The Jets didn't bring the Stanley Cup to Winnipeg this season, but their return to the NHL pushed the team to the top of the league's merchandise sales standings.
This revelation by Norva Riddell, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at True North Sports & Entertainment, at a business luncheon Wednesday wasn't exactly a bombshell. In one year, Winnipeg has become a city where you can't walk more than a few metres without seeing the Winnipeg Jets logo on a T-shirt, hat, flag, golf ball, shooter glass, cufflink, air freshener, barbecue cover or dog bed.
"The Winnipeg Jets brand would prove to be a resounding retail success, ultimately resulting in the highest sale of licensed product of any team in the NHL in the 2011-12 season," Riddell told about 80 members of the local arm of the Canadian Marketing Association at the Exchange Restaurant at the MTS Centre.
The NHL doesn't release specific merchandise sales figures and has been coy about the magnitude of Jets sales over the past 11 months. But it's not hard to imagine why the Jets would be atop the merchandise heap. Every other NHL franchise has been selling licensed products for years or decades and has incremental sales every year. The Jets, meanwhile, started at zero last summer and ramped up to a frenzy that shows no sign of letting up.
Riddell took her audience behind the scenes to a little more than a year ago, when True North was simultaneously watching its Manitoba Moose progress through the AHL playoffs while preparing its employees for the possibility they would soon be switching to NHL mode.
She said True North employees were brought into the Exchange Restaurant at 9 a.m. on May 31, two hours before the press conference announcing the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers was held. A four-hour marketing meeting followed, which ensured her staff would work split shifts so customers could be accommodated at virtually any time of day.
"It was nothing short of insane. It was something I had never experienced before. When we emerged from the meeting, all of our voice mails were full and our emails were on fire," she said.
That set off a frantic 131 days, during which time True North had to transition from the AHL to an NHL brand. One of the must-do items was to finish up the renovation of the press box, a construction project True North routinely denied as being for the NHL.
"Either that or we would have had the most tripped-out press box in the AHL," she said.
There were also less glamorous jobs, such as removing moosehockey.com stickers from 15,000 cupholders.
When the Jets brand was first unveiled last summer, it focused on the logo and the affiliation with Canada's military. One season of hockey later and the brand has clearly evolved to be the team's players. Their images will be used as much as possible in upcoming marketing and branding initiatives, she said.
"We need to sign Pav (goalie Ondrej Pavelec) because he's all through the building," Riddell said with a laugh.
Watershed moment nears
TRUE NORTH is partnering with CentreVenture, the downtown Winnipeg redevelopment agency, on making the central business district a more desirable destination for hockey and non-hockey fans alike.
Starting in August, the first phase of a new image and brand for the SHED (sports, hospitality and entertainment district) will be rolled out. New pedestrian lighting, banners, seating and paving will be unveiled on Donald Street between Portage and Graham avenues. Over the next three to four years, these same amenities will be rolled out throughout an 11-block area at a cost of between $2 million and $3 million.
Ross McGowan, president and CEO of CentreVenture, said the changes will lead to a healthier and safer downtown environment. They were not, however, brought on by the return of the NHL.
"This was well underway prior to the Jets' return. There was enough momentum in the downtown under the previous AHL franchise but there's no question the Jets will help," he said.