WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- The first thing that strikes you about having the Grey Cup here this year is that, like San Francisco -- which is hosting the Super Bowl in 2½ months’ time -- the locals are throwing the party for other people rather than fully partaking.
As the 49ers are 3-7 and not only hopelessly out of playoff contention but hopeless in general, so too were the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. They finished 5-13, and missed the playoffs in a league in which 67 percent of the membership makes the playoffs.
That, though, is not why we are here. We have not have to come to Canada to pay homage to a team on its uppers, since we have not one but two of our own (the Raiders are 4-6, and only slightly less grisly).
No, we are here to compare and contrast two championships, the cities that host them, and the people who damned well expect to be hosted well.
San Francisco gets the Super Bowl. Winnipeg gets the Grey Cup -- the Canadian Football League championship game.
This means nothing to you yet, so we’ll simplify it. Super Bowl Week is dominated by The NFL Experience, an enormous tribute from itself to itself, at full retail prices and then some.
Grey Cup Week is dominated by beer. It is called by anyone even remotely in the know as The Great National Drunk, and though CFL loyalists wince a bit when they hear it, they do not dispute its essential veracity.
The big game we get shall be a gigantic tribute to CorporateWorld, in which city blocks will be cordoned off, a number of bus lines will be eradicated, the airport will have uniform displays and what looks like an injury cart, and the cost of everything will start at $149 and end at the moon.
Oh, and the game (being played in the much maligned Levi’s Stadium, a.k.a. The Bank That Jed Built, is 35 miles south as the crow flies, and 3 ½ hours on game day as the crow drives, the poor feathered bastard.)
The big game Winnipeg is a different deal entirely -- downscaled and humanized for your hyperthermic enjoyment.
To those who worry that a warm day might cause the east side of Levi's Stadium to become its typical convection oven, no such concerns exist here. Winnipeg spots us 40 degrees (it was a balmy 29 on Monday, and snow is the town’s main feature as you land) and is expected to become downright Lambeau-ian by Sunday.
But prices are lower, the week’s events are more centralized, and in case we haven’t made it sufficiently clear, you can pretty much get a drink anywhere but in church.
Depending, of course, on the church.
Oh, and the game is seven miles south in the kind of maligned and equally charmingly named Investors Group Field. Kind of maligned because cost overruns, lawsuits, drainage and insulation problems, liens over unpaid bills, a dome that never materialized and government
subsidies combined to make this a very American project.
Both San Francisco and Winnipeg have decent enough folks (though in fairness, I’ve met damned few of either, and am just playing the percentages here). Both San Francisco and Winnipeg have a Hooters, in keeping with international restaurant and entertainment law. Both San Francisco and Winnipeg have Fairmont Hotels, though as near as we can figure, one costs a minimum of three times as much per night as the other.
After that, these two events will diverge, and dramatically. The Bay Area will work double-time to show its sophistication (kind of overblown), its worldliness (a matter of definition), its topography (various outposts of Wine Country, Lake Tahoe, Carmel, the Golden Gate, The Tenderloin -- we got it all), and its ability to make visitors spend money. Winnipeg will be, well, Winnipeg.
We say this not as a pejorative, though. Most Canadian cities don’t do well at putting on airs, so they don’t tend to do so -- at least not at the standard off-putting American scale. CFL vice president of communications and public affairs Matt Maychak has loosely compared Winnipeg to Chicago (after pairing Montreal with New Orleans, Toronto with New York, Vancouver with Seattle or the Bay Area, and Hamilton with Pittsburgh), and maybe that is so. We have to take his word for it, as we’ve only been here three hours.
But in the days to come, you will meet Rider Man, the provincial court judge who dresses as the world’s most avid Saskatchewan Roughriders fan. You will hear of Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris, the former Temple Owl going to his third Grey Cup at age 40. You will hear the tale of the Calgary fans who celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup (this is the 103rd) by successfully using public pressure to be allowed to bring a horse into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel (the equivalent of the Mark Hopkins, for you provincials) in Toronto. You will discover the fan base of the Baltimore Stallions, the only American team to win the Grey Cup and get oblivioned for its efforts. You will catch up with former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who just finished his first year running the British Columbia Lions (they were the CFL’s version of barely bowl eligible).
Or at least we think you will. Our presentation of the Grey Cup is meant as a primer to those of you who don’t need The NFL Experience, or the traffic, or the systemic price gouging, or the general inconvenience. The Super Bowl hasn’t been in San Francisco for 31 years, and the changes in those three decades have not all been for the good. This is a chance for the town, and the area, to put its individual (hey, is that hemp I smell?) stamp on what is essentially a massive trade show with a game tacked on at the end.
Which is why we are in Winnipeg -- at a massive city-wide drunk with a game tacked on at the end. There may be ideas we can glean.
Or at least a beer. And who would dare oppose that?