Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele controls the puck ahead of Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin in the third period at Ball Arena on April 13.Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters

These days, Mark Chipman is being more careful with his words. The co-owner of the Winnipeg Jets doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. He knows anything articulated incorrectly could create a tizzy in the hockey-obsessed city.

“The idea of the Jets leaving again is such an anathema to me. I can’t tell you that enough,” he said in a wide-ranging interview at his downtown office on a rainy Thursday this month. “When it happened all those years ago, it really was the most traumatic experience for our entire community. It changed us.”

But Chipman wants Winnipeggers to understand – without worrying them with déjà vu – that perhaps even more than the team’s performance in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, there is another concern plaguing his mind: filling seats in the home arena.

“We were cruising along for 10 years,” he said of the energetic period after the team returned to the city in 2011, following a 15-year hiatus because of financial issues. “I don’t want to say we were arrogant; we just didn’t have to sell much from year to year. We would just backfill from the waitlist.”

He fiddled with the business cards on his desk before leaning forward, then added: “Now, it’s just a very different mindset.”

As the playoffs begin this weekend, not only will the Jets be playing the 2022 champion Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, the company behind the Winnipeg club will also face the test on its recent efforts to bring up ticket sales.

Attendance for Jets games dwindled to new lows last year. According to True North Sports + Entertainment, the company that owns the team, for which Chipman is executive chairman, the season-ticket base dropped by 27 per cent in just three years to less than 9,500 holders from around 13,000. Their arena, the Canada Life Centre, has a capacity of just more than 15,000.

NHL playoffs are wide open as the race to the Stanley Cup begins

And yet, a drive around the Prairie city reveals how disconnected those attendance numbers are from the Jets frenzy shared among its residents. Dollar stores from the North Kildonan and Transcona neighbourhoods to Waverly West and the strip malls near Assiniboine Park have been selling out on budget-friendly paraphernalia. Large downtown buildings facing the arena, such as the historic Paris Building on Portage Avenue, have giant letters spelling out “GO JETS GO,” on eight windows in a row. The same is seen on different towers in the Exchange District and further down Main Street a distance away.

“I know everything has obviously been getting very expensive, but the love that we have for the Jets here isn’t going to go anywhere,” said Mike Kofler, who has been buying season tickets for himself and his family since the team’s return. The 54-year-old finds the prices to be comparable to other NHL teams.

Shawna Penty, 42, disagrees. “Of course, I’m a fan. And yeah, I’ve come back to watch a few games here and there with a friend since COVID. But I’m not buying stuff for the whole season any more,” she said. “I could spend all of that money on groceries.”

Chipman said a number of factors have led to the widening number of fans not buying tickets. True North had built a robust waiting list that allowed for standard attrition on an annual basis, with more than 90 per cent renewing season tickets since 2011. “The year prior to the pandemic, we had a little bit of softening, but we had a backfill with the waitlist. And then the pandemic hit us hard,” he said.

“The first hit we encountered were people that were really upset with us over enforcing the vaccine to attend. Then of course we played in an empty building. And last year, there was nothing but ourselves to blame.”

Chipman said True North had too slow of a reaction to the downtrends. He said the flexible prices the Jets have now should’ve been introduced sooner.

On top of that, he added, roughly 15 per cent of the team’s season-ticket base is held by corporate firms and groups. “I thought that was our strength – and it was, until it wasn’t,” he said. “Dips in discretionary spending. Inflation hitting. The bubble really burst on us.”

Since last year, however, True North has changed almost every part of the sales force’s day-to-day routine. Employees have been personally calling back former ticket holders and have enlisted about 40 business leaders across different sectors, who are effectively part of the selling process. “They’re going through their Rolodexes, their customers and letting them know,” Chipman said. “This was something we hadn’t done since our minor-league days.”

Wherever possible, the Jets have also tried to lower or maintain prices. Flyers sent out to apartment buildings and suburban houses earlier in April listed discounts of up to 34 per cent on single-game tickets, 25-per-cent discounts on food and drinks at the venue, and interest-free payment plans to purchase memberships.

“We’re very mindful of the affordability problem in Winnipeg. We all grew up here, we’ve all seen this. We currently have the second-lowest price of the NHL teams by a fair margin,” Chipman added. (The Ottawa Senators have the lowest price.)

Chipman said True North is “beginning to see some good results.” Still, even with all of these new measures to curtail the attendance issues, fans such as Mark Wyland – who used to make the three-hour drive to Winnipeg from Brandon, Man., to watch Jets games with his grandkids before the cost became untenable over the past couple of years – find themselves scared at the thought of losing the team again.

Wyland cited this week’s decision to relocate the Arizona Coyotes to Utah as a reason for his apprehension for the Jets. “I wish I could afford to start coming back. Maybe we’ll go to the parties or get-togethers,” the 68-year-old said. “But I think our whole province would be sad if this ticket selling becomes the reason we lose them. Don’t they have a great shot this year?”

Chipman said he likes the team’s chances at the playoffs, especially with top performers such as goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and centre Mark Scheifele, both of whom surprised the industry by deciding to extend their stay with the team late last year, as they signed matching seven-year, US$59.5-million agreements.

And for the people worried about anything else, pointing to the Winnipeg skyline in the large window behind his office, where the real estate arm of True North has helped build several large-scale downtown developments, Chipman said: “Look around you. We’re here. Does it look like we’re going anywhere?”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe