People still aren’t coming Not even Les Glorieux can fill the Jets’ rink

A Winnipeg Jets ticket used to be the hottest in town. And the annual visit from the Montreal Canadiens always made it golden, as local fans of the bleu blanc et rouge wouldn’t miss a chance to dust off those cherished old sweaters and “Olé, Olé, Olé” at the rink.

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Opinion

A Winnipeg Jets ticket used to be the hottest in town. And the annual visit from the Montreal Canadiens always made it golden, as local fans of the bleu blanc et rouge wouldn’t miss a chance to dust off those cherished old sweaters and “Olé, Olé, Olé” at the rink.

My, how the times have changed.

An announced crowd of just 13,729 took in the latest marquee matchup between the clubs Thursday night at Canada Life Centre, an exciting, back-and-forth affair which Winnipeg won 3-2 in overtime. That means 1,596 seats went unsold, a completely unfathomable concept just a few years ago.

Alarm bells should be ringing.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Not even Original Six favourites the Montreal Canadiens could help the Jets sell out the arena, which is a big problem for the small-market club.

The Jets are playing good, competitive hockey, currently hanging near the top of the Central Division with a 6-3-1 record which includes five straight games of collecting at least a point. Yet, people still aren’t coming.

They have arguably the best goaltender in the world, Connor Hellebuyck. A pair of terrific centres in Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois. One of the best pure scorers in the league in Kyle Connor. A dynamic (albeit currently injured) winger in Nikolaj Ehlers. A rising young star in Cole Perfetti. A new coaching staff led by a pair of engaging former Jets 1.0 players in Rick Bowness and Scott Arniel. Yet, people still aren’t coming.

After years of trying to distance themselves from the past, they’ve now embraced it. A Dale Hawerchuk statue unveiled last month. Teemu Selanne and Teppo Numminen being honoured later this month. Retro jerseys with the old logo, the latest of which they’ll wear on Saturday with another Original Six squad, the Chicago Blackhawks, in town. Yet, people still aren’t coming.

There has been no shortage of marketing pushes and advertising for the product, including an email sent out to to former patrons on Thursday morning suggesting there was “limited inventory available” for the Montreal game and to “get your last-minute tickets now before it’s too late.” Turns out, it wasn’t. People still aren’t coming.

Here’s the thing: all the excitement of winning, all the bright stars and nostalgia and PR pushes in the world won’t change one cold, hard fact of life: A Jets ticket (and the related cost of concessions, parking, etc), for far too many people, has become far too expensive.

All the excitement of winning, all the bright stars and nostalgia and PR pushes in the world won’t change one cold, hard fact of life: A Jets ticket (and the related cost of concessions, parking, etc), for far too many people, has become far too expensive.

Everything in life, from gas and groceries to Netflix and chilling, has skyrocketed in price. People are having to make tough choices due to inflation, especially when it comes to discretionary spending. And regardless of how much they might love the great game of hockey, it’s moved far down the priority list for many, especially when you can watch from the comfort of home on your HDTV for a fraction of the cost.

Despite missing the playoffs in seven of 11 seasons, including a most disappointing season last year, True North has continued to raise prices on an annual basis.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Winnipeg issue. Far from it. The NHL, like pretty much every other business, is still feeling the impact of the pandemic. The desperation to find additional revenue streams is everywhere you look — from an onslaught of obnoxious betting commercials and pitches seemingly taking over broadcasts these days, to the visually jarring and borderline offensive digital board advertisements taking your attention away from the game, to sponsorships now being sold on sweaters and helmets.

Consider this: through five home games so far, the Jets are averaging 14,386 fans per game. That number is helped by the one and only sellout since COVID-19 began, a Saturday night affair with Toronto last month in which 15,325 came out. It seemed like approximately half of them were Maple Leafs fans.

To put that in perspective, Winnipeg is currently ranked 16th out of 32 teams in terms of capacity, at 95.9 per cent. They are also in the middle of the pack when it comes to the seven Canadian clubs. Vancouver (98.8 per cent), Toronto (98.7 per cent) and Montreal (98.6 per cent) are ahead of them. Edmonton (92.0 per cent), Calgary (91.5 per cent) and Ottawa (79.3 per cent) are behind them.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Winnipeg Jets celebrate their overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, a night when 1,500 seats went unsold.

The Jets numbers just tend to get underlined because we have the second-smallest building in the NHL, with only the joke that is Mullett Arena in Arizona (capacity 5,000) holding less. Every ticket, every dollar counts a bit more around here as a result.

Who can forget NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in announcing the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in the spring of 2011, declaring that this would only work long-term if the Jets can play in front of perpetual full houses. And they did, for nearly a decade, with waiting lists a mile long and season-ticket holders able to sell any unwanted games off with ease. That’s not the case anymore. Not even close.

If anything, they’ve become a burden. I saw numerous social media posts on Thursday from people who were trying to find potential buyers for the Montreal game, going as low as half-price. That is a big problem. If the downtown barn is only 90 per cent full for a clash with the Canadiens, what can we expect for dates with the likes of Ottawa, Buffalo and Seattle in the dead of winter?

Last year, the Jets could cling to the notion that some were opting to stay away because vaccine and mask mandates were still in place, in addition to plenty of public health orders. All of those legitimate excuses are now gone.

To their credit, the organization appears to finally recognize it can’t simply rest on its laurels anymore and NHL hockey doesn’t sell itself anymore. Some steps have been taken to address that, including making ticket packages more flexible, trying to improve the game-day presentation and even putting together a season ticket “advisory council” this year to look at ways to improve the overall experience.

Last year, the Jets could cling to the notion that some were opting to stay away because vaccine and mask mandates were still in place, in addition to plenty of public health orders. All of those legitimate excuses are now gone.

All of those are good moves, although I would suggest if the organization really wants to hear some hard truths, they should put together an advisory council of FORMER season ticket holders.

Regardless, I suspect the message would be largely the same: the NHL, for many, has become too pricey for this market. With the salary cap expected to take a major jump as early as next season and the cost of staying competitive in the league going up, things may get worse before they get better.

Until and unless True North and its deep-pocketed owners address the elephant in the room and find a solution — a price freeze at bare minimum seems like a no-brainer, but a cut is what’s really needed — get used to seeing swaths of empty seats and sections.

mikee.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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