-driven league, so we need fans in the stands and that’s what we’ve been able to get to across this country now, which is how we’re getting back on the field this year.”
Miller understands the toll the pandemic has had on players and coaches. After watching the first couple weeks of the Bombers’ training camp, he is proud of how the team has handled the situation and is confident that the club will be prepared to defend its Grey Cup title.
“It’s a testament to our players and coaches,” he said. “It doesn’t look like our team has missed a beat for being off as long as we were.”
“We have most of our veterans back and it looks like a great start to training camp, so we’re off to a good start.”
Miller spent 11 seasons with the Bombers. He is a two-time CFL east division all-star as well as the all-time CFL leader in special team tackles. In 2011, he was inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame. Along with his outstanding football career, Miller is also the president and CEO of Winnipeg’s soccer team Valour FC, as well as the co-founder of multiple Winnipeg businesses including Pinnacle Staffing and Elite Sports Injury.
Before his professional career, Miller was a student-athlete with the U of M Bisons football team, as well as a member of the U of M wrestling team. Miller gives credit to the time he spent at the University of Manitoba for helping prepare him for success in football and business.
“I played two sports [which] taught me a lot, both the team sport and individual sport in wrestling at the university as well, so dedication, commitment and I think that would be the biggest part of that,” he said.
“I had to balance a lot of different things with playing two sports and getting a great education at the same time.”
IG Field is located on the U of M’s Fort Garry campus, giving the U of M Bisons football team the opportunity to train in a professional facility. Miller explained that the proximity to a professional organization is a great thing for the Bisons, displaying the close relationship between the CFL and U-Sports.
“I don’t think the two football clubs, being the Winnipeg Football Club and the Bisons, could be much closer when we share a stadium, and [the Bisons] have their workout facility and everything right in IG Field. That’s a great step for U-Sports to be a part in that and to be in a professional environment like IG Field.”
As the Blue Bombers continue their ongoing training camp in lead up to the home opener in August, Miller will be overseeing the on-field product and the safe return of fully immunized fans. IG Field will serve as a sign that the worst of the pandemic may be in the past, and that a return to normalcy is hopefully not far in the distant future.