Much more than a campaign slogan for True North Sports + Entertainment; it’s a declaration.
The owners of the Winnipeg Jets recently launched a targeted drive to sell 3,000 season tickets for the upcoming NHL season, with a particular focus on the province’s corporate community.
The move was criticized by some in the community—many of them keyboard warriors—who perceived it as an indication that the team wasn’t viable in the NHL’s smallest market and would go the way of the original Winnipeg Jets, which were sold and moved to Arizona in 1996.
There is one connection to the final playoff run of 27 years ago. Hanging from the rafters during the Jets’ series against the Detroit Red Wings was a banner that read, “Our Jets Will Fly 4-Ever.”
John Olfert, True North’s president and COO, said that banner was the creative inspiration for the corporate drive but was adamant that the tagline should not be interpreted as a threat or a question. “It’s a declaration. Forever Winnipeg, this is what we’re here for,” he says. “In the long term, for us to remain stable, we need a solid season ticket base.”
A COVID-19 hangover plus annual attrition contributed to a softening in season ticket memberships. Unlike in previous seasons, a significant number of tickets sold during the 2022/23 season were group and single-game tickets.
Rather than sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring the issue, Olfert says True North’s brain trust wanted to tackle the challenge head-on and be intentional in connecting with businesses across the province.
“We are in the business of creating community and memorable experiences and believe that many companies can leverage what we offer to drive their own objectives.”
There is a significant opportunity with the business community. Ever since the season ticket-buying frenzy that followed the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011—13,000 were scooped up in 17 minutes—the vast majority of ticket holders have been individual fans, while approximately 15 per cent were held by businesses.
In fact, the Jets have the smallest percentage of corporate seats in the entire NHL, well below the league average, says Norva Riddell, True North’s Senior Vice-President of Partnerships and Premium Services.
“We’ve got to walk before we run, but we’d love to grow that percentage for the 23-24 season: ideally pushing closer to 30 per cent by October,” she says. “We understand business customers can spend their hosting dollars in many ways. We can offer many options; it’s about being intentional in our approach and understanding how we can grow together.”
No two companies want to use hockey tickets in the exact same way so True North’s opportunity is customizing offers to unique circumstances. In some cases, tickets are used to thank customers, reward employees, or convince a prospect to come on board. The Jets’ growing number of promotional nights—such as South Asian Heritage, Black History, Filipino History, Pride, and Celebrating Women in Sport—are additional ways to get employees together.
“We hope there’s an increased desire for people to spend time together; we’ve spent so much time apart over the last three years,” Riddell says.
A night out doesn’t have to break the bank, either. True North recently started renovations on the suite concourse to transform three 24-person suites into a suite lounge. This option provides increased flexibility for businesses that are looking for options. Tickets for the lounge are sold in groups of four, which includes food and non-alcoholic beverages for all Winnipeg Jets games and Canada Life Centre events.
“This is a new concept for us, but it’s very common in other venues. It allows businesses to host people in smaller groups. Customers have asked for increased hosting and hospitality options; we hope that this new lounge on our suite concourse is a great start and shows our commitment to elevating the guest experience for businesses,” she says.
The leaders at True North welcomed the attention at the start of the sales campaign because it erased any remaining notions that the team didn’t have any ticket inventory.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, True North’s surveys showed a clear delineation between people who were in favour of vaccines, mask use and social distancing—85 per cent of season ticket holders were happy to show their vaccination cards—and those who didn’t. The latter group represented 2,000 season ticket holders.
When you factor in that fewer people are working downtown than three years ago, with more and more people conditioned to watching Jets games from the comforts of their fan caves, it’s obvious that we’re not in 2011 anymore.
True North has made a dedicated effort to offer customers flexibility. For example, people didn’t like the three-year contracts or the seat deposit that they had to pay, so the team moved to a Season Ticket Membership model, which comes with significant savings on cost over single game tickets and no multi-year commitment. Members also receive discounts on concessions and merchandise, access to exclusive events, and playoff tickets.
The Winnipeg Jets business insights department has embarked on a mission to evolve the team’s offerings through the power of data and engagement. Recognizing the value of better understanding their fan base, the team meets regularly with their newly established Season Ticket Member Council and conducts fan surveys on an ongoing basis. The team has leveraged these insights to create new offerings for the 2023-24 season—including the premium lounge with theatre-style seating and inclusive food and beverage service and a new Premium Club and event level.
“As an organization, we need to sell tickets,” Olfert says. “There’s no shame in that. We’re like any other business. There’s turnover here just like there is for every team across the NHL and all professional sports leagues. We have been selling since the team’s return in 2011.”
Olfert says True North sees its role as a “steward of hockey” for the current generation. While it’s invested in running a thriving hockey business (the Jets played in more playoff games than any other Canadian team between 2018-2022), if it wanted to maximize profits, the prices for tickets and beer would be higher. In fact, the Jets have the second-lowest average ticket price across all Canadian NHL teams.
“We are promoting community. That’s what motivates ownership and the leadership group that we have,” he says.
At the same time, True North recognizes that a significant portion of the Canada Life Centre, where the Jets play, was subsidized by the three levels of government.
“We generate $45 million of tax revenue a year so we believe it was a good investment for our public partners. Being a community asset isn’t just owners paying for everything. It’s us all owning it together. That’s a responsibility that all of us share,” he says.
Olfert shares True North is pleased to partner with the community in many ways. For example, together with fans, more than $44 million in programming via the True North Youth Foundation has been provided to support Manitoba youth. Downtown Winnipeg can serve as further proof of its commitment to the city. The recent announcement to redevelop Portage Place will bring its portfolio up to seven buildings, constructed or redeveloped in our downtown.
“We’re in, we’re not going anywhere,” Olfert says. “But can we do it alone? Absolutely not.”
Top Ways Manitoba Businesses Use Winnipeg Jets Season Tickets
- Entertain clients, partners, vendors, or prospects in Manitoba’s premier sporting environment.
- Enhance referral programs and reward clients who create new business.
- Recognize and reward employees directly or through office contests.
- Provide tickets to loyal customers to thank them for their support.
- Celebrate and use the arena for holiday parties and achievement milestones