It has been a frantic but gratifying few months for Mark Chipman. Ever since Chipman’s True North Sports & Entertainment acquired the Atlanta Thrashers last May and turned them into the Winnipeg Jets, his life has been transformed—from low-profile businessman, known mainly for running a string of car dealerships, to the local hero who brought the NHL back to the ’Peg. As Chipman tells Paul Waldie, Winnipeg and the NHL are also much changed since the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996.
How crazy have the last few months been?
It has been somewhat chaotic but it has been controlled, if that makes sense. There has been a lot to do in a short period of time—roughly 100 days between the announcement and the start of training camp. There has been a long list of stuff, including 330 items in the building [the MTS Centre, where the team will play]and our offices, plus moving our team [the Manitoba Moose, of the American Hockey League, which True North still owns] to St. John’s and getting two teams up and running as opposed to just one.
Buying a team is one thing, but running it and keeping fans happy is something else. What are your goals this season? We’d like to make the playoffs; that’s our objective. And, although it may be cliché, we want to be an entertaining and hard team to play against.
Do you worry about the economy? No. All of our tickets are sold for three, four and five years. Our sponsorship deals are, for the most part, multiyear deals: five, seven or 10 years. The vast majority of the revenue we need to operate the team has been achieved for the next few years. And the Manitoba and Saskatchewan economies have been strong. We barely felt 2009 out here.
Canadian teams used to have a hard time coping with fluctuations in our dollar, with most of their revenue generated in loonies but the big expenses, like player salaries, paid in U.S. dollars. Is the dollar still a significant factor? Not nearly the factor it used to be. This year, we have hedged [our dollar exposure] so we’re very thoughtful about that and we’re going to be fine for this year. Long term, though, it doesn’t have nearly the same effect that it used to. There’s really a built-in mitigation mechanism in the collective bargaining agreement that takes a great deal of that risk out of the equation.
What is the team’s payroll this season? I’m going to say low $50-millions—third quartile in the league, below the midpoint.
Merchandise, like jerseys and T-shirts, has become an important side business and also serves as an indicator of a club’s popularity. How is Jets paraphernalia selling? Just a pure guess, but we suspect we’re doing well. [Jets’ merchandise]is very popular here, obviously, but we’ve been told it is doing very well elsewhere. Murray Edwards, the owner of the Flames, called recently saying that our merchandise was outselling Flames merchandise in Calgary. I think that will be an anomaly, for sure, but the point is that I think it’s doing well.
There have been mixed reviews on the Jets logo. How do you feel about it? I love it. But personally I was very involved in its design, so I’m not very objective. I think in the initial polls the logo had about a two-thirds approval rating, which we’re told is very strong. There were some people who didn’t like it, but now that it’s been seen in context on the uniform, we’re finding that people are feeling really good about it.
Many mid-market NHL teams have not fared particularly well financially, including Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Ottawa and Atlanta. Can the Jets make money? Yes. We wouldn’t have got into this if we didn’t think that was the case.