It’s a rare deal that’s viewed as a win-win-win by all parties involved, but the Brandon Wheat Kings’ new five-year lease agreement with the Keystone Centre has the potential to be just that.
Emphasis on the word potential. It will be up to local MLA Drew Caldwell and his provincial NDP government to make this deal really work. But more on that later.
It took months of negotiations to finalize the lease talks, which ground to a halt for a month in February and missed Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson’s self-imposed deadline by two and a half months. But with just eight days before the current 15-year agreement was set to expire, a new lease was finally announced Wednesday.
For all parties, there’s plenty to like. The key points?
• The Keystone Centre locks up its primary tenant for five more seasons and will pocket four times more in rent from the Wheat Kings than the previous deal, giving the cash-strapped facility a financial boost. And the skeptics can now officially retire the term “sweetheart deal” when discussing the Wheat King lease.
• The City of Brandon continues to receive priceless national publicity as the home of the Wheat Kings, while city hotels, restaurants, pubs and gas stations receive financial spinoff effects from game nights.
• The Wheat Kings receive more space to expand offices and a “good-faith” commitment from the city and the Keystone to address much-needed arena improvements in seating, lighting and the sound system.
• The Wheat Kings also kept the Keystone from adding to the current $3 Ticketmaster fee (of which the Keystone earns $1.75 per ticket), or to impose a parking fee for games. At $5 per game over 36 games, that $180 in parking fees alone would have dwarfed the $50 to $75 increase in season ticket prices this season.
• Despite a $75 price hike to $425 — the increase is only $50 if tickets are purchased before the June 15 early-bird deadline — Wheat King season ticket prices are still lower than the average price for every team in the league except the Swift Current Broncos (ranging from $310 to $510). Wheat King season ticket prices work out to $12 a game, which is pretty cheap entertainment to watch future NHLers. Fans who spent $20 to watch Wheat Kings captain Mark Stone in the WHL playoffs in April would have had to pay at least $200 to watch him play in the NHL playoffs for the Ottawa Senators just one week later.
Yes, some of the Wheat Kings’ increased costs have been passed on to their customers, just like every other business does. And anyone who fills their tank has an idea of what gassing up the Wheat King bus must be like for a team that puts on more travel miles than any other team in the league, never mind the rising cost of equipment, etc.
So how will this lease agreement be seen five years down the road? As long as the Wheat Kings’ season ticket base and average game attendance don’t drop, the deal should be good financially for both the club and the Keystone Centre.
But Wheat Kings owner Kelly McCrimmon has also made it clear he expects the Keystone and the city to live up to their end of the bargain and improve the main arena. The hand-me-down 1970s-era seats from the old Winnipeg Arena need to go, arena lighting must be addressed, while the muffled sound system needs work and the Keystone Centre’s leaking roof must finally be repaired.
The province has put hundreds of millions of dollars into the MTS Centre, the Winnipeg Convention Centre and the new football stadium.
On the other hand, provincial support for the Keystone Centre over the years — while appreciated — has paled in comparison to projects in Winnipeg. Which brings us back to Caldwell. While we don’t have a Brandon MLA in cabinet, Caldwell is supposed to have the ear of Premier Greg Selinger in his capacity as legislative assistant. It’s time to put that claim to the test.
The city and the Keystone need action now, not typical political platitudes about how the provincial NDP have always been there to support southwestern Manitoba — yada, yada, yada.
The Keystone Centre needs $5-10 million now. The facility is critical to our community and arguably more important than the role the Winnipeg Convention Centre plays in the provincial capital.
The question is, will Caldwell and the province step up?