Winnipeg Jets ownership sounds the alarm on attendance: ‘Not going to work over the long haul’


WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Behind a large desk in an office tower with a view out over True North Square, Mark Chipman is working the phones.

Chipman is chairman of the Winnipeg Jets. A local businessman who got caught up in the failed movement to save his city’s NHL team three decades ago, he later fixed his gaze on bringing big-league hockey back to one of the smallest markets in North American professional sports and defied the odds by actually making it happen.

On this day, he’s still fighting to ensure the Jets work in Winnipeg by taking on a cumbersome task: making personal calls to those who have let their season tickets lapse.

The organization’s once-solid foundation seems to again be quaking beneath Chipman’s feet. Even playing out of the NHL’s smallest permanent arena, which holds 15,225 fans for hockey games, the Jets are drawing just 87.4 percent of capacity this season, the third-lowest mark in the 32-team league. Their overall average attendance of 13,306 is the lowest of any NHL team other than the Arizona Coyotes, who are playing in a college arena. And that’s despite the Jets being one of the top-performing teams in the Western Conference.

Winnipeg’s season-ticket base has suffered a 27 percent decline in just three years, falling from approximately 13,000 to just under 9,500, according to the Jets.

“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to get back to 13,000,’” Chipman said. “This place we find ourselves in right now, it’s not going to work over the long haul. It just isn’t.”

One by one, Chipman gathers first-hand information from the people who are no longer walking through the doors of Canada Life Centre after filling the building for 332 straight sellouts upon the Jets’ return in October 2011.

Why did they stop coming?

What would convince them to return?

It’s difficult to imagine another member of the NHL’s Board of Governors rolling up their sleeves to this degree, but failure to turn the situation around could threaten the 2.0 version of the Jets’ ability to remain healthy and competitive in the long-term, Chipman said.

The Jets’ health, on and off the ice, is an extremely sensitive subject in a city where heartbreak has been felt before. The Jets left town once already — for Arizona, perhaps the ultimate symbol of hockey’s southern expansion — only to be reborn with a second chance. Losing the team again would likely mean the end for top-tier pro sports in Winnipeg.

So Chipman is looking for opportunities to win back business by offering invitations to former ticket buyers to return for a game of their choice before the end of this regular season.

“They’ve been really very friendly,” Chipman said of his calls during an exclusive interview with The Athletic this week. “When I first started making them, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter, but they weren’t hard calls. They were, ‘Look, I want to come back, but I’ve got two kids, 9 and 11. They’re playing hockey. I can’t come to that many games.’ And I get it. We understand.

“Had another guy annoyed over the fact that we had a discounted ticket and beer offering last year. Fair enough. You’re a full-season ticket holder. Somebody in your section got in on a promotion we did. Our bad.

“It’s a whole range of stuff, but pretty much everyone I spoke to today is coming back to a game.”

Mark Chipman greets fans at a game in 2013. (Marianne Helm / Getty Images)

Amid the swirl of excitement that accompanied Winnipeg’s return to the league after a 15-year hiatus was a warning from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night,” he said.

That statement didn’t initially pop the way it does when read in the current context, because in the spring of 2011, there was a fervor around the reborn Jets. When it was announced that the Atlanta Thrashers were migrating north to Manitoba, 13,500 season tickets were sold in 17 minutes on a Saturday.

Much had changed since the original Jets left town, starting with the construction of a well-appointed downtown arena and the introduction of a league-wide salary cap that tied player salaries to overall revenue.

What remained the same was the fact that Winnipeg would need to punch above its weight to compete with teams based out of much larger markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto. With a population of 749,607, according to the 2021 Canadian Census, there’s a friendly feel in the air here: the kind of place where Chipman routinely hears opinions on the team’s roster while pumping gas and where, yes, you may end up receiving a phone call from the NHL franchise’s chairman about renewing your season tickets.

Chipman said he feels “indebted” to the NHL for the city’s second chance.

He first made a presentation to top league officials in January 2007 during a meeting that included representatives from Las Vegas, Seattle, Houston and Kansas City, and ultimately saw Winnipeg pushed to the front of the queue when the Thrashers came up for sale and relocation four years later.

While NHL officials continue to believe in the viability of the market — “We wish all of our clubs were selling all of their tickets for every game, but I can’t say there’s a level of concern,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic during the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in December — Chipman acknowledged that the Jets are on the radar at league’s head office for reasons they’d rather not be.

“They pay attention,” he said. “They see the numbers. They see where the league’s at and where we’re at. And we’re an outlier right now. So, rightfully, they want to know, what are you doing? What’s going on? What happened and what are you doing about it?”

Bettman is scheduled to visit Winnipeg on Tuesday and get a firsthand look at the situation, meeting with key corporate sponsors and potentially even addressing fans directly before that night’s game against the St. Louis Blues.

That comes as the organization’s sales team has started shifting its attention to the 2024-25 season. For the first time this season, the Jets will give priority on playoff ticket purchases to those who put down a deposit on season seats for next season. And they’ve grown more flexible with options covering a select number of games.

Currently, the team has a season-ticket base of roughly 9,500 — an unsustainably low number, according to Chipman. The team saw a big decline in renewals when the pandemic hit and has endured subsequent drops after the past two seasons.

