Naylor: Prospect of the NHL and CFL co-existing in Winnipeg

Dave Naylor
5/26/2011 10:50:55 AM
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It appears Winnipeg is about to become a very different city, with the inevitable return of the NHL after 15 seasons on the horizon.

Which is a good thing for the Manitoba Capital and Canada in general where, after losing the Montreal Expos, Vancouver Grizzlies, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets, a professional sports franchise is finally poised to move north across the border (Something that hasn't happened since 1996 when the Baltimore Stallions became the Montreal Alouettes).

The potential arrival of the new Jets - or whatever they may be named - will be felt everywhere in a market of about 750,000 people. And with an overall operating budget in the range of $90 million, most of which has to be generated locally, the soon-to-be transplanted Thrashers are sure to soak up a good share of the city's disposable entertainment dollars and corporate sponsorship accounts as well.

So it's no surprise that minds have started to wonder what effect this might have on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who for the last 15 years have been far and away the biggest game in town.

Disposable income is a finite thing, so there's no question that adding an NHL team to Winnipeg will make things more competitive for the Bombers. And there have certainly been instances where markets have become so saturated with sports entertainment options that not all of them can survive - ironically Atlanta comes to mind.

But in the case of Winnipeg, there's no reason to think the NHL's return will threaten the Blue Bombers.

For starters, the NHL and CFL have a long history of economic co-existence, in both big markets and small.

With hockey season running from October to April (May or June if you're lucky) and football stringing from June to October (or hopefully November), there's not a lot of head-to-head competition for the entertainment dollar where fans have to choose between one or the other.

Will there be fans buying NHL season tickets who decide they no longer can afford to subscribe to a full season of the Bombers? Perhaps. But at an average price of $70, a pair of NHL season tickets will cost about $6,300. An average price for a pair of season ticket for the Bombers runs about $850.

And while the CFL's business model can be challenging at times without dozens of home dates from which to draw gate revenue, a scarcity of home game is also its biggest strength. With only 10 home dates per season to sell, CFL teams don't require anywhere near the financial commitment from their most loyal fans as do teams in basketball, baseball and hockey.

Which is why CFL teams, despite having smaller fan bases compared to NHL teams, generally enjoy larger numbers of season ticket holders. 

But there are also reasons to be optimistic because of Winnipeg itself.

Other than the Saskatchewan Roughriders, no team is as engrained in the local culture as the Bombers are in Winnipeg. Those cries of outrage during Mike Kelly's one embattled season as head coach rang so loud simply because Winnipeggers care so much about their CFL team. And coming off a 4-14 season one year ago, the Bombers are about to eclipse last seasons' season ticket number (roughly 18,000) headed into 2011.

Winnipeg's economy has survived the global recession in far better shape than most places in North America and is considerably stronger than it was the last time the NHL and CFL coexisted. (Remember all those doomsayers who said Winnipeg would be economically crushed by the loss of the Jets? They were proven to be dead wrong, just are those who now say the return of the NHL will somehow be a boon to the economy.)

Beyond that, there is the prospect of moving into a new stadium at the University of Manitoba which should put a little extra wind in the Bombers financial sails. 

The history of the CFL and NHL co-existence dates right back to the days when the much smaller cities of Toronto and Montreal supported both, even before the NHL existed elsewhere in Canada.

But the best comparables for Winnipeg, considering both geography and size, are the Western cities of Calgary and Edmonton, where support for both CFL and NHL teams has remained strong over the years despite each city being just over one million people.

The Stampeders and Eskimos have had their inevitable ups and downs on the field. But off it, they have consistently been among the professional and profitable organizations in the CFL.

That may have something to do with being invariably being compared to the Flames and Oilers, a dynamic that ensures their overall standards of operation are high and do not slip. 

Competing for business and being constantly measured against NHL teams that have far greater financial resources can certainly be a challenge.

But in Calgary, Edmonton, and likely soon in Winnipeg as well, it's actually not a bad thing at all.

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