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Better than most: We're no fair-weather hockey town

Study by local group shows Winnipeg, Quebec City strong NHL markets

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A group devoted to promoting the facts about Winnipeg's suitability as an NHL market has published a study adding more ammunition to its cache.

The website www.myNHLincludeswinnipeg.com has done an analysis of NHL attendance in two eras -- the Winnipeg Jets years and since 1996 -- and concluded that both jilted Canadian NHL markets, Winnipeg and Quebec City, proved to be substantially above average when it came to steady and predictable fan draws.

That, the study says, is a valuable asset for both cities and ownership groups that might be considering future bids for NHL franchises.

The study examined attendance numbers from 1979 to 1995, tossing out the 1995-96 season when the Jets were in a known lame-duck position. It also assembled 1996-2010 data to have the most up-to-date comparisons, then measured teams' attendance numbers in relation to on-ice performance to come up with a fans-per-point index.

"Only two of 30 current teams are steadier than Winnipeg's past history illustrates," the study says. "Quebec City is ranked 10th similarly.

"This suggests that in good times or not, the attendance in both cities wavers much less.... Knowing that your biggest revenue stream is stable is critical to business success and market success."

Chris Mackie, leader of the www.myNHLincludeswinnipeg.com group, said the idea for the study came from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman himself.

"In a recent reference to the Phoenix Coyotes situation, he said he was confident in the Chicago market, that with that team's better fortunes on the ice, the franchise would be better off," Mackie said. "I wondered what he'd be going on, and if Chicago would be that way, what did that mean about Winnipeg?"

If box-office volatility is considered a bad thing, then the dearly departed Jets franchise -- even with its grim average season of 71 points and 13,110 fans -- scored well in the stability category.

Only the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks of the post-Jets era scored better than Winnipeg's number, and Quebec City would have fit into the top 10.

Mackie said the study purposely did not venture into the financial and ticket-price debate that normally frames a September NHL exhibition game at the MTS Centre. The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning meet there tonight.

"It's been long argued is this a poll to see how Winnipeg would respond," Mackie said. "Some think it's the case, others say no, you can't compare.

"Certainly you can't compare two non-Manitoba entities at a glorified scrimmage to (our own team). I hesitate on this, looking at the numbers and the potential price ranges, but a decent crowd and gate for an exhibition game, it might mean something."

Mackie also pointed out that True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns and operates the MTS Centre, is continually tinkering with NHL exhibition-game prices for various sections of the arena.

He said for this year's game, the minimum price has been upped to $44 from $39 but the top seat has declined to $109 from $119.

"There is definitely a True North market analysis going on but you'll have to ask them what it means," he said. "They are fine-tuning prices, probably floating some trial balloons on some of these exhibition games."

The year-to-year fluctuations are almost certainly an attempt to optimize ticket sales for the appropriate time, as True North has made no secret of its need to gross as close to $1 million per NHL home game as possible to make a franchise here viable.

Mackie also said he can project scenarios but wouldn't be the one to preach finances to the general public.

"If True North and (chairman) Mark Chipman have been through this and supposedly have looked at Edmonton's and Ottawa's books and confirmed that it will work here, then any work anyone else is going to do ... really is cart ahead of the horse," he said. "Those fellows running their own rink know the numbers better than anyone for the past five-plus years, so what else are we possibly going to trumpet?"

The new study also noted the NHL overall attendance increase over the years, one that exceeds 20 per cent between the named eras.

It projected, using a conservative growth factor of just the Alberta teams, than Winnipeg could expect an attendance floor of 13,600 and Quebec 14,800 in the future NHL.

"By look at the straight data ... it's hard to predict that a team (now) would be a runaway landslide," he said for either city. "It's kind of generic to say there's a potential struggle.

"But another thing you must consider is that a modern facility will have some bearing. The comfort levels (of the old Winnipeg Arena) were nowhere near the levels in the modern NHL. That's why we think those numbers may be the floor for the future, assuming Le Colisee gets replaced in Quebec."

Mackie also said some elements of the group's study put Quebec in a slightly better light than Winnipeg as an NHL market.

"With the integrity of the data and trying to see what the case is for Winnipeg, you might as well include Quebec City while you're driving alongside," he said.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

words for gate revenue list

 

Using published gate-revenue-per-game numbers from the 2007-08 season, said to be the NHL's own, authors of a new study have projected several scenarios for a Winnipeg franchise using various attendance averages and average ticket prices. True North has said $1 million revenue per home game is an essential target for any Winnipeg franchise viability.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2010 C1

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