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One down, three to go as CFL season ushers in new stadium boom

Call it "Home Improvement, the CFL Edition."

CFL stadiums are being replaced or refurbished at a pace probably unmatched in league history, starting this season with the opening of a new home for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

In 2014, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will move into a new facility while the expansion Ottawa Redblacks are projected to call a revamped Frank Clair Stadium home. And in 2017, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are scheduled to move into a new open-air venue to replace Mosaic Stadium.

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Existing facilities in Calgary and Edmonton get upgrades this season to make the game-day experience nicer for their fans.

The big story this year is Investors Group Field in Winnipeg.

A year behind schedule, a lot about the new facility drew rave reviews: the player areas, sightlines, comfortable seats and fancy suites and concessions.

But there are kinks to be worked out. Cracks in the concrete are being repaired and then there's the small matter of getting 33,400 people on and off the campus of the University of Manitoba in time to actually watch football games.

"I think it was great [but] I have a feeling people will have to figure out the traffic patterns," Bombers head coach Tim Burke after the season's first exhibition game at the stadium. That was a bit of an understatement. The preseason game against the Toronto Argonauts had almost 5,000 empty seats by the time the official count was taken despite most having been sold.

Bombers president Garth Buchko apologized the next day for the massive traffic congestion that stranded so many and promised better for the first regular-season game Thursday against Montreal. More buses and bus-only lanes, plus earlier access to parking spots, are among the cures the team is hoping will ease the pain.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Buchko said. "We have to get better and we will get better."

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Parking is scarce but, after two years of planning, they also weren't prepared for the 60-per-cent larger crowd than estimated who opted for public transit to reach the $200-million stadium.

Even staff who man concessions were caught in the snarl, leaving fans who could get inside standing in long lines at those food and beverage outlets which were able to open. And, in a city often referred to as "Winterpeg," the open-air press box has already received a thumbs down from the CFL if the Bombers want to host a Grey Cup. They do and renovations are planned.

This season, the Ticats will play their home games at Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ont., as a new $145.7-million facility is built where venerable Ivor Wynne Stadium used to stand.

The Ticats are scheduled to move into the venue in 2014, with the facility slated to hold the 2015 Pan American Games soccer competition as well.

Until then, the CFL team will spend a cozy year at Alumni, which even after expansion will seat about 13,000. The Ticats will practise at McMaster in Hamilton, and also play a home game in Moncton.

When the new stadium is complete, it will initially seat 22,500 with standing room for another 1,500. But it will also have 700 club seats and 30 VIP suites and the potential expanded capacity of 40,000 for special events like the Grey Cup.

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Roughriders officials, meanwhile, have visited the Winnipeg stadium and taken notes with their $278-million project in Regina following a similar pattern of covered seating over an open field.

The province, city and team are footing the bill in Regina, after a much more ambitious plan for a domed stadium failed to get federal money needed to proceed.

In Ottawa, a $450-million, public-private redevelopment of Lansdowne Park is finally under way, including a 24,000-seat stadium set to open in 2014, when the Redblacks are projected to join the CFL.

Calgary's McMahon Stadium escaped major damage sustained in recent flooding there. It will boast new seats in corner end zones with plans for new concessions, washrooms and VIP areas.

Edmonton Eskimos fans are getting more comfortable in the upper bowl at Commonwealth Stadium, as it enters the final phase of a $12-million plan to replace all seats.

Montreal and Vancouver fans haven't been left out, as both Molson Stadium and B.C. Place have received recent facelifts.

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