On Saturday April 15, 1995, Hockey Night in Canada host Ron Maclean invited Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist Scott Taylor to be his guest during the second intermission. That night, fans in Western Canada and Ontario watched as the Toronto Maple Leafs battled the Jets in Winnipeg. The score was 2 to 1 for the Jets by the end of the second period. But the action Maclean wanted Taylor to comment on was not taking place on the ice. Rather, he wanted the columnist to talk about the game that Jets owner Barry Shenkarow, who had been threatening yet again to move his money-losing team out of the city, was playing with a local business group called Manitoba Entertainment Complex (MEC), which was negotiating to buy him out. (The asking price: $110 million.) And that wasn’t the only game going on: the business types behind MEC said they couldn’t close the deal unless the province of Manitoba coughed up $37 million toward the construction of a new arena. (Both the federal and municipal governments had also been asked for $37 million each.) Ten days before the provincial election, the future of the Jets had become a hot voting issue.
“I said that the Liberals were not prepared to take a position on the issue yet; that the NDP were opposed,” recalls Taylor of what he told Maclean. “And that the Tories would put $10 million into a new arena.” After the Tories, under leader Gary Filmon, won re-election, Taylor was accused by those who opposed the provincial handout of using national television to pressure Jets? fans into voting Progressive Conservative. Taylor now scoffs at the charge. “Come on, to say that no one wanted it, but then voted for Filmon anyway because of me, that’s just bitter and twisted.”
The reason critics came to credit Taylor with so much power was that the Winnipeg media treated the Jets not as a news story but as a cause. What’s more, Jim Silver, a member of Thin Ice, the group opposed to using public funds for a new arena, believes that his group was marginalized by the media, and that journalists stepped into the spotlight and stopped acting like reporters.
Almost two weeks after Taylor appeared on Hockey Night in Canada, disaster struck the group wanting to keep the Jets in Winnipeg. While the city and provincial governments each coughed up their $37 million, the federal government was noncommittal. In addition, the NHL suddenly decided to limit the MEC’s use of the franchise as collateral.
Shenkarow also got body checked by the NHL. He was told the league would charge him an onerous fee of at least $15 million if new owners attempted to move the team out of Winnipeg. Shenkarow, who would now have a tougher time selling to anybody but a local group, was frustrated and said: “I’m devastated. To me, this was out of left field. It’s a tremendous shock.” The MEC responded by saying it had been “ambushed.” Even some members of he media called the restrictions “deal-killing.” But not Taylor. He, together with colleagues at the Free Press and local radio station CJOB, thought the deal to keep the Jets in town need not die – which gave hope to the thousands of fans who wanted to save the Jets.
Around the time of the NHL demands and the iffy response from the feds, Vic Grant, host of a nightly two-hour sports phone-in show on radio station CJOB, walked into his office. In his voice mail were messages from dozens of concerned hockey fans. Every caller wanted to donate money to keep the Jets in Winnipeg. “I had people phoning me up, saying, ‘I’ll give you $1,000. I’ll give you $5,000. I’ll give you a $10,000 cheque right now,'” he says. Sure enough, they backed up their promises with paper: in a few days, Grant had collected $50,000. And he wasn’t the only one at the station receiving calls and letters. “Over a period of several weeks, we had listeners calling our talk shows to make donations,” says program manager Ted Farr. “The staff, in general, supported it.”
CJOB was a natural place for fans to turn, Since 1991, the news-and-talk format station has been the Voice of the Jets. “Hockey [broadcasts] bring people to the station,” explains Farr. “We compete for listeners, and there is no denying that the Jets are an important tool for us.” So it was no surprise when the station decided to spearhead a public fanfest. CJOB helped promote special Jets donation accounts at major banks, and set up an information line at the station in May.
The movement gained momentum on Friday, May 12, when Shenkarow announced that MEC had until noon on Thursday, May 18, to raise a down payment of $60 million. So MEC turned to the public for money, although there was no real indication as to how much the business group wanted. CJOB announced that, for the next four days, the station would devote all its air time to fund-raising. It called the campaign “Operation Grassroots.”
