Are we doing this with the Winnipeg Jets again?

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The Winnipeg Jets are in first place. The Jets have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup. They have the league’s best goalie, they have depth scoring. They can win a track meet if opponents want to play that way. They can grind out chances along the boards and in the corners if that’s what’s asked. For most of our sporting fan life, that’s what we know to mean what fans want, what teams must do to sell tickets (unless it’s MLB, where they don’t really care if they sell tickets).

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And yet, the stories out of Manitoba the past week or two aren’t about their status as challengers or what they might do at the approaching deadline to bolster that status. It’s about how their season ticket base is down a quarter since they moved to Winnipeg. It’s about being one of three teams in the league not filling their building to 90 percent capacity, with the other two being the suck-ass Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks. It’s about Gary Bettman showing up in town this week and sounding a little too much like Frank Drebin shouting, “NOTHING TO SEE HERE!”

What’s a little scary about all of this is that no one can pin down a reason for the dip in attendance and season tickets for the Jets, are at least it feels like they’re talking around it. Their owner has even taken to making calls to those who have canceled their season tickets, even going in person to a couple houses, and has referenced that the Jets’ customer service in the past is the reason fans didn’t feel connected to the team and hence stopped forking over dough for 41 games. And sure, that doesn’t help, but does anyone really think that a couple bad experiences on hold is the main drive of 25 percent of a season ticket base disappearing into the ether? Crap customer service is a part of our everyday lives now. Maybe Canadians are wired differently, but that differently? Keep in mind that this is also the league’s smallest real building (so Arizona doesn’t count), and the Jets can’t even fill that to 90 percent.

Much was made back in the 90s, and now again, that the corporate base just isn’t as big in Winnipeg as it is in other cities. The Jets counted on fans filling the seats and suites, instead of having a bunch reserved for marketing departments to entertain clients. That’s who Bettman was there to woo this week with his visit. But this wasn’t a surprise to anyone, or it shouldn’t have been. Winnipeg is Winnipeg.

Outside factors aren’t much different on that side of the border than they are here. Inflation has been wild in Canada the past few years, and hockey tickets just might not be in the budget for a lot of people, especially season tickets. But it’s not as though they’ve downsized from going to every game to just going to a handful. The Jets aren’t selling out. The cratering Canadian dollar isn’t helping the Jets much either, but that’s more of a problem after the tickets are sold or not sold than affecting those who may or may not buy tickets. The Jets are in the bottom third of average ticket prices.

Winnipeg isn’t that big of a place. It’s the smallest of the Canadian cities in the league. But it’s far bigger than St. Louis or Buffalo and larger than Vegas and Nashville, though obviously, those places have an advantage for many who wish to follow their teams to those destinations for a vacation and a booze-up.

Perhaps the novelty is gone. The Jets have been back for over 10 years, and they’ve only really challenged for a Cup once, with a trip to the conference final in 2018. But since then, the Winnipeg faithful haven’t seen a lot of “big” games. The pandemic took away two playoffs, they missed the postseason in 2022, and were out in the first round last year.

Some fans will say that an ad campaign last year to drive up ticket sales and interest sounded more like a veiled threat than anything else. Combined with the lack of customer service and the other factors, that certainly wouldn’t help.

We’ve seen this story before. It usually ends with some sort of plea for a publicly funded arena, which almost certainly isn’t going to happen, and eventually, threats to leave outright instead of coded ones. The lack of corporate presence, and the size of the building — this is what we heard 30 years ago when the original Jets hit the bricks for Arizona. And those Jets were never as good on the ice as this current version.

The axiom has been the product on the ice/field/court is always paramount, the first thing that anyone cares about. Nothing else is possible without winning. Well, the Jets are winning. Winning a lot. And it isn’t enough. The fans’ reasons for not showing up as they once did are valid. But can they all be cured if the Jets can’t make up the ground from those problems to see one of the league’s best teams? They won’t be forever.

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