Jets' Chipman addresses team's low attendance, big picture focus in Winnipeg
But the conversation surrounding the franchise in Winnipeg has been about its off-ice challenges, namely a lot of empty seats in a building that used to be among the hottest tickets in the National Hockey League.
Last week’s home games against the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights drew fewer than 12,000 fans (80 per cent of the roughly 15,300 available seats) at Canada Life Centre, while Tuesday’s game against St. Louis was played before 11,136. Excluding the pandemic, it was the team’s lowest attendance since arriving from Atlanta in 2012.
If the current trend continues, how much of a financial strain will this put on the team for the long term?
Jets and True North Sports & Entertainment executive chairman Mark Chipman spoke at length this week with TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger about the team’s attendance issues and its commitment to bringing fans back into the building.
This interview has been edited for length and brevity.
Darren Dreger: We’re not that far removed from the Winnipeg Jets ownership and the Winnipeg Jets proudly being part of a franchise that sold out 332 consecutive home games. A pandemic hits – obviously there’s a strong influence there – the economy maybe isn’t what it once was. But how do you go from that remarkable achievement of so many consecutive home date sellouts to where you’re at today?
Mark Chipman: Well, I think you touched on it – the effects of the pandemic were really significant. I don’t think we fully understood them until just this past spring. That took a big chunk out of our season ticket base. And I think we learned a lot about the makeup of our season ticket base as a consequence. We were able to reflect and go back and look at how we put it all together in the first place – and it was pretty unique that we, in a very short period of time, got 13,000 accounts or 13,000 seats sold. What we really learned was that a large part of that account base were groups – people that had partnered together. When the pandemic hit, and those groups saw some attrition – one or two accounts pulled out – the whole thing collapsed. The other thing that happened was the way we went on sale – it was a Saturday afternoon, we didn’t really have an approach to our business community – and so, we’ve come to understand that we’ve had a very low percentage of our season ticket base are held by companies, lowest in the country by far. Again, not the fault of anyone, just a consequence of the way we went on sale. And so, in there lies an opportunity for us and that’s been one of the steps we’ve taken. Since last spring, we spoke to the Chamber of Commerce, and we let this situation be known. And since that time we’ve been out doing a lot of presentations to business groups in an effort to try and gain some more customer base there.
DD: That’s a pivot for your group, admittedly. So, in your experience in this city, which is basically lifelong, do you believe the corporate sector is there?
MC: Yeah, I really do. I’m extraordinarily grateful for the amount of support that we have – from the name on this building, from Canada Life’s decision to take over the naming of this building, through our partnership in our regional broadcast deal. Our corporate sponsorship base has always been very strong. Our suites are sold. There aren’t really any levers for us to pull on other than people coming to games. So, I believe the base is here. I know the base is here. It’s been here, and we’ve not had any challenge in renewing our corporate interest in what we do. We need to get more businesses, frankly, invested by way of ticket purchases as opposed to rink board sales, etc.
DD: Aside from the play on the ice, you don’t have any interest in being in the public eye. You really haven’t ever wanted that, yet here you are because of the attendance of the Winnipeg Jets. The sagging attendance of this club isn’t just local news, it’s national and, to a degree, it’s international. And there’s been some pushback – customer service has taken it on the chin with the Winnipeg Jets. Are you aware of some of those concerns and how do you intend on addressing that?
