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TSN Panel: The business behind Winnipeg's return

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TSN.ca Staff
5/31/2011 3:39:09 PM
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With the news finally breaking that the NHL was returning to Winnipeg, TSN's panel of experts weighed in on the event, and the issues that still face the team on and off the ice.

"Obviously, it's an historic day and a great day for hockey fans in Winnipeg," said Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie. "That's first and foremost. At the Forks and everywhere else in Winnipeg, they will be celebrating.

"But what we saw Tuesday was a very carefully orchestrated news conference.  The True North Group has been preparing for this for a long time, and they are a buttoned-down group. It is by no mistake that they came out with the Full Monty, if you will, in terms of the season ticket package, what it's going to cost, where the seats are located, how long the commitment is going to be for, because they know the practical, hard financial reality of operating out of the smallest market in the National Hockey League."

Dave Naylor agreed, saying the team needed to address the economics up front.

"For the NHL to go back to Winnipeg, they needed to go back with a group that has the wealth to operate in that market and a proven record as sports operators in that city – which True North has through the Manitoba Moose.

"It was a very business-oriented news conference, but I guess when you combine the smallest market in the NHL with what will be some of the highest average ticket prices, you better lay out the business case."

Bruce Arthur said the NHL clearly needed Winnipeg.

"People are going to say that this validates Winnipeg, and people are going to say that this defines Winnipeg.  I agree with the first, but I disagree with the second. I think what defined Winnipeg was how Winnipeg reacted in the years between the Jets leaving and the Thrashers arriving. That's Winnipeg. People thought this city was going to disappear, that the Jets leaving was a death knell. But the population went up, unemployment went down, the economy got better, and Winnipeg improved. 

"This time, it wasn't that Winnipeg needed the NHL, it was that the NHL needed Winnipeg. That's a critical distinction. This was not a reparation in any way. This wasn't any kind of justice. This was business. They were willing to pay for hockey, and that's what they are going to do."

Naylor said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's words were telling.

"One of the most interesting things was Gary Bettman being direct and saying, 'If this building is not sold out, this doesn't work.'  You don't hear that very often in pro sports."

"To play devil's advocate, there will be people who hear that and say the NHL doesn't hold the same standard to teams in the United States that are losing money hand over fist, and have empty buildings, whether it's Florida or Atlanta," McKenzie noted. "The equation in professional sports is very simple. The only thing that makes sense is that you have a building that works, and an owner with deep pockets who is fully committed.

"There are fewer than 10 franchises in the NHL that make money, hand over fist.  For every Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal or Philadelphia or Boston, there are two franchises that are either breaking even or losing money. The reason those teams exist is because they have an owner who has decided that he's willing to write the cheques for as long as he has to for what is probably an appreciating asset. That will be the case in Winnipeg."

Winnipeg will have the third highest ticket prices in Canada after Toronto and Montreal, but Arthur doesn't see that as a problem. Not yet, at least.

"I don't think it's a concern now, I think they are going to sell these tickets," Arthur said. "The concern is going to be in three to five years when these tickets are up for renewal. Maybe this team is not a playoff team in that time. The Thrashers have never won a playoff game."

Naylor agreed.

"I think all along when we've looked at the business case for Winnipeg, it hasn't been questions about years one, two and three. It's what comes after that. When the novelty is gone, when the team is succeeding or failing on the ice, there is not going to be that heightened emotional awareness that we have right now."

Return To Winnipeg - Bettman and Chipman (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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