Winnipeg is having our playoff party
You know that feeling, when your neighbours down the street are having a fantastic spring party, and you’re not invited?
And worse — you really wanted to have your own party that same day, but everyone else went to the neighbour’s party instead of yours, so you’re sitting in your backyard, alone with the mosquitoes and dandelions, listening to the big party a few blocks away, feeling jealous and sulky and left-out, because those people are having what was supposed to be your fun?
As the Winnipeg Jets face off against the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL’s western conference finals, pretty much everyone in Edmonton knows that feeling. Winnipeg is having our party, the party we figured we were entitled to.
But we have more to sulk about than disappointed ego. That the Edmonton Oilers didn’t compete in a single Stanley Cup playoff game was a significant hit to the Edmonton economy, especially to restaurants, bars and hotels. The hospitality sector got a jolly big boost from last year’s playoffs, especially in the downtown core and along Whyte Avenue. This year? It was pretty much a shutout.
John Rose, the city’s chief economist, says the lack of a Cup run was a particular disappointment this year, when Edmonton experienced a “sluggish” first quarter financially.
“Playoffs would have been a nice little support for the Edmonton economy,” he says.
Year over year, Rose says, the Edmonton economy lost 2,000 accommodation and restaurant jobs, and 4,000 jobs in the information, cultural and recreation sectors.
“It’s hard not to be jealous when you look at what’s happening in Winnipeg,” Ian O’Donnell, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association, confessed to me.
“Last year during the playoffs, we had 18,000 people at Rogers Place and another 10,000 people downtown, and that’s hard to replace. We’re missing those downtown visitors and those hotel room night stays.”
The biggest loser, though, has been the Oilers Entertainment Group itself. No playoff tickets to sell. No chance to sell (overpriced) beer or (overpriced) hotdogs or (overpriced) jerseys to excited playoff fans.
And it wasn’t just that OEG lost playoff revenues; it also had to take a pass on booking bands and shows that might have conflicted with those early playoff rounds. Sure, in recent days, Rogers Place has hosted Shania Twain and the Eagles. But for most of April, that fancy new arena was dark: no concerts, no games, no revenues.
Late last month, OEG laid off about 30 staff, from accountants to executive assistants to digital media specialists, Postmedia learned recently. In a letter to employees, OEG explained that it had to “right-size” its structure and focus on core businesses that “drive revenue and results.”
“What that also means, for the foreseeable future, we have ceased our efforts related to new business or global expansion,” the letter read.
Tim Shipton, OEG senior vicepresident of communications, says the layoffs had nothing to do with the Oilers’ playoff woes.
“Obviously, playoffs are good for business,” said Shipton. “Our goal, full stop, is to be a playoff-competitive team, and to compete for the Stanley Cup. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that our business model doesn’t hinge on a two-month window every year.”
“We let 20 or 21 people go out of 1,600. That’s not unusual in business.”
The Katz Group has many other irons in the fire. It is at least as much a property development company as a sport entertainment business.
But the Oilers are the marquee brand.
At a time when the condo market is sluggish, and the office market is saturated, the team’s failure to make the playoffs certainly didn’t boost the Katz Group’s aggregate bottom line. Maybe the team’s sad collapse didn’t prompt those layoffs. But the diminishment of the Oilers brand equity sure didn’t help.
The truth is that hockey is a fickle, kittle-cattle enterprise, and no hotel or bar or restaurant or team president should have been banking on a big playoff bump. This is the problem with expecting a hockey arena, or a star player, to be the downtown’s saviour. You shouldn’t count your playoff games before they’re played.
Which leaves us in our metaphorical backyard, envying Winnipeg ’s Cinderella moment in the sun, and Winnipeg ’s chance to show off its city and its spirit to a North American audience. But Edmonton fans? Remember, it could have been worse.
It could have been Calgary.