MC: I’m aware – it’s what I do for a living. This is my job, and it has been now for…this is my 28th year. I think I understand why it’s news. To me, I think it’s because a lot of people were surprised that we were able to find a way back into the league and maybe it was a little improbable. And we’re the smallest market in the league by a fair measure. So, I think there’s always been a curiosity as to whether we can sustain it here. I don’t think people expected us to sell out 10 years in a row, but we did. So the fact that we did is what gives me hope and confidence and expectation that we can draw people back to watch the product that we’ve put together. Businesses go through cycles. What we’re facing now, I can tell you, is far less daunting - far, far less challenging – than it was to build this building in the first place. And then to be patient and wait and put a plan together to get a team again. Those took years, and a lot of hard work from a lot of very talented people. I’m very attuned to where we are and the sentiment in our marketplace. It’s a small town – you can’t put gas in your car without hearing about people’s feelings towards the team. I mean that literally. And I love that – that’s what we signed up for. That’s what I love about this particular circumstance. I love the challenge of being the smallest market and being able to compete against 31 other larger markets. We’ve taken a lot of steps to try and get greater interest - we’ve reduced the number of games that are required to be purchased, we’ve become a lot more flexible in our pricing, we return deposits, we did away with the multi-year commitments, we’ve kept our ticket prices – it’s the second-lowest of all the teams in Canada. We work hard at that to keep it as affordable as we can. And we’ve invested. I think the one thing I can say unequivocally is – and I learned this from that timeframe that you’re familiar with, when the team left because it was that time that we got involved – the team really belongs to the community. We get referred to as owners, but we’re really more stewards and that’s how we approach this. We know that in order to be here 50 years from now, you’ve got to invest. And I think we can hold our head up in that regard. We’ve invested in much in renovating this building as we did building it. We invest in our payroll; we’ve been a cap team for years now. We’ve invested in the surrounding area – and not just in buildings, but in the well-being of people in our downtown. We feel that is the commitment that we have to maintain. And we feel that as long as we continue to do that, people will recognize we’re putting out best foot forward and we’ll get through this cycle we’re in right now and we’ll get back to those sellouts.
DD: And you’re confident about that, right? Get back to full capacity sooner?
MC: I really am. We’ve been through more challenging parts of this. I’m born and raised here. I know this community, I know how passionate people are. Frankly, the biggest challenge of this is the responsibility for the product on the ice. You know how much people care and you don’t want to let them down. We’re deeply invested in this and when I say we, I mean Chevy (GM Kevin Cheveldayoff). I don’t know of anybody who cares more about trying to put a product on the ice that people are proud of. I honestly think he’s done a really fine job of that. I think we’ve got a good team again this year. I think we’ve invested in our core of our team and (I’m) very, very excited about that. We turned six kids pro this summer – we’ve never done that before. We’ve got what we think is a really good pipeline of young players coming along. Those are the things we focus on, and as long as we remain focused on the quality of our product, I believe it’ll bring people back and we’ll be sold out again.
DD: So you mentioned 10 years, season ticket base is around 13,000. Now it’s under 10,000. You’re a savvy business man. How long can the business side of the Winnipeg Jets continue to operate if those numbers don’t climb back to what they were?
MC: First of all, I really believe they will, so I don’t have a scenario in my mind of: What does this look like at 10,000? We’re just really focused on, ‘how do we get it back to 13,’ because we have been at 13. We were there for 10 years. So, how do we get ourselves back there? That’s where we need to be, honestly, to be competitive. I don’t know that I’m that savvy because I don’t have that scenario, we don’t have that playbook, ‘How do we run this at 10,000?’ Because we honestly believe we can get it back to where it was.
DD: I was here and covered it daily, when the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, way back in the day – worked it, lived it. You lived it - there were good days and way too many bad days for the community of Winnipeg. It felt at the time like the heart of Winnipeg got ripped out when the National Hockey League left this city, which leads me to the next question: Is there any real threat of a sale, a relocation if this can’t get turned around?
