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More than just a show

Canada Life Centre
Canada Life Centre

One way to gauge a city’s economic health is the strength of its concert calendar.

If you’ve got The Eagles, Backstreet Boys and Ringo Starr on your dance card in the space of a few weeks, that’s a strong indication that people in your city aren’t hurting for disposable income. Of course, there are other factors at play—a hit record never hurts—but having the right setting at the right size to host top-notch shows as they are intended to be seen is critical. Having the confidence to tell tour planners, ”if you come, the town will support you” means that Winnipeggers are not necessarily the coupon clippers that their long-standing reputation suggests.

They respond to quality and routinely show up—with their wallets open—to prove you correct.

Eighteen years after Canada Life Centre opened on Portage Avenue, some Winnipeggers might take for granted that the biggest stars in the entertainment world grace our stages on a regular basis. But it wasn’t that long ago that Winnipeg was a drive-by or fly-over dot on the map for them. 

We’ve spent millions of dollars in improvements since the ribbon cutting to improve the concert and hockey game experience. Our goal was to have Winnipeg recognized by North American promoters as a viable market for the first time in a long time.

This requires True North Sports + Entertainment, as the owner and operator of the building, to invest in regular upgrades and keep pace with ever-changing technologies for shows and sports as well as the guest experience.

The Winnipeg Arena that Canada Life Centre replaced was antiquated before the Jets got in the NHL the first time. One of the complaints about it as a music venue was the lousy acoustics. Rocker Billy Joel looked up to the rafters during a show in 1986 and said, “I bet even hockey sounds bad in here.”

He wasn’t wrong.

Have you ever noticed that the seat backs at Canada Life Centre are covered with material? That’s not just for your comfort—the fabric stops them from reflecting sound like plastic seats do.

Back when Billy was on tour regularly and I worked as a concert promoter, the concert business was a far different animal. The opportunities were limited by geography so I racked up countless miles promoting shows between the 500-seat Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon and the 6,000-seat Regina Agridome to the 725-seat Le Rendez-Vous and on up to the Winnipeg Arena and Winnipeg Stadium.

As the concert industry consolidated (and I relocated to the west coast for a few years), Winnipeg ceased to have a local advocate, one that would wave the flag and convince artists to book shows here.

Local promoters eventually ceased to exist while the financial risks of big-name shows became larger and larger. If you want to book the Rolling Stones—and I have—you need to have well-connected friends and colleagues and your deposit cheque needs to have a few zeroes on it. 

Publicly-owned facilities such as the Winnipeg Arena—technically, it was owned by Winnipeg Enterprises—were not in the business of taking on risk. They didn’t want to put down $250,000 of taxpayer money to bring some hair band to town.

Sure, they could make a pile of money if the show did well but what if it didn’t? Bills need to be paid—including those high-priced performers—whether you sell tickets or not.

Without a local advocate, Winnipeg was simply skipped over by many artists and the concert experience went elsewhere—to privately-owned buildings in larger cities, often where the promoting agency had an office.

It’s a whole new world today. True North engages on a daily basis with promoters across North America and we take risks along with those touring experts when needed. Quite simply, we put our money where our mouths are.

In the last year of the Winnipeg Arena nearly two decades ago, 64,000 people attended nine concerts—over the entire last 12 months.

This summer, we had 65,000 concert-goers in July and August alone. That’s the slow season at Canada Life Centre.

Canada Life Centre regularly welcomes nearly 1.5 million fans each year for Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose games and events such as Disney On Ice, Monster Trucks spectaculars and concerts. This traffic is why so many downtown restaurant and pub owners are thankful for their location, location, location. A vibrant downtown that’s welcoming, clean, busy and FUN encourages more development which helps sell tickets and supports restaurants. It’s a winning formula that helps create an identity and brand for a city—any city.

Promoters today look at Winnipeg as a city where they can sell those tickets and reach their financial goals. They can make a decent return, artists will perform to thousands of friendly, engaged fans and on the best of days, everyone leaves happy. 

That’s because Winnipeggers have proven—in spite of their coupon-clipping reputation—that seeing world-class shows such as Cirque du Soleil or Shawn Mendes or Chris Stapleton or The Eagles is something they’re willing to pay for. 

They have, quite simply, put their money where their mouths are. When that happens, it’s music to my ears.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly, Sr. Vice President, Venues & Entertainment,
True North Sports + Entertainment

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