Serious arena talk

I’m a little late on this, but I wanted to write something about the new arena discussion in Quebec. Obviously, I’m not directly concerned by this: I’m not a Nordiques fan, and most importantly I don’t live and pay taxes in Quebec or Canada. But I’m familiar with hockey and, believe it or not, with Canadian politics. So I’m pretty interested in what’s going on here.

Let me say first that as a hockey fan, there’s no question I’d be thrilled to see the NHL back to Quebec. I wasn’t following hockey when the Nordiques (and the Jets, Whalers and North Stars) moved in the 1990s, so I only know about the fierce Habs/Nords rivalry through what I read about it, and the youtube videos of the Good Friday brawl and Alain Côté’s goal. So the prospect of a renewed rivalry seems really promising.

But I don’t like where this whole ‘let’s build a new arena to get a team there’  thing is going.

Firstly, I think it’s really risky to build an arena without a team. Kansas City did it a few years ago. It definitely put them on the list of potential cities where a troubled franchise could be relocated, but as of today, their arena still has no major league tenant. Without such a main tenant, it’s obviously much harder to make an arena like that profitable. The arena is 3 years old now. One of the associated risks is to see their “new” arena slowly age, without a team. Arenas and stadiums now have a much shorter life expectancy than they used to. The Montreal forum lasted from the 1920’s to the 1990’s. I really don’t believe the Bell Centre will live 70 years. Examples in basketball in Seattle (the Key Arena) and Charlotte (the Charlotte Coliseum) showed that in some cases, barely 15 years after an arena is built or renovated, the owners will ask for a new stadium. In both cases, the teams (Supersonics and Hornets) moved when the public refused to pay for a new arena. It’s a big risk to build an arena and then hope you’ll get a team to play there before it ages and gets obsolete.

But of course, there isn’t much of a choice. Bettman made it very clear that to be considered for an expansion team or a relocation, Quebec needed to have an arena first. And that’s where the problem is. Major league sports are pressuring cities to pay for new stadiums in the hope they will keep or get a team. As many cities are interested in pro teams for various reasons (the willingness to be seen as a big city, the hope to get a team back, or the desire to keep a beloved team), there’s a competition taking place. And in most cases, the leagues and the owners are pressuring the cities to assume a substantial portion of the cost of those new stadiums. The trick is that once the new arena is there, it’s almost impossible for the city to get its money back, because the tenant will do everything it can to get the best possible lease,  threatening to move if it’s not satisfied. So there you have it: the public is asked to pay for the stadium and to assume the risks, and the owners and the league reap most of the profits, until the cycle starts again.

And it keeps going on and on, because for each city that refuses to pay (and they are not numerous), there’s a Kansas City (or maybe Quebec soon) that has a brand new shiny arena and no team. Kansas city has been used as a threat in 3 NHL cities already: Nashville, Pittsburgh and Long Island. And it’s easy to see why political leaders can be enticed to accept the deal. Sport is tied to identity, and being the mayor/provincial Premier/whatever who manages to save a  local team or to attract a new one is definitely going to get some sympathy from electors. Spending money in big stadiums is much more visible than spending it in roads, hospitals and civil servants wages.

Then you have the particular situation of Quebec. I don’t want to turn this into a political blog, but there’s definitely a particular political situation in Quebec and Canada that is allowing this process or at least this discussion to take place. At the provincial level, it is pretty obvious that the liberals would benefit from potentially enable the Nordiques to come back to Quebec, especially if they manage to get the federal government to share the burden of an arena. At the federal level, it’s no secret that Quebec is a key province for the conservatives (although it would be a bit risky for them to grant so much money to this project, as it probably wouldn’t be very popular in other provinces, especially in the West, and it would definitely set a precedent that the federal government might regret). At the same time, you have a growing feeling in the media and the Canadian public that the NHL should get at least one more franchise in Canada (be it through relocation, which is more likely, or expansion, which seems like a long shot). Over the past few seasons, the discussion has definitely focused on a few possible locations: Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto and Quebec. With a few NHL franchises in trouble (the names vary with the years, but you’ll always find one that looks close to move), and the relative strength of the Canadian dollar and a salary cap, it looks like there’s a window of opportunity for Quebec. Of course, the League is happy with that situation. I’s perfect for the league and the owners to have a few options where you can relocate a team that’s really in trouble, or pressure other cities with.

So as much as I’d love to see a team in Quebec, I’m concerned by the pledges of the provincial and potentially of the federal government to pay for the arena. The fact that you can already hear Peladeau (the other PK) announcing that he’s not going to spend a dollar on the arena is worrying. It exactly fits the dysfunctional (in my opinion) model we’ve seen elsewhere: public risks and private benefits.

To finish, I recommend you to read a few stuff I’ve seen in La Presse yesterday (yeah I know!):  Marc Antoine Godin’s piece: “Des maisons construites avec l’argent des autres“, and an editorial by François Cardinal, “Risques publics, profits privés

But if you have a little more time (like 2 hours), I also recommend an excellent documentary about how and why the Supersonics left Seattle: Sonicsgate (you can watch it entirely on youtube). It’s obviously from a Seattle point of view, so the people of Oklahoma are not really portrayed very kindly, but it’s very interesting because I think a lot of the issues about pro sports leagues pressuring cities and states/provinces to fund arenas are very well illustrated, and there’s definitely a comparable element between hockey and basketball there.

Voilà! It’s been a while I wanted to talk about this, because franchises relocation is something I’m interested in (I think it’s one of the more baffling aspects of North American sports from a European point of view), and this discussion about Quebec was the perfect occasion. Tell me what you think now!


Posted September 11, 2010 by Grrrreg in Uncategorized

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