MC: No. Look, you hit it on the head – it ripped the heart out. I remember vividly the broadcast where it was definitively leaving and after having worked on it with a number of other people, it was beyond heartbreaking, I wept like a child. It was really hard. But I would say to you that it is not just my emotion or my feeling that I rely upon that I say that will never happen again. You have to look carefully at the circumstances that existed then versus today. There was no building, and the prospect of one was tenuous. More importantly, there was no partnership with the players, there was not a collective agreement between the league and the players that allowed for the economics of hockey to work in Winnipeg back then. It wasn’t until 2004 that it became a reality. And it is a very, very different world today than it was back then. We have this building and it’s an NHL-quality building. We have a great partnership with our players that allows for cost redistribution and a salary cap which allows a lot of teams to exist in this league. So, I can see how you would ask that question because it happened once. Is it a concern it could happen again because it’s the smallest market? I say not on our watch. We’ve been doing this far too long - we got into this for the very reason of that heartbreak you described. It was that very emotion that brought us into this, that kept us in the fight, to get a building built and then to acquire a team again. And then to have 10 years of sellouts and then two years of challenge brought on by a global pandemic? It would be a little extreme for us to say, “Oh gee, we’re not sure this works anymore.” That would be far less than savvy - that would be really unsavvy.
DD: And unhealthy - if not counterproductive - to say, “Okay if we’re having this conversation a year from now…” It does no good to think that way.
MC: We don’t think that way. I don’t allow our folks, our team, to think that way. We’re focused on the now. Chevy is focused on his job delivering the product and we’ve got a plan in place to engage our community again in a respectful way. And I have to say, we’ve got to be very respectful of people’s choices. People are dealing with a whole range of issues right now that they didn’t in our first 10 years. We’re dealing with inflationary pressures that hit people’s discretionary spending ability, you have to be incredibly respectful of that. We are dealing with issues in our city that we didn’t have 12 years ago, and they are not unique to Winnipeg, but we’ve got our challenges in our downtown with a set of circumstances around mental health and addiction and resulting homelessness that are really difficult. And we’re glad to be a part of trying to find some solutions there. So, you have to mindful of all of those things, what are people thinking about. You can’t drive home at night thinking everybody is worried about you and your business. People have their own concerns. They’re worried about their kid’s soccer game; they’re worried about what happened in their life that day – this business can be very consuming because it’s so covered and it takes up so much of the oxygen in our city. It would be easy to think that everybody should be worried about us. Well, that would be very unwise. Everybody’s got their own real world that they are living in. So it’s not for us to say, “Hey, come and worry about the Winnipeg Jets,” and to take offence to the fact we are not sold out right now. That would be really foolish and unthoughtful. We know the support is here, we just got to get back to it. It’s on us to do that, it’s going to take some hard work, but we are accustomed to that. We had a good ride for 10 years, we really did. And we took a heavy shot with the pandemic. We’ve got to recover from it, that’s on us.
DD: You’re in win-now mode. That’s the message to the fans and that was made abundantly clear with the deep investment to Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele – two very good NHL players in any market. But you could have gone the other way in the off-season and considered a renovation to the team or a rebuild.
MC: Yeah, for sure you could – you could reduce the costs. That’s the quickest way to do this - is to cut player costs. Again, I do this for a living, I examine those kinds of options really thoughtfully, or try to. The word rebuild is really easy to throw around because it sounds good. I’ve gone through every team that has said rebuild. It’s expensive and it takes a long time. People think rebuild is a year or two. Rebuild is a minimum…there’s five, they can be seven. I can show you some that are 10, 12 years in the making. Our market doesn’t deserve that right now. You can’t take a team that’s made the playoffs five out of last six years and take it apart and expect your fan base to support that. If you have the means of keeping it together, you got to keep it together. As I said, we’ve got some really exciting young talent coming that can be added to our core over the next few years. Anybody worth their salt in this game is trying to win, you know. We’re trying to win and if our fans ever get the sense that we’re not trying to win, then we’re in real trouble.
DD: Alright, we will wrap up with this: Aside from what we have already discussed here, what is the message to Winnipeg Jets fans from Mark Chipman?
MC: We’re all in. We have been for almost three decades now. This is what we do and we’re working really hard at it. I can tell you that our group - we’ve got 300 full-time with us that are taking this very seriously – are working very, very hard at earning that customer base back and we have every confidence that we will.