Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The price of hockey greatness

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The smashing early box-office success of Winnipeg's new NHL team is unlikely to please those critics who opposed the construction of a new downtown arena, either because they wanted to preserve the historic Eaton's building, disagreed with the idea of public subsidies for private interests, or because they believed the arena would create uncomfortable dead space, except for a brief period before and after events.

Some observers even feared that the size of the arena -- just 15,000 seats -- was too small to ever attract an NHL team.

Build it somewhere else, they all shouted when the project was announced 10 years ago.

Ironically, thousands of NHL fans might find themselves agreeing with that advice after True North Sports & Entertainment sold the last of its season tickets Saturday in just 17 minutes, leaving less than 1,000 seats for general purchase.

The fact that out-of-town brokers reportedly succeeded in scooping up tickets for resale at inflated (and illegal) prices only added to their sense that, somehow, they had been cut out of the dream.

It's natural, therefore, to ask if the facility can be expanded (unlikely, certainly not by much) or whether it should have been built somewhere else, such as the former Canada Packers site, where a much bigger arena could have accommodated the city's passion.

Indeed, it seems logical to presume that even the owners now realize their mistake. What businessman in his right mind, after all, would turn down the largest possible customer base, particularly when they are prepared to put their money up front?

As it turns out, however, the ownership group is quite pleased with the smallest arena in the NHL, as opposed to a leviathan on the edge of town. In fact, David Thomson, one of the principle partners in the deal, says it might even be too big.

"I still tell people it's too big.... More seats would have cost more money and you have to fill them.... For Winnipeg, I think it's the right size," Mr. Thomson told The Globe and Mail.

In business, bigger is not always better and it certainly is not necessarily more profitable, he said, noting Winnipeg's small arena is sustainable and economical, while offering a superior customer experience.

A much larger arena might seem intuitive under the circumstances, but the result could have been much fewer sales of season tickets if fans believed they would be easy to acquire. More seats to fill would also have required more employees, more infrastructure and more investment in advertising and promotion.

Mr. Thomson and his lead partner, Mark Chipman, are both romantics and socially conscious titans, but they also realize there is no point to business ventures that are not profitable. If Winnipeg wanted NHL hockey, then a business model was needed that could provide it on a sustained basis.

The ownership group has developed such a paradigm, but one of the consequences is that NHL tickets may be hard to come by. That is a good thing and it's the way it must always be if Winnipeg wants to retain its team.

True, many fans are disappointed, but better that than no team at all.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2011 A10

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