They are now feverishly trying to reverse the tide.

When Jets fans fill Canada Life Centre, as in this playoff game against the Golden Knights, it’s a formidable place to play. (Jason Halstead / Getty Images)

To understand how the Jets got here, you must first understand what made their lengthy sellout streak unique to begin with.

They managed to fill the building for more than a decade despite having just 15 percent of their season seats purchased by businesses. That lags well below the norm in a league in which some teams sell 50 percent of their tickets to corporate interests, according to Chipman.

What that means in practical terms is, in Winnipeg you need real people to spend real money on 41 home dates per year. And the way they did that initially was through a significant number of individuals going in on shared season-ticket packages with friends and family — a market reality that Chipman viewed as a strength until seeing what happened when a member or two of each group moved out of town or ran into a situation in which they could no longer afford to keep up their end of the arrangement.

“It was like a bubble that burst on us,” Chipman said. “We had what I thought was this strength in numbers that didn’t turn out to be.”

In response, they’ve tried to rally local business leaders.

The Jets have recently recruited 34 well-connected men and women and asked them to tap into their networks to try and generate new business. Chipman said he’s been extremely forthcoming with that group about the challenges of operating an NHL team. The idea is to not only tug at civic pride but also reinforce the positive economic and psychological benefits that the presence of the Jets brings to the community.

“What we try to convey to those people is, we’re trying to win,” Chipman said. “And in order to win or be competitive, we’ve got to keep up. We will never match the Leafs’ gate. It’s really remarkable. We can’t match that. But Edmonton really outperforms us, and that’s harder to accept, right? Because we think of ourselves as equals.

“I know Edmonton is a bigger city and they have that pedigree of all those Stanley Cups, but I think most people in Winnipeg and most people in Edmonton look at one another (with) a healthy respect.”

There’s a natural inclination for him to look around the league and draw these comparisons. Unlike the NFL or NBA, which have massive national television rights deals, the NHL remains a gate-driven league. And elsewhere, business is booming.

Chipman specifically mentions the success of markets that were once referred to as “non-traditional,” like Nashville, Dallas, Carolina, Florida and Las Vegas.

“The game’s growing,” he said. “You’ve seen it. You’ve had a front-row seat. Those markets in the U.S. that we used to look down upon, they’re fun, and they’re alive.”

To some degree, the lingering effects of the pandemic and an inflationary environment account for what’s happened in his own backyard, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. The Jets have the second-cheapest tickets in Canada, according to Chipman, and they plan to institute only a negligible bump in cost for some sections, with a decrease in others, next season.

Chipman doesn’t shy away from the organization’s role in the current state of affairs.

They’ve heard complaints from customers ranging from the high costs associated with transferring tickets between members of a group to frustrations about the Jets’ previous unwillingness to sell smaller packages. They’ve also had to build up a sales staff that wasn’t needed in the days when the tickets basically sold themselves.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves,” Chipman said. “For 10 years, we weren’t a sales organization; we were a service organization, and I’m not sure we were that good of a service organization, to be honest with you.”

As the Jets’ business took a turn in recent years, one of the toughest parts about addressing the problem has been talking about it at all.

There’s a sensitivity to the fact that people in the community are struggling. There are more important things than professional hockey. And as the team found out when it evoked images of the 1996 Jets departure as part of a ticket-selling campaign dubbed “Forever Winnipeg” last spring, even the vague notion of a looming threat to its viability wasn’t received well.

“Because of the history, it’s a bit of a tinderbox,” Chipman said. “In retrospect, we weren’t trying to be dramatic, but it got people’s hair up. That wasn’t the intent, but our bad. So it is not just the issue of not wanting to appear to be whining about this or evoking sympathy, it’s also the issue of not wanting to appear to be in any way threatening.

“And that’s hard given the history.”

Chipman himself is still searching for the right words here. He remembers first-hand the emotional roller coaster those involved with the “Save the Jets” campaign rode in the mid-1990s and said, “I can honestly say to our fan base, I understand whatever that is — whatever that feeling is.”

If not by his words, he should be judged by his actions.

In the face of declining ticket revenues, the Jets have continually upgraded and modernized Canada Life Centre and have now invested as much in building improvements as they spent on building it, according to Chipman. They also handed out $119 million in long-term contract extensions to Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele in October. They extended Nino Niederreiter in December. And they got a jump on the competition by trading a first-round pick to Montreal for Sean Monahan during the All-Star break.

They are a team spending to the salary-cap ceiling and turning over every rock necessary to build a Stanley Cup contender. They’re doing so with the belief that fans will see the promise in what they’re building and start returning in greater numbers. And they’ve been encouraged by some recent numbers, including 13,786 against San Jose on Feb. 14 and 14,707 against Minnesota on Tuesday.

“I would hope that if you walked around any one of the four floors here or over in hockey ops and said, ‘What is it? What is it you are trying to be? What is True North and the Jets?’ I would hope that without much hesitation, most people would say, ‘A source of pride,’” Chipman said.

“That’s what teams ought to be, and that’s what we’re trying to convey to people. We’re trying to be something you can be proud of.”

(Graphic: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic, with photos from Trevor Hagan / Associated Press and Darcy Finley / Getty Images)

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