There's an old motto in business: "The customer is always right."
It appears True North Sports & Entertainment is taking that to heart after years of assuming having the NHL back in town would simply sell itself to fans willing to empty their wallets with no questions asked.
While that was true at one point, it's no longer the case now that the novelty has worn off. And the organization appears to acknowledge that in a letter sent Tuesday to an increasingly frustrated and vocal group of Winnipeg Jets fans that reads like a promise to stop taking them for granted, along with a plea to not abandon ship as all-important ticket contract renewals are fast approaching.
"We have become increasingly aware of a growing sentiment related to ticket prices, the cost of food and beverages, mobile ticketing, elevated security measures, and of course, team performance," they write, citing data from a "renewed focus on fan feedback through a series of ongoing surveys and interacting with fans on the concourses."
Funny, I could have saved them the effort and simply pointed them to the hundreds of online comments I received earlier this month after writing a column outlining how the atmosphere inside Bell MTS Place has taken a noticeable nosedive this season.
Posted: 28/01/2020 12:22 PM
Changes are coming to Bell MTS Place, and hockey fans will spend less as a result.
True North Sports and Entertainment — which owns and operates the downtown arena as well as the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose teams — announced Tuesday morning it will be lowering the price of concessions items such as beer and popcorn by an average of 30 per cent.
A red flag surfaced when an eight-year sellout streak ended on Oct. 15 with the Arizona Coyotes in town and just 14,764 officially on hand to witness it. A second non-sellout happened two nights later against the New York Islanders. There have been other games officially listed as full houses, even though some of the 15,325 fans are disguised as empty seats.
That may be because people who had a bidding war for available tickets just a few years ago can barely give them away now. Ticket-sharing partnerships are falling apart, with members bowing out due to costs and/or lack of interest. The waiting list has quickly shrunk. And what once was the loudest, most raucous building in the NHL is now a shell of its former self.
Of course, the Jets haven't given folks much to cheer about either, with just 10 wins in 23 home games this season. That puts them on pace for their worst home-ice record in their nine seasons since re-locating from Atlanta.
All of which, no doubt, stepped up the urgency inside True North to make some long-overdue changes in an attempt to bring back the buzz.
"We’re looking to create value. We’re looking to keep the fan excited, create a greater atmosphere in the building. And it’s not necessarily about selling more tickets or even selling more beer," Kevin Donnelly, True North's senior vice president of venues and entertainment, said Tuesday at a news conference.
That should have always been the priority, but as is often the case, profit over people can become hard to resist.
First up is what they're calling "fan favourite" pricing on their five most popular items, with beer ($7.50 for domestic draft, $7 for canned), fountain drinks ($4 for 24-ounce), bottled water ($3.50), popcorn ($4.50) and pizza ($5 per slice) all slashed by an average of 30 per cent, beginning this Friday when the Jets kick off a critical three-game homestand with a visit from the Boston Bruins.
That's following a similar trend from other big league sports teams, who've noticed an increase in concession profits when they've lowered prices. Go figure, people are apt to buying more if they don't feel like they're being gouged.
Next is a pledge to raise ticket prices by an average of 2.1 per cent next season, which they say is their lowest increase in six years. I'd argue that's still 2.1 per cent too high, as this would seem to be the perfect time to have imposed a one-year freeze — especially since season ticket holders are now paying an average of 28 per cent more than 2011.
Donnelly told me holding steady "wasn't ever on the table."
"We are amongst the lowest priced NHL tickets in the country, and I think 2.1 per cent will be amongst the lowest increases you’ll see coming out this season. We want to remain a cap team, we want to remain a competitive team that’s always in contention for a Cup, and that comes at a price," he said.
True North cites their "intentional draft-and-develop process" as a root cause, noting player costs are currently (CDN)$109 million this season, which is a 110-per-cent spike from the $52 million when the Thrashers became the Jets 2.0 nine years ago.
I suppose the message is to blame Jets' general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff for selecting Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck. Still, with one of the richest owners in the league in David Thomson, I'd suggest holding the line on tickets would not have broken the bank.
As for the game-night experience, the Jets will be adding on-ice projection, which has become a staple at most NHL rinks and was something I called for in my recent column. True North had balked at the idea previously.
"It’s not an insignificant cost for us. But we do think as the technology continues to improve, it's really a dramatic way to kick off your game presentations, kick off the start of the intermissions. It’s something we’ll be putting in over the summer months and it will be ready to go at the start of next season," Donnelly said.
I hope they go even further and look at some of the other bells and whistles I've seen in my travels around the league, with live music being at the top of the list. Donnelly said that idea, and others, will be considered.
I'd also suggest the brain trust make a concerted effort to get less weekday and more weekend games starting next year. A Tuesday night clash, of which Winnipeg has plenty this year, doesn't exactly get the juices flowing quite like a Friday or Saturday night affair, of which the Jets have had very few. But it doesn't sound like that's about to change.
"I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from the quantity of weekday games," said Donnelly.
Overall, True North says they will invest $9 million in venue improvements this year, including concourse enhancements, the Budweiser King Club and a full makeover of The Exchange Restaurant. They say $55 million has been invested in the rink over the previous eight seasons.
And, no doubt, they hope the team itself can quickly return to similar form of the past two seasons in which they made the playoffs and were viewed as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Fans deserve as much bang for their buck — especially when the on-ice performance is underwhelming. Lowering some concessions and making an effort to improve the game-day experience are important first steps. True North would be wise to continue listening to feedback of all forms going forward, especially from a growing legion of clearly unsatisfied customers who have been shouting "Give us a break" for some time.
Because the alternative to anger is apathy, something this organization and the NHL's smallest market can ill afford.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 9:15 AM CST: Minor changes