NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Winnipeg Jets' future: 'I think this is a strong market'

WINNIPEG — It's not the presence of Gary Bettman in Winnipeg that has Jets fans worried. It's his purpose.

The NHL commissioner comes to most markets over the course of a typical season. He addressed the media in Winnipeg last season, opening his remarks by saying he didn't have any emergency to deal with or news to announce.

This season's visit came with the perception of higher risks, but Bettman has been clear in his support of True North as an ownership group and Winnipeg as an NHL market.

“I think there's been a lot of speculation about why I'm here today,” Pittman said in Winnipeg on Tuesday. “This is where hockey is important. I think this is a strong NHL market. I think ownership has made extraordinary commitments to the Jets, to this arena, to the downtown area, including hundreds of millions of dollars. I'm not sure why people are speculating That the NHL won't be here one way or another.

Jets Chairman Mark Chipman revealed to The athlete Last week, season ticket sales in Winnipeg dropped 27 per cent over three years, falling from about 13,000 to just under 9,500 tickets.

“I wouldn't be honest with you if I didn't say: 'We have to get back to 13,000,'” Chipman said last week. “This place we find ourselves in now, it's not going to work in the long run. It's not.”

Bettman said in 2011 that the Jets needed to fill their building every game for the NHL to function in Winnipeg. On Tuesday, he qualified that statement in regards to decreased season ticket liabilities.

“I know Mark Chipman and David Thompson aren't just interested in staying in the NHL. They want to thrive,” Bettman said. “This will get resolved. I don't consider this a crisis but I think, as with any team in any market, there has to be cooperation between the community, the fan base and the club and I think eventually it will be here.

Pittman spoke with similar optimism during his visit to Winnipeg last season. The Jets played at 93.6 percent capacity in 2022-23, according to Hockey Reference, but that number has dropped to 87.3 percent so far this season.

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Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Bettman played down concerns that the franchise faces an impending relocation if the season ticket base is not increased soon.

“Clearly attendance needs to improve,” Pittman added. “I have confidence in the organization, and more importantly, I have confidence in this community.”

Chipman took matters into his own hands recently, calling on former season ticket holders to get a better idea of ​​why they were giving up their seats. He even made house calls: Chipman was joined by star players Josh Morrissey and Mark Scheifele for a final visit to the home of a former season ticket holder. It's part of an overall strategy to improve customer service and sales at True North, which Chipman admitted wasn't very good when the team sold out its entire inventory of season tickets in minutes, then sold out its building for the better part of eight straight seasons.

“For 10 years, we were not a sales organization; “We were a service organization, and I'm not sure we were that good of a service organization, to be honest with you,” Chipman said. The athlete.

Chipman was similarly contrite during his speech to fans gathered at the Canada Life Center before Tuesday's game. Speaking alongside Bateman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Chipman apologized for past customer service failings, particularly regarding a lack of flexibility with season ticket packages. Customer service was cited by some former season ticket holders as the reason for their departure.

Earlier in the day, Morrissey expressed his excitement at the opportunity to visit with Jets fans with Chipman and Scheifele.

“It couldn't get more Canadian than that, in my opinion. An outdoor rink across three front yards with trees in the middle of the ice,” Morrissey said. “I think that's the thing I've always appreciated about the Jets organization, and Mr. Chipman, is their commitment to the city Winnipeg, and their love of Winnipeg.

“I think this is just another example of him trying to get players to interact with some great fans and be part of this community.”

True North's investment in the Jets is heavy and ongoing: Winnipeg acquired former captain Blake Wheeler this offseason, before signing trade acquisition Gabriel Vilardi in July and longtime stars Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck to matching seven-year, $8.5 million AAV extensions in October. Winnipeg re-signed Nino Niederreiter to a two-year contract shortly thereafter, and earlier this month acquired Sean Monahan from Montreal to further his playoff run. True North also unveiled $13 million in renovations to the Canadian Life Center in September.

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Here are more notes and quotes from Bettman's availability Tuesday with Winnipeg media.

About the pandemic and why planes struggle to fill the arena

Pittman went through a long list of reasons Winnipeg might struggle, concluding his letter by saying it doesn't matter how the Jets got here — he believes in True North to guide them forward.

“Some people say people didn't want to come downtown at night. Some people say the team should have done better, even though it was very good. Some people say the season ticket trip wasn't good to begin with. Some people say “It was the pandemic. All of our clubs have dealt with the pandemic. It may have affected some markets more than others, but again, we are where we are. We are focused on the fact that we believe in this market and ownership believes in this market.”

To support businesses in Winnipeg

A major theme of the Winnipeg talks was the relative lack of corporate support compared to other markets. The Jets sell 15 percent of their season tickets to corporate interests.

Pittman and Daly met with local businessmen as part of their trip to Winnipeg. Bettman was asked if he needs to see some limit on corporate season ticket liabilities.

“That's not what I want to see. “What you want to do is have a franchise that has strong support from all the places that support comes from, whether it's the business community that's buying tickets, whether it's the business community advertising and promoting and being active around the club,” Pittman said. “In this regard, I think the club has had very strong support.”

Bettman also admitted that if True North could go back to 2011 when it sold its first season ticket packages, it might have been wise to reserve “four or five thousand tickets” for corporate entities.

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“They didn't, but that's history,” Pittman said. “We are where we are so we move forward.”

On the timeline for good health

Pittman said neither he nor True North are issuing any ultimatums or deadlines. Instead, the focus is on making sure the fan base is “maximally engaged.”

“We are not operating under the sword of Damocles or at the edge of the sword,” Pittman said. “That's part of the evolution of what franchises go through sometimes. I remember a number of other Canadian franchises, for example, some of them are small markets, some of them are outdated season ticket bases. And they had to rebuild with younger fans. It happens. Let's be clear On something: I think this is a strong NHL market. It will adapt.”

Planes as a typical franchise

Bettman expressed bewilderment at the level of fan anxiety over the prospect of a transfer. He pointed to the “hundreds of millions” of dollars True North has invested in the team, arena and downtown area.

“That's why anyone who suggests the ownership agenda isn't focused on Winnipeg is ridiculous.”

Daly expanded on his praise of Bateman.

“What I would say is that this team is widely viewed around the league as a model franchise,” Daly said. “Good management from top to bottom, putting a competitive hockey team on the ice, spending to the max. But they also invest, as Gary said, in the community and in all their philanthropic initiatives and investments in the city. We hope to have 32 of those.”

Winnipeg receives revenue sharing

Bettman confirmed that the Jets are receiving and will continue to receive payments in accordance with the NHL's revenue-sharing system. When asked if there was any pressure within the league's Board of Governors on Winnipeg to improve its hockey-related revenue (HRR), Bettman was unequivocal.

“If your question somehow suggests there is board-level concern about this franchise, the answer is absolutely nothing.”

Required reading

(Gary Bettman Image: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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