September 23, 2008 :: 11:45am ET
Real-Time Journal:
Winnipeg remains a viable option
By David Pagnotta

[Toronto, ON] -- As the NHL talks about its recent success, increased ticket sales, solid merchandise numbers and new intrigue, there are still a number of questions surrounding the league - and a number of figureheads aren't afraid to bring them up.

While the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have built foundations in their respective markets -- and I've seen it first hand -- there are a couple of other teams that are struggling to attract enough interest in their own cities -- and I've seen that first hand, too.

Whenever the topic of expansion or relocation comes up, or whenever I bring it up, I can't help but wonder why the NHL hasn't given the city of Winnipeg the respect it deserves.

I completely understand why the NHL is infatuated with the prospect of being the first of the major sports leagues to call Las Vegas home. In fact, I'm a supporter of that idea. If they do it right (and having the right ownership in place is a good start, Mr. Bruckheimer), it can succeed. But the NHL appears locked on cities like Kansas City and Houston before it takes a second look at another Canadian market.

Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research In Motion (creators of the Blackberry), came close to bringing another NHL club to Canada. Unfortunately, his ballsy attempt to sell season tickets for the Hamilton Predators ticked off a few people at head office and that ultimately screwed his plans.

Balsillie is loaded and appears very willing in bringing a team to Southern Ontario (if Hamilton doesn't work, his backyard in Kitchener might do the trick). Providing he still wants in the NHL fraternity, he'll get his way, after having to suck up a tad to the NHL, be it through relocation or expansion (gulp).

But that doesn't really help Winnipeg.

There's a cluster of talk circulating through the NHL (it's actually been going on for over a year) that the league has plans to expand to 32 clubs within the next five years. With that in mind, and providing it holds true (the NHL will never admit it), we could see four new franchises by the start of the 2013-14 season. I have it on pretty solid authority that two current teams have backup plans in place if the poop really hits the fan. While I can't directly acknowledge which teams those are, if you've followed this story long enough, you can probably figure it out. But I digress...

For arguments sake, let's say that within five years, the NHL moves two teams and adds two more. It seems more than likely that Las Vegas and Kansas City will get a team. If Mr. Balsillie (who has been way too quiet, by the way) jumps back on the train, you can bet we'll see a team in Southern Ontario. That leaves one other market up for grabs, with Houston, Portland and Winnipeg likely battling it out (sorry, Seattle).

Winnipeg has the support of a plethora of NHL personalities, and its local fan base. Websites are even dedicated to the cause.

If you've followed the Return of the Jets Campaign on the web, you're familiar with JetsOwner.com. More recently, Chris Mackie started a site called ManitobaMythbusters.com, which has a great saying right at the top of its site that reads, "My NHL includes the Winnipeg Jets." They attempt to provide evidence as to how Winnipeg can support another NHL club; the Jets part deux (they also have a cool video montage of interviews with hockey people supporting the market).

"While assembling the website content, we were initially taken by the nostalgic walk down memory lane," Mackie said in a release. "But as our research about the current state of the league continued, the sense of nostalgia was overwhelmed by a sense of hope. The case for placing an NHL team in Winnipeg is extremely compelling."

And for the most part, he's right on the money.

Given the support and passion of the locals, and the fact that hockey figureheads from Don Cherry to Wayne Gretzky believe Winnipeg can sustain another team, it's very possible that the Jets can become one of the top selling teams in the league.

According to the website, if 14,500 Jets fans spend $60 for a ticket, per game, the team will rank 15th in the NHL in gate revenues, averaging $870,000 per game. If they sell 13,500 tickets per game at $80 a pop, that brings them up to ninth. While you can argue that this can be said for any franchise, based on fan turnout over the years for exhibition games and major hockey events, it's a relatively realistic goal.

Last season, the six current Canadian teams took up six of the top seven spots in average gate revenues. Only the New York Rangers managed to get in between then, sitting fourth. (Incase you're curious, Toronto was No.1, Montreal ranked 2nd, Vancouver 3rd, Calgary 5th, Edmonton 6th and Ottawa 7th).

Winnipeg will see more NHL action tomorrow, as the Phoenix Jets Coyotes play the Calgary Flames in yet another teaser exhibition game. The most expensive tickets are $119 each, with the lowest being $39. After spending 12 unnecessary minutes on the line with ticketmaster, I gave up trying to see how many tickets have been sold. Judging by the last two years, there should be over 13,000 fans at the MTS Centre, which has a capacity of 15,003 for hockey games.

As the city and its fans try to demonstrate their passion for the game, the league will take a quick glance. For the NHL to take a very serious look at the market, they'll need to be presented with a formal plan that firstly includes an NHL-acceptable arena (MTS Centre needs at least 2,000 more seats) and strong corporate support by an ownership group with deep pockets.

That might be asking for a lot, considering the financial troubles surrounding North America lately, but if Balsillie and Bruckheimer are game, that's surely a positive sign.

Why would the NHL consider expansion? Easy... MONEY. An cool $300 million per franchise split amongst its 30 current organizations. Whether we like it or not, expansion (to the right markets) will help the league. Many argue that the talent pool isn't that deep. I beg to differ. If the right group steps forward, with the proper argument for Gary Bettman and Co., it's not difficult to imagine the Jets skating in downtown Winnipeg in a few years.

My 2013 NHL includes the Jets... does yours?

David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period Magazine and covers the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL for TheFourthPeriod.com. He is also a contributing writer for NBCSports.com and MSNBC.


 


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