At the Winnipeg Free Press, a save the Jets campaign was also in full swing. Thin Ice’s Silver insists that the paper’s coverage was driven by Taylor, who has covered the Jets for 15 years. “He travels around the continent with the Jets, which he particularly enjoys,” says Silver, and “has frequent radio commentary [on Winnipeg’s CITI-FM] on them.” But Taylor was hardly alone in writing about the campaign. Each day during Operation Grassroots, the paper set aside several pages for pro-Jets stories. One front-page feature predicted that without the Jets, people in their 20s would desert the city and that Winnipeg would soon become the “coldest retirement community in the world.” In other stories: Free Press editors decided it was news when Jets general manager John Paddock declared the quality of life in Winnipeg would go down without a team; when one family rolled pennies for the Jets; and when an eight-year-old boy cried himself to sleep during a CJOB game broadcast. “Rescue Effort Top Gear,” was a typical headline. The Winnipeg Sunalso jumped on the bandwagon and ran a story about a family that cashed in an RRSP to give to the campaign.
Both CJOB and the Winnipeg Free Press felt they occupied the high moral ground. “Many people think that we make a fortune from the Jets,” says CJOB?s Farr. “That’s not true. We had many reasons for taking on the role that we did, but money was not one of them.” He compares supporting a multi-million-dollar sports organization’s bid for public funds to doing charity work. “If it had been a hospital that was closing in Winnipeg, we would have done the same thing,” says Farr. “We are a mirror to the community.”
But some in the community saw a mirror reflecting only a partial image. “We found it difficult to get the media to cover what we were doing and saying. When we were covered, we were buried in the story” recalls Thin Ice’s Silver. “The coverage [was] … 100 to one for the proponent.” In fact, the Free Press even interviewed a sports psychologist, Cal Botterill, who somehow found a way to put a positive spin on Thin Ice’s legitimate economic concerns about spending public money on a new arena at a time when Winnipeg was recognized nationally as the child poverty capital of Canada. “We need [Thin Ice’s] vibrancy,” said the sports psychologist soothingly. “They will make sure the arena is built with a bigger picture in mind. Thin Ice has sensitized us; it would be almost impossible to proceed without them. They will still be there when the arena is built, and will be the ones talking about expanding efforts such as Goals for Kids, the Jets’ [charity] fund-raiser.”
At CJOB, callers who opposed Operation Grassroots were often ridiculed and cut off. During one show an elderly man phoned in to morning-man Peter Warren. He was worried about a rise in taxes because of the decision of provincial and municipal governments to help fund a new arena. The DJ’s response: “Shut the hell up.” The next caller was a young man who said the city would be better off if the old guy just stopped taking his heart pills. Warren thanked the man for supporting his position. (Warren refused to comment for this article, stating he had “been castigated by the media” and had “a lot of shit dumped on me.”)
For Silver, taking an unpopular position had more serious consequences. “At the height of the frenzy, the huge crowds [at the rallies] were kind of scary. They were mostly young men who did not care about the arguments. They could have cared less about our position. The police were worried that one rally would get out of hand, that I would have crowds of young men coming to my house afterwards. I personally had police protection for a day,” he says. Two members of Thin Ice even received death threats.
No wonder Silver had such contempt for what he sees as a media-created frenzy. “I’ll admit that there were times when we may have lost our perspective,” says John Douglas, a Free Press business reporter who also covered Operation Grassroots. The interview with Cal Botterill, he adds, “was badly done….We lost perspective. We put a positive spin on a story when it should have been negative.”
But Douglas doesn’t buy Thin lce’s accusation that the media created a public frenzy: “I was in Ottawa as the Free Press correspondent during the Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accords. And if the media couldn’t get the public to support issues of that magnitude, what makes them think that the media can do it for a hockey team?”
The day before Shenkarow issued his ultimatum, at least one member of MEC – one very familiar with journalism standards – publicly protested the media hype. For days, journalists had been excited when they heard that CanWest Global chairman and CEO, Israel (Izzy) Asper, had joined MEC. He would be the saviour, they reported, and the team was just a signature away from staying. But on May 13, Asper said the media had jumped the gun. “It’s quite dangerous and damaging to all concerned to fan false hopes and toy with people’s emotions, not to mention their political or private reputations.”
