Manitoba Chamber of Commerce president believes Jets can overcome attendance woes
WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have already set a record this season, but it’s nothing to cheer about.
The team drew 11,136 fans for its 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday at Canada Life Centre, the lowest attendance without COVID-19 pandemic restrictions since the NHL club relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. Capacity at the downtown arena is 15,325.
The dubious record has sparked concerns about the future of the team, with some fans on social media wondering if the franchise is on a path to being sold, like the original Jets. That team moved to Arizona in 1996 and became the Coyotes.
Manitoba Chambers of Commerce president and chief executive officer Chuck Davidson doesn’t believe it’s time to panic.
A number of factors likely play a role in the low attendance, he said, citing the ongoing financial effects of the pandemic on individuals and businesses, as well as pressures due to inflation.
“We’ve got all these various challenges that are affecting the Manitoba economy right now,” Davidson told The Canadian Press this week.
“And having that disposable cash to be able to invest in what would be considered to be sort of a luxury for a company to do, to have those (Jets) tickets, might be a bit of a challenge right now but it’s not to say that it’s going to be a long-term issue.”
The Jets have played four home games this season and haven’t even reached a game at last season’s attendance average of 14,045, which ranked 30th among the 32 NHL teams. Only the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes averaged less.
Winnipeg has the smallest rink in the league, other than the Coyotes’ temporary home of Mullett Arena (5,000).
The highest Jets attendance this season was the Saturday afternoon home opener on Oct. 14, when former Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice and the Stanley Cup-finalist Florida Panthers attracted 13,410 fans. The Los Angeles Kings drew 11,226 three days later, while the Oct. 19 game against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights drew 11,521.
The Jets have also drawn the lowest attendance this season among the seven Canadian franchises.
The Ottawa Senators had a low of 14,278 fans at its Tuesday game against the Buffalo Sabres at Canadian Tire Centre, which has a capacity of 18,652, but it’s averaging 16,746 through five home games. The Montreal Canadiens top the Canadian teams with four sellouts of 21,105 at Bell Centre.
Jets co-owner Mark Chipman hasn’t spoken to local media about the attendance, but he did an interview with TSN’s Darren Dreger this week that was released Thursday before Winnipeg (3-3) played in Detroit against the Red Wings (5-1-1).
Chipman was asked if there was a real threat of the Jets being sold or relocated.
“No,” he replied. “I can see how you can ask that question. Because it happened once is it a concern it could happen again because you’re the smallest market? I’d say, ‘Not on our watch.’
Chipman pointed out the Jets had 10 years of sellouts before the pandemic hit.
"It would be a little extreme for us to say, ‘Oh gee, we’re not sure this works anymore,’” he said.
When Chipman and co-owner David Thomson bought the Atlanta Thrashers and moved the franchise to Winnipeg, a season-ticket drive for 13,000 tickets sold out in minutes. A wait list capped at 8,000 tickets also quickly sold out.
It wasn’t the same enthusiasm for another season-ticket drive the Jets unveiled last April when Chipman spoke at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He said the franchise was down 3,000 season tickets since the pandemic began and only 15 per cent of season tickets were bought by businesses.
Davidson, who’s had season tickets with a group since 2011, said companies may not be aware Jets tickets are more readily available these days and he’ll encourage Manitoba chamber members to look at options.
“The hope is that this will be short term and that more people will start to maybe recognize, ‘OK, maybe I can’t have a season ticket for something but I can go into groups or that there’s others within the business community,’” he said.
“I think that ask has been out there as well — can the business community play more of a role as well? So we’re prepared to sort of have those conversations and to make these opportunities aware to our members and to the business community as a whole.”
In a 90-second video for the “Forever Winnipeg” April ticket drive, images of the Jets leaving in 1996 was viewed by some fans on social media as a threat. Others said they didn’t attend games because costs were too high for tickets, concessions, parking, or they experienced bad customer service.
Winnipeg’s poor performance on the ice also drew criticism. It has only won three playoff rounds since returning to Manitoba, one in 2021 and two in 2018. It was bounced out of the first round of the playoffs last season in five games by Vegas.
Winnipeg teacher Chris Grift has been a season-ticket holder with his two brothers since the team returned. Some of his friends told him they didn’t renew their tickets this season because they couldn’t afford it.
Curiosity led him to search online, and he saw Tuesday tickets had been available in the upper bowl for $40 and $90 for the second level.
“I’m paying $105 to $110 per ticket, so to use the argument that it’s too expensive, I don’t think they’ve actually looked into it,” Grift said of his friends.
He attended Tuesday’s game and was disappointed at the crowd, but believes support will rebound because people are proud to have the Jets.
"When the (rink) announcer said, 'The greatest hockey fans in the world' and I looked out and I saw so many empty seats, I thought, 'Where are they?' If we're the greatest hockey fans in the world, they're sitting at home, they're not here supporting their team," Grift said.
"Now I don't want to chastise other people and I don't want to pass judgment on people's discretionary income, but we can no longer call ourselves the best fans in the league or the best fans in the world if we don't show up to a hockey game."
Unlike 1996, the league has a salary cap, the team owns the arena and Chipman has invested in other downtown properties, so Grift can’t imagine losing the club again.
“You travel to another city and we’re known because we have the Winnipeg Jets,” he said. “To lose that, that would be a huge blow to our city, much like we had for the 15 years they were gone.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.