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Winnipeg Jets fans cheer as their team plays the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, October 9, 2011. Some Jets fans have altered the words of Oh Canada. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)
Winnipeg Jets fans cheer as their team plays the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, October 9, 2011. Some Jets fans have altered the words of Oh Canada. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)

SPORTS ECONOMICS

Winnipeg not big enough for Jets, Bombers: report Add to ...

The return of the Jets has brought untold excitement to Winnipeg, but what happens when the hype fades?

A study by the Conference Board of Canada paints an uncertain future and says Winnipeg isn’t large enough to support the Jets, the Blue Bombers of the CFL as well as the city’s other entertainment options, such as the ballet, museums, restaurants and concerts.

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The study says Quebec City will face similar issues if it lands an NHL franchise.

“Something has got to give,” said Mario Lefebvre, who co-authored the report. “For a period of time you can believe that people, in the frenzy of the start up of the new team and all the rest of it, will maintain their spending on other activities and throw in the hockey game on top. But at one point in time, people are going to have to make choices.”

According to the Conference Board’s findings, Winnipeg and Quebec City barely have the population base and economic heft to support NHL franchises. The metropolitan population of both cities is around 750,000 – roughly 50,000 less than the number deemed required to support an NHL team. A CFL team requires a fan base of around 200,000, the report said, meaning the two teams together require a population of around one million.

Lefebvre said the Jets and Blue Bombers could thrive, but the fallout will likely come elsewhere because people only have so much money to spend on leisure activities.

“At the end of the day, I’m one of those who believe that leisure spending is limited,” he said. Just because there’s a new team in town doesn’t mean “you are going to have extra leisure money that you are all of sudden going to find in the drawers. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing.”

Corporations will also have to make tough decisions about where to spend advertising and sponsourship dollars, Lefebvre added. Some Quebec City companies have already told him privately that if the city gets an NHL team, they will move their advertising to that club and cut sponsourships of existing local teams, such as the Remparts of the QMJHL.

Other studies have come to the similar conclusions, finding consumer spending on sports largely displaces spending in other areas.

That could spell trouble for the Blue Bombers. The CFL team is building a $190-million stadium as part of an effort to transform the community-owned club into an entertainment company, with concerts and other events in the venue. The Bombers have insisted the Jets have raised the overall profile of Winnipeg, but filling the new facility for football, rock concerts and other activities could be challenging.

Jets chairman Mark Chipman said the Conference Board findings are too simplistic.

“I think there’s a degree of danger in saying that a certain number of people are required to support a sports team,” Chipman said, adding the Jets and Bombers are doing well and the Conference Board isn’t taking into account Winnipeg’s resilient and growing economy.

Chipman noted the Jets have 8,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets and 90 companies waiting for private boxes. The Bombers also set team records for season-ticket sales, profit and attendance in 2011.

Jeff Herd, executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, agreed. He said while ballet ticket sales fell off last fall amid the excitement of the Jets’ return, they have picked up again. He also cited Winnipeg’s strong economy as evidence the city can support many entertainment activities.

“I imagine there is a critical point,” where spending will be displaced, Herd said. “But I don’t think we are there yet. … I think more is better.”

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