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(Shaun Best)
(Shaun Best)

Is Winnipeg a viable NHL market? Add to ...

With speculation mounting that the announcement of the Phoenix Coyotes' relocation is both inevitable and imminent, we asked our team of hockey writers if they think Winnipeg is now positioned to be a viable, long-term NHL market.

ROY MACGREGOR

Of course it will work. One of the simplest historical interpretations of the National Hockey League in the modern era is that Wayne Gretzky caused the league to go insane. No Gretzky, no spike in casual/celebrity interest in the game in the U.S.A. - and no "southern footprint" along with expansion madness. Gretzky has been out of the game since 1999 and now, a dozen years later, the NHL is finally recovering from its bout of delusion. Hockey is a northern game. Hockey is a gate-driven game. Hockey is a television success where there is an appetite for the game.

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All this works in Winnipeg's favour. Add in the healthy Canadian dollar, surely to stay high for a long, long time, and take into consideration the growth and economic well-being of Winnipeg - not to mention a serviceable new rink - and you have a situation where teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers and who knows what else could actually have a chance at filling the stands with real tickets rather than giveaways that even then don't fill a rink.

Canadians used to shout "Go Jets Go!" Time now to yell "Come Jets Come!" It will work out just fine.

ALLAN MAKI

As an NHL landing place, Winnipeg comes with questions. Is it big enough? Rich enough? Viable enough with a slightly under-sized arena in its downtown core?

But here's the $165-million (US) question: where the heck else is the NHL going to plunk its Phoenix Coyotes? Kansas City has fallen off the list of possibilities. So that leaves, what, Houston, Portland, Seattle, Duluth, Minn.?

Three things make Winnipeg the best choice for the Coyotes, so long as the NHL wants to stay out of Southern Ontario. One, the city and its fans want the team. Two, there's likely to be sufficient local ownership to keep the team going, something that wasn't there the first time around with the Winnipeg Jets. Three, the Canadian dollar is once again a healthy marker, and while that can't always be counted on, it is a compelling factor for a troubled U.S. hockey team in need of a rescue.

As an NHL returnee, Winnipeg may have issues long-term, especially with its arena's seating capacity (less than 16,000). That could mean having to increase ticket prices to produce more revenue, a move that could alienate and squeeze out the common fan.

But with the Coyotes operating on limited time - and the Atlanta Thrashers already being linked to Quebec City - where else is the NHL going to go? It's either relocation or retraction. And if there's still money to come from somewhere, then it's like that old TV commercial said, "Goin' to Winnipeg."

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Winnipeg is well-positioned now to survive and even succeed in the NHL, but much of its long-term viability will depend upon two factors that require some prescient crystal-ball gazing:

1. Will the Canadian dollar continue to hover at or near or even above par vis-a-vis its U.S. counterpart?

2. How will the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players look after 2012, when the current deal expires and a whole lot of new demands by both sides could fundamentally change the way the business of hockey is run?

Under the current CBA, Winnipeg would likely qualify for revenue sharing because it fits into the classic definition of a small-market team. The building is relatively undersized by NHL standards; and its local TV revenues would likely be no match for what they earn in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and elsewhere around the NHL. Even corporate sponsorship will be an issue, especially in the long term.

Chances are, lots of companies will jump on the bandwagon early, fuelled by the excitement of the NHL's possible return to Manitoba. Is there enough support in the business community over time to fill the luxury suites and pay the high-end ticket prices needed to sustain a system that has changed a lot since the Jets bolted for Phoenix 15 years ago. Remember, sticker shock - for tickets - will be an issue for some, who are used to paying AHL prices to watch the Manitoba Moose play.

In short, there will be obstacles and if, in a decade's time, the Canadian dollar starts to slide down to its more traditional values against the U.S. currency, some of the issues that saw the Jets leave in the first place could rise again. Of course, if that happens, they'll have company too - in Ottawa, Edmonton and maybe even Calgary, all of whom were on the edge of the precipice soon after Winnipeg left and managed to survive long enough to see the changes in the industry model that have then thriving - for now.

