When A Threat Is Not A Threat Even Though It's A Threat
We should probably be grateful. In the past two weeks we’ve seen governments at every level in Canada refuse to check their spending, driving deficits into the economic stratosphere.
Then along comes the economically challenged city of Calgary to so NO! to an expensive proposition to build an arena/ stadium/ field house complex that would revive the city’s west end. Mayor Naheed Nenshi wants little to do with using public funds to help the billionaire owners of the Calgary Flames get a state-of-the-art complex— and the likely profits that will flow from it.
Explaining his own Plan B, Nenshi said 99.9 percent fo the people he speaks to agree with him. Businessman W. Brett Wilson, he of Dragon’s Den fame, told The Full Count With Bruce Dowbiggin that the mayor was wildly exaggerating the support for his position.
The actual response to Nenshi’s fiscal prudence has been mixed. Many taxpayers support the discipline of city council not to pour hundreds of millions into the project. Others point to how Calgary’s sister city to the north in Edmonton somehow got a brand spanking new arena/ downtown complex this year using limited public funds.
But none of that prepared anyone for the Flames version of “Threatening you? Me? I’d never threaten you”’ The team’s president Ken King casually remarked to a Toronto radio station that, if the team can’t get a new arena and the revenues from it, the club might decamp from southern Alberta to a place that would open the vault for their desired arena.
The precise wording was that, if the Flames could not get a proper new arena with public funding, they might “just move”. Not for nothing is King a disciple of the Donald Trump Charm School.
For reasons having to do with no one in Calgary listens to said Toronto station, it took a few days for the story to percolate into southern Alberta. But when it did, the beaming visage of Mr. King over a headline declaring that the teams’ billionaire owners would snub the city they’ve called home since 1980 was everywhere.
So were stories both locally and nationally about how sports owners hold communities to ransom so they can get a new building. As the Calgary owners know all too well, public/ private collaborations in the past have worked very well for the private elements and very poorly for the public elements of the deal. Think Skydome/ Big Owe.
Then there was the timing of this remark. Calgary is not the city it was in 1988 or 2002. Or even 2014. The oil crash has left it reeling and vulnerable.The Flames are the very fabric of the community. The last time Flames owners threatened to move the team (in 2002), the community rallied to prevent them from leaving. This is a drama Calgary has seen before. It doesn’t need it again— especially now.
Over the weekend the Flames apparently began to sense that maybe Mr. King had been a little bit imprecise. He began appearing on Flames radio and TV broadcasts trying to explain that saying a team would “just move” was a statement of fact, not a threat. (His boss, Flames co-owner Murray Edwards was fond of saying his threats were not threats when he ripped the NHL Players Association in the last labour dispute.)
When that did nothing to ease the pressure, Mr. King issued a press release. We quote: “In response to a question, are you going to use the threat of moving as a tactic, I said we would not. I also said we would "just move." The facts are we need a solution and if it is deemed that there is no made in Calgary solution we will have to make a decision at that time, which logically could include deciding to move the team. It is merely one out of a few possible outcomes if we are unable to reach a deal with the City that will work for both sides.”
At this point it’s probably best if Mr. King stops digging if he want the hole he’s in to get smaller. The Flames’ implicit threat to abandon Calgary (backed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) for a sweet market like Seattle is transparently threatening. At every step (King was promising a new arena in 2005) the club has had a tin ear over this project. For which they’ve been richly played by the Calgary mayor in his quest to be re-elected.
A few facts: The Flames arena, the Saddledome, is now (with the closing of Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena) the oldest arena in the NHL. It’s out of date as a modern sports venue and incapable of handling the large concert tours crossing the continent. It was built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, and the team's owners have been talking about replacing since the early 2000s.
To compete in a smaller market, the Flames need to maximize their revenues. The Saddledome does not accomplish that. As well, the Flames own the CFL Stampeders now, and McMahon stadium, built in 1960, is second oldest facility in that league. Clearly, they need an upgrade as well.
So how to square the circle? Calgary’s city council, like just about every level of government in the country, is strapped. While Ontario’s premier may kick debt down the road another generation, most responsible politicians— particularly those who can’t print money— are cautious about taking on financial obligations they can’t reasonably afford.
From Flames ownership’s point of view, their well-heeled owners are offering to partner with the city in redeveloping an otherwise lacklustre part of the inner city. Yes, they want public funds, but they say that the city will benefit in many financial and intangible ways from getting a project such as the arena/ stadium/ field house. They see that Edmonton made a deal work, and think Nenshi is being intransigent.
The club needs to assure taxpayers that this time can be different. The city, meanwhile, needs to recognize that, whatever the resources of Flames ownership, they can be catalysts in improving the emotional capital of the city at a time when it needs both a pat on the back and jobs.
There is a path here. After the events of the past week, removing Mr. King from the process is probably the first step in that journey.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)