Return of the Jets: Bettman speaks exclusively with CBJ

By: Cory Wilkins

NHL hockey has returned to Winnipeg.

It’s a move that means more than the return of an NHL team; the move returns a passion to Winnipeg.

“I think you have the economic impact and, something that is probably just as valuable, the pride and the feeling of all Winnipeggers and Manitobans,” Sam Katz, Mayor of Winnipeg, said in a statement. “We know what the economic spinoffs can be. It brings more people to our downtown. More people are spending money on the entertainment aspect, going to restaurants, hotels will feel it, but the key thing to me is how it makes Winnipeggers feel.”

Since the former Winnipeg Jets uprooted for Phoenix in 1996, hockey fans in the Manitoba capital have longed for the return of NHL hockey. And on May 31, that dream became reality.

“On behalf of our partner David Thomson and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers,” Mark Chipman, Chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE), announced.

Reports indicate that the franchise sale was valued at about $170 million, a price tag which included a $60 million relocation fee.

“While Mark [Chipman] has been working behind the scenes with us over the years, staying in touch, working the process, and keeping the lines of communication open, at the same time the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers have been looking to sell their club,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said from the press conference. “Over this period of time, no real local purchaser emerged and ultimately Atlanta’s ownership reached outside the Atlanta market. True North and Atlanta Spirit reached an agreement that would bring the NHL back to this city.”

Bettman spoke exclusively with the American Business Journal about the move to Winnipeg.

Changes Since 1996 and Winnipeg’s sustainability

Notably, the NHL is excited about its return to Winnipeg and the addition of another team to the lucrative Canadian hockey market.

While Winnipeg is often classified as a ‘small market’ by NHL standards, key differences exist between 1996 and the NHL’s current system which allows for representation in Winnipeg. A system of cost certainty, and the implementation of a salary cap, has leveled the playing field. In doing so, it has created a competitive balance with smaller markets like Winnipeg.

“One of the factors that made it impossible for the Jets to stay in Winnipeg [in 1996] was the absence of an economic system that included a salary cap and an appropriate level of revenue sharing,” Bettman told the American Business Journal. “The ‘cost certainty’ provided by those elements now, in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, is extremely important to the wellbeing of such franchises as Winnipeg.”

Asked whether Winnipeg’s small corporate base was a concern to the NHL’s Board of Governors, Bettman denied the notion. Rather, the league looked to the local fan base upon rewarding Winnipeg with its new franchise.

Bettman said from the press conference, “The best way for our fans in Winnipeg to celebrate the opportunity is to buy season tickets. Selling 13,000 season tickets is the best message to send to the NHL’s Board of Governors. To be candid, this isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night.”

Drive to 13,000

Commissioner Bettman has mentioned that returning to Winnipeg ‘rights a wrong’ in that previously, as a last resort, the league had to leave Winnipeg. While the league is notably disappointed about leaving Atlanta, it is excited about its return to Winnipeg.

“One of the most important aspects for any franchise is ownership, and Winnipeg now has outstanding ownership in [David] Thomson and [Mark] Chipman. Another critical aspect is the new arena, and the MTS Centre is a solid entry in that regard,” Bettman told the American Business Journal.

Winnipeg’s downtown MTS Centre, the former home of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, which has since relocated to St. John’s, N.L., will play host to the Jets. In terms of its capacity, at 15,015 seats, the MTS Centre represents the league’s smallest, most intimate arena.

Fans in Winnipeg moved quickly to snatch up season seats. TNSE’s ‘Drive to 13,000’ campaign was first opened to Moose season ticket holders, followed by the general public. Moose fans bought up the first 7,100 tickets, while the remainder was scooped up in mere minutes. In fact, during the NHL Draft weekend in Minnesota, Bettman noted that of Greater Winnipeg’s near 700,000 population, 248,000 people signed up online for tickets, more than one-third of the city’s population.

Bettman commented on the success of TNSE’s process to the American Business Journal.

“We always knew there were passionate fans in Winnipeg. The ticket sale process served as testimony to how professional and well prepared the Winnipeg organization was in every aspect of the franchise launch.

“Most important are the fans and the support they will provide, and there can be no question about the passion of the Winnipeg fans for their Jets and the NHL. We are extremely pleased under the circumstances to have returned to Winnipeg.”

Mourning the Atlanta loss

The NHL has been clear that it does not like to move franchises. It is seen as a last resort. The NHL’s noble philosophy is to make the best of its existing situations.

As such, Bettman acknowledged the importance an NHL franchise has on its community, and the emotional and financial investments that fans make in NHL hockey.

“We we’re extraordinarily unhappy when we left [Winnipeg] in 1996, we had no choice, and that’s why with the celebration here there is obviously regret with what is happening in Atlanta,” Bettman said from Winnipeg on May 31.

“To our fans in Atlanta, we are not happy about leaving. Please be assured it was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. The decision to come to Winnipeg was made only after Atlanta’s ownership made the decision that they were going to sell even if it meant the club was going to leave Atlanta.”

NHL realizing record growth

Meanwhile, while there is excitement and anticipation in Winnipeg, the NHL also celebrates the growth it has achieved in recent years. Following the 2004-05 work stoppage, the NHL has rebounded in record form, achieving revenues exceeding $3 billion, not to mention the success of newly created events like the NHL Winter Classic, the NHL Premiere in Europe, and the NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

While many have struggled with economic uncertainty, the NHL has experienced a period of growth. In short, the NHL secured its largest-ever sponsorship agreement with Molson Coors, reportedly worth $375 million on a seven-year deal, as well as a major television deal with NBC, valued at $2 billion over 10 years.

“We always are looking to find new ways for our fans to connect with our game and our brand, and we have taken a multi-faceted approach to doing so.

Everything starts with the game itself: The level of skill, speed and competitiveness never has been better,” Bettman told the American Business Journal. “We provide a greater number of special events that have intrigued our fans and around which our business partners have activated on a large scale. We continue to make sure the game is thriving on the ice while aggressively pursuing the continued fan and business growth that I am certain can be realized.”

“We have an extremely meaningful regular season and the competitive balance is such that the playoff races start virtually with the first faceoff of the first regular season game and routinely run through the concluding weekend. We provide extensive access to our fans through, the NHL Network and social media, while our national and regional broadcast partners have welcomed larger and larger—in some cases record—viewing audiences.”