SEAN GORDON

I applaud Roy's optimism, and would love to agree, but there are a few factors that could make it tough for Winnipeg to make a go of it over a 20-year horizon. Yes, the rink is newish, but no, it's not as capacious as other NHL barns, nor are the luxury box revenues going to match those in other cities. Having the richest family in Canada - and the country's finest newspaper owners! - as part of the ownership group will certainly help, having someone not averse to losing a few million here or there is of capital importance in today's NHL.

Regional TV rights are a different ballgame now, but the big problem, according to several Winnipeggers of my acquaintance, is that an average ticket price of $100 - likely the minimum required to sustain half-way decent revenues - could be a pinch in a town with few corporate heavyweights to hoover up ducats and where people remember what it used to cost to see the Jets 1.0.

It'll happen, a team will move there and there will be a long and ardent honeymoon, but I think it's rash to assume that the Loonie won't tank at some point over the next quarter-century. And if the team sucks? Lots of folks can tell you about nights where the old Winnipeg Arena only had 6,000-8,000 souls to watch the beloved Jets.

DAVID SHOALTS

At this point, the best you can say is Winnipeg will be a better NHL market than Phoenix or Atlanta. The long-term prospects are rather blurry for several reasons, most of which were cited by my colleagues.

Eric is right in that the Canadian dollar and the new collective agreement will have an as-yet-unknown impact on a Winnipeg franchise, particularly the dollar, should it return to pre-lockout levels. However, I think the major factors will be what they always are: the willingness of the local fans and businesses to buy high-end tickets and luxury boxes, the size of local broadcasting revenue and the willingness of the owners to write cheques every year to cover the losses.

At this point, the Winnipeggers have one out of three.

As an aside, I am sure Winnipeg is going to get an NHL team in the next three to five years, and probably Quebec as well, but I am not 100-per-cent sure the Phoenix Coyotes will be the first franchise to move.

Gary Bettman has moved heaven and earth to keep Phoenix, which is a large television market, in the league. I don't think he is finished pulling rabbits out of hats yet, although time is running short. But even if this bond sale gets back on track for the Coyotes, the Atlanta Thrashers are not long for the south and there are other candidates as well.

The NHL owners do not want to go back to Winnipeg but they will if the only alternative is losing more money, which means Bettman is down to weeks to pull this off. And don't think the six Canadian teams will fall all over themselves to roll out the Welcome Home signs. The Winnipeg Jets 2.0 means the national Canadian broadcast revenue will, at some point (I'm sure part of the deal will be the Jets won't get any for a while), be divided by seven rather than six.

What makes a good hockey market is not the willingness of the fans to buy tickets when the team is winning, as too many of those connected to the Coyotes embarrassment think. What makes a good hockey market is the willingness of the fans to do so when the team is playing .500 hockey or worse.

A move from one of the best places to live in North America during the winter to one of the worst is not going to result in a group of enthusiastic players, at least not in the first few years, so do not expect the recent on-ice success of the Coyotes to continue. There will be much unhappiness in those player households, particularly those of the married ones.

It tends to be forgotten or brushed aside, although not by my esteemed colleagues, that Winnipeg fans were not always willing to pay to see the Jets play. And that was in the days of $17-million payrolls. Owners will tell you it is not what fans pay for your cheap seats that creates profits, it is what corporations and wealthy fans will pay for the luxury suites, club seats and the best tickets.

I don't think Winnipeg's corporate base is much bigger than it was 15 years ago and the city as a whole is not wealthier. This still means the city will create more revenue for an NHL team than Glendale, Ariz., but the owners will not strike gold even if the arena is expanded, something else that has to happen for the team to survive.

Local broadcast revenue will be better than it is in Phoenix, but it will never compare to the big-market teams.

Thus it comes down to the willingness of the owners to write cheques every year to pay for the losses rather than try to squeeze it out of the local yokels. Here is where Winnipeg has it all over a lot of NHL cities, so in the end I must agree, it will work as an NHL market.



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