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For league eager to reinvent itself, new dawn in Winnipeg a welcome sight

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce (4) and teammates stand for the anthem during the first game at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, June 12, 2013.


The scoreboard inside the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' new stadium can easily be seen from five kilometres away, provided the light is right and you know where to look.

The big screen provided an early glimpse of the action to the thousands of drivers fighting their way into the parking lot at the University of Manitoba, where the ultra-modern Investors Group Field was dropped in the midst of more sober surroundings without much regard to the logistics of luring more than 33,000 amped-up fans to a campus better known for producing dentists than tailgaters.

But the flashy scoreboard is also a metaphor for a resurgent Canadian Football League, which is anxious to send a signal to sports fans across the country that it's ready to move on from decades of stagnation and reinvent itself for a new generation of fans.

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Many Canadians still perceive the Canadian Football League as a tired franchise whose better days have passed. But the league is making progress in changing that image – and having a shiny new stadium to showcase (the first since what is now called the Rogers Centre opened in Toronto in 1989) marks a significant turning point.

Coming off its 100th Grey Cup game, in which most of the focus was on looking to the past, CFL president and chief operating officer Michael Copeland said the league is finally comfortable looking forward to its future.

"Having a new building in Winnipeg is really a symbol of everything we've worked to do over the last while," he says, adding there are new buildings planned in Ottawa, Hamilton and Regina in the next few years. "We truly are in a period of Renaissance right now. This building really demonstrates the renewal, and signals that we're ready for a period of true growth rather than a prolonged period of crisis management."

The season opener is the first since TSN and the CFL signed a five year extension to their broadcast deal. There were a few test runs to prepare the $200-million stadium for Thursday night's home opener against the Montreal Alouettes – Taylor Swift paid a visit and a multi-denominational church service recently filled the stadium's lower bowl with congregants who were probably as interested in an early look at the new stadium as they were in the sermon (football is a pretty big deal in the Prairies).

Indeed, everyone involved in opening day would have welcomed a little divine intervention at some point in the stadium's development. But even a year late and amid a persistent chorus of complaints – the walls are cracking, it takes forever to get in or out of the parking lot, the press box isn't enclosed so reporters are exposed to the elements – opening night marked an important moment for the team, the league and the sports network that is counting on it to bring in big numbers.

"This is incredibly important for the city and for the league," says Blue Bombers chief executive officer Garth Buchko. "It's an important symbol of where we are going."

For TSN, the league provides steady audiences through the summer months when its main competitor is on the air almost every night with Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts. Four of TSN's top-10 broadcasts of all-time have been Grey Cup games, with last year's drawing a jaw-dropping 5.4 million viewers (by contrast, the largest audience at Rogers Media-owned Sportsnet was 1.4 million for the Blue Jays home opener).

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The league, for its part, didn't bother shopping its rights to other networks because it's so comfortable with TSN and the audience it can deliver.

"The CFL is more than just a broadcast license – it's the crux of our summer schedule," said Stewart Johnston, the network's president. "A critical component to the deal was to maintain exclusivity across all games, allowing us to work with advertisers to develop the most flexible packages."

Getting the first game right matters, and having to get it right in a new stadium isn't an easy thing to do. The broadcaster was consulted through construction, but was often left out as new issues arose. Vice-president of live production Paul Graham and his crew have spent weeks running new cables and moving camera positions a level lower to ensure the broadcasts look good on television.

"Every stadium is its own thing and when you have something new you're going to run up against some things," he says. "And you can't know how it's going to go until you get in there and start doing what you're there to do."

It remains to be seen whether the league can use its new broadcast deal and sparkly stadiums to convert new fans to the game. But as the sun set in Winnipeg and the scoreboard lit up the sky, it was easy to picture a brighter future for the CFL.

"I think we're doing this properly and we're finally ready to see some of that growth," Copeland said. "Most of the teams are profitable and we have a partnership with a broadcaster that really care about our product. It really feels like we're starting something new."

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