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Fielding a winner will breathe financial life into Als, new owner says

Fielding a winner will breathe financial life into Als, new owner says
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“Define rich,” Stern said. “When you talk about rich, I have three beautiful daughters who are married. A beautiful wife of 42 years. That’s rich. Deep pockets … that doesn’t mean you give it away.”

There’s a new sheriff in town, the Als having been purchased in early January by Stern and his 89-year-old father-in-law, Sid Spiegel, from the CFL, which had operated the franchise throughout the 2019 season. It’s not so much the organization had become insolvent. Rather, the father and son tandem of Robert and Andrew Wetenhall merely grew tired of constantly dipping into their pockets.

Alouettes co-owner Gary Stern, left, listens as newly appointed general manager Danny Maciocia, speaks at a news conference in Montreal on Jan. 13, 2020. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

The family lost an estimated $50 million in barely more than two decades, sources said, including $12.5-million in 2018, their final season. Under the league’s control last season, the Als were believed to have lost $9 million — when the team had a winning record and made the playoffs.

“We’re not going to lose $9 million,” vowed Stern, who arrived in Montreal Thursday before returning home Friday evening. “Am I breaking even this year? No. But huge losses are not happening.

“The Als will generate x-revenue. If they’re a winning team, they’ll generate more. If they’re a losing team … There’s revenue and expenses. In good years, revenue goes up because fans love a winner. It doesn’t take a genius. It’s not a league where you have huge (financial) swings. We’re not in any way worried about a big loss. And it won’t happen.”

Stern and Spiegel parachuted in, quite quickly, because of the challenge the Als present along with their desire to create something special. And, let’s face it, they probably bought low. Stern believes there’s enough of a population and market, given the strength of university football throughout the province, to average between 17,000 and 18,000 spectators at Molson Stadium, more if the team’s winning.

But he quickly came to the realization that there’s work to be done.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of proving to sponsors, not that we’re just a winning team. We have to get that reason for them wanting to be connected with the Alouettes,” said Stern, who said season-ticket revenue in January surpassed the entire amount generated last season.

“It’s well on its way to not losing a lot of money,” he said. “The sponsors are calling. Advertisers are talking. Interest is being generated. If we put a good team on the field, we really think the revenue side will be there. The expense side’s coming.”

Cecchini, with Stern’s advice, is in the process of setting an operating budget for the coming season — Stern wouldn’t divulge the amount. But the owner said he wants to reduce expenses, and the only way to succeed is by streamlining the business operations. People will be losing their jobs, Stern warned.

“We don’t want to hurt people, but come up with a plan that works,” he explained. “Letting people go or affecting lives, it’s tough. If you do it right, you minimize the effect it has on people.”

Stern already has faced controversy. There was a segment of the media that took umbrage with the Als being purchased by a pair of non-Quebecers who weren’t bilingual. That mood was tempered with the hirings of Cecchini and Maciocia. But then this month, the organization announced the cheerleading squad was being cut because of financial reasons, producing a new wave of criticism. The club reversed its decision five days later.

“We look at everything in the organization,” Stern said. “How can we best make this into a club that doesn’t lose $9 million? We’re going to make mistakes. There’s going to be bumps and bruises. I didn’t see it being as bad as it came out to be. You have to listen to your fan base.

“Mario called. He said let’s look at it. We resolved it. The squad will be moving ahead in a modified way.”

Stern and Cecchini talk daily. The owner and Maciocia, much less frequently. Stern’s acumen is in business, not football, so he’ll be there to run shotgun for Cecchini, offering advice and reviewing budgets, likely once per month. Stern said there will be no regrets or looking back, but will find solutions if expenses are out of line.

“I think people really want the Alouettes to do good,” he said. “It’s been here. It’s historic and I think they’re believing we’re going to get there. It’s going to happen. It’s going to take two or three years. It’s going to take patience.
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