That didn’t stop MEC, however, from using the hype to its advantage. MEC members were readily available to the media for that week, and often downplayed any concerns about the deal, or how negotiations were going with Shenkarow. What’s more, MEC fully endorsed any rally that the media organized?the biggest of which took place on Tuesday, May 16, midway through the four-day Operation Grassroots campaign. More than 35,000 people gathered for a public fund-raising event at The Forks, where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River and where Tom Jackson, Fred Penner and CJOB celebrities encouraged them to donate money. Earlier that day, organizers publicly announced they had commitments of $62 million from the business community. At the rally – the biggest in Winnipeg’s history since WWII – both the business consortium and the media seemed to be reading from the same press release. However, it was the last time they would be reading from the same page.
Two days later, on the night of Shenkarow’s deadline, Operation Grassroots collapsed. Ottawa announced that it would give only $20 million – not the requested $37 million. And MEC stated it was still $28 million short of its goal, despite raising $62 million from the businesses and $13 million from the public. But at the same time that some members of the media were still insisting that the deal was doable, Shenkarow said he was selling the team to Minnesota.
All summer long, MEC tried to cobble together a counteroffer. But after such a humiliating failure in May, the group decided to keep all further negotiations quiet. During June and July, only tiny bits of information were allowed to leak out.
On June 2, Taylor wrote that the public should have doubts that a new deal could be reached with MEC. In mid-June, the Free Press and CJOB hosts warned the city that the Jets would almost certainly go to Minnesota since MEC’s latest plan for buying the team called for yet another $20 million to be raised, a favourable tax ruling, and charitable status for a fund that would cover any future financial losses.
Yet despite their more critical stance, the Winnipeg media missed a major part of the story. Shenkarow wanted to remain Jets president; MEC wanted him out. This caused a major breakdown in negotiations. No one reported this development, although there were rumours about fighting among MEC members. On July 19, Asper announced that he would no longer financially back the deal and was pulling out of MEC.
But MEC (reorganized and relabelled Spirit of Manitoba) continued on regardless and officially launched the $20 million fund-raising campaign that Taylor and CJOB had warned about in June. This one consisted of commercials, infomercials and a song, but failed miserably. What’s more, the business consortium failed to land a single large donation or investment. Throughout the second campaign the media had regained their perspective: the fund-raising campaign was treated as news; CJOB didn’t cover the issue 24 hours a day; and the Winnipeg Free Press kept Spirit of Manitoba stories to a minimum. In fact, the Free Press even reported that the fans had been tapped out and that the reconstructed group couldn?t expect the fans to take it seriously. On August 14, the business group admitted defeat.
CJOB?s Grant’s main regret is that the boosterism didn’t work – not that what he did crossed the line into hype. “I didn’t do enough,” says Grant “I sat back and after the success of the Grassroots campaign and the emotion and it being put into the hands of the MEC and the Spirit of Manitoba – they fumbled it. I should have realized they fumbled it and started making people aware that these guys had their own personal agendas.”
Scott Taylor has more regrets about his approach to reporting the Jets sale. “Looking back,” he says, “I would have done more on the group looking to put the deal together. When the yelling took place [between the MEC and Shenkarow], the media should have realized that was not the right way to [put the deal together].” Still, he defends the boosterism. “CJOB has taken a lot of flak for supporting a campaign that couldn’t be saved, but it was something the community wanted.
MEC’s key members don?t want to talk about the media’s role. “We are just glad to get out of it and get on with our lives,” says a spokesperson at InterGroup Consultants, an MEC partner. “All we can say was that the media response was very varied, but most of [what was reported] was fiction.”
As they reported the Jets’ mediocre last season in Winnipeg and that the team had finally been sold – not to Minnesota but to Phoenix – disillusioned journalists privately vowed that in the future, the business dealings of all pro sports teams would be more closely scrutinized. Now, with the Canadian Football League season set to start in June, they have another chance. At a CFL news conference in January, it was announced that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are $4.5 million in debt – that shaky league’s most financially troubled team. What does this mean to the media? Stay tuned. CJOB is also the Voice of the Bombers.