Some Cities Are Waking Up About New Arenas And Stadiums

The latest news from Calgary is that negotiations have broken off. These negotiations were about the controversial “Calgary Next” project, a combined NHL-CFL arena-stadium project or at least a single project that replaces the “old” Saddledome. It’s about time. Fans and their elected politicians should not be at the mercy of fickle and arrogant sports leagues that show no loyalty to their communities and expect new facilities every few decades.

Just what is wrong with the Calgary Saddledome? It is 34 years old and with over 19,000 seats, is one of the bigger NHL arenas. It has been renovated once. Suddenly the Calgary Flames ownership and management find it abhorrent. They of course do not want to pay for a new facility themselves and have issued a vague “or else” threat to the city if they do not get their way. (Are there secret negotiations with other cities without NHL hockey underway?)

Responsible representative municipal politicians have every reason to question the Flames and the NHL before plunging money into a possible bottomless pit, especially in this day and age. All they have to do is look at the actions of the even more high and mighty, arrogant NFL to fear the consequences. That wonderful league stripped St. Louis of the Cardinals but promised the city a new team if they would build a modern stadium. St. Louis complied and the NFL was happy to shift the Los Angeles Rams there when L.A. told the league to take a hike about building a new stadium.

Two decades later after Los Angeles finally decided to build a modern stadium, the NFL treacherously allowed the Rams to depart St. Louis because of the unstated reason that Los Angeles is a much bigger market where they can make more money. So much for the new modern stadium St. Louis built that is only a mere two decades old. Now the NFL wants them to build another one. The NFL could have expanded and started the process of becoming a 40 team league which would have hurt no one, but instead decided to unnecessarily hurt loyal fans and blackmail cities into spending billions on new facilities. To make the point plainer, they stripped San Diego and Oakland too. Based on the NFL which punishes cities and their taxpayers even if they comply with their wishes, if you were a Calgary municipal official, would you trust the NHL and the Flames?

The “Calgary Next” project is highly questionable. Costs range from under one billion to nearly to nearly two billion. If the costs cannot be accurate, there is no point even considering the project. Deceitful figures could cost taxpayers millions of dollars which could be spent better elsewhere. Taxpayers and their representatives have every right to delay and question things.

If this were the New York Islanders, a franchise that played in a facility that became obsolete, especially in seating capacity, and then moved to a facility that is even smaller with obstructed seats and bad ice, I would have some sympathy. But in Calgary there has been nothing specifically stated about what is wrong with the Saddledome. If the Flames would lay out what exactly is wrong, perhaps a much cheaper renovation could be attempted. But like spoiled brats they simply complain that the Saddledome is too old at 34 years old and then threaten to blackmail the city by leaving if they don’t get their way. If hockey was not so important to Calgary and its fans, I’d say, “See ya.”

Based on this logic, the 86 year old Empire State Building should have been torn down decades ago and a new one, taller than the Freedom Tower built. If sports franchise owners are this important, what about businessmen and home owners? Over 90% of all North American cities should be torn down and rebuilt at taxpayer expense because these people are “owed” it. But set a standard age date for a facility. 25 years, a quarter of a century and then tear it down. How about building me a new home? I deserve it.

What should be questioned is the whole concept of taxpayers paying for new facilities for rich sports franchise owners. Since when is a North American sports franchise owner “owed” a facility at public expense? Compared to most people, they’ve got too much already. But supporting a team is like a drug for most fans, as bad an addiction as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Under its spell, all logic is cast aside in an effort to be the top banana.

This problem is by no means confined to Calgary or even the NHL. Besides Calgary, here are a list of other current NHL related facility problems, excluding the legitimate New York Islander mess.

Quebec City, which wants the Nordiques back and complied with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s terms and built the Videotron, which the NHL loves, only to be thwarted by the ownership factor and have a bidder whom the NHL can’t abide.

Hartford, which also wants the Whalers back and is now willing to spend $250 million to update the XL Center. But if the NHL cannot abide the 34 year old Saddledome, how can they accept a 41 year old renovated building? There has been no comment by the NHL if this renovation will be acceptable. Hartford could be spending $250 million for nothing.

Hamilton, which was a front-running city for an NHL team in the 1980s and built Copps Coliseum in the anticipation of NHL expansion only to lose its potential franchise to Ottawa in a bungled bid. The city was prepared to spend $50 million to upgrade the arena if Jim Balsille managed to pry the Coyotes from Phoenix but the NHL opposed it and Buffalo and Toronto refused to set reasonable compensation terms. Thus the two best Canadian markets, Hamilton and Quebec City, sure money makers, remain without teams.

The possible end of the Phoenix Coyotes. Here at least, common sense may be taking over. Both the NHL and the suburb of Glendale have publicly said that they want to be rid of each other. An arena, specifically built for the Coyotes that is only 13 years old is now completely unsuitable. The NHL wants a new downtown Phoenix arena built. But the Arizona legislature and local taxpayers and their representatives are not going to have much sympathy for a franchise that is abandoning a 13 year old facility that was built specifically for them at taxpayer expense and has only iced a competitive team once in its entire history. Gary Bettman’s dream of a Phoenix team may come to an end.

Ottawa, which claims that its current arena is too far away to attract sellout crowds consistently. The Senators want a new downtown arena built. This may be the only new project that gets off the ground without much controversy.

Seattle, which was the front runner, along with Las Vegas and Quebec in the last NHL expansion. But nobody can decide who will build and where a new arena can be built. And if the potential NBA owner builds the arena, will it have the same problems that the New York Islanders found in the Barclay’s Center that was built specifically for basketball?

Kansas City, which built the Sprint Center to get both an NHL and NBA franchise. But nobody trusts the Kansas City market as being suitable for big league hockey. Kansas City has hosted some NHL preseason exhibition games which were either sellouts or half full depending on who was playing. And local investors did not like the NHL’s greedy $500 million expansion fee. So the Sprint Center remains empty without a professional hockey and basketball tenant.

Milwaukee and San Francisco which are currently building new arenas for the local NBA team. But both new facilities will be far under the current NHL seating medium of over 18,000 seats and since they are being built for a basketball team, they may have the same problems as the Barclay’s Center.

It’s time for some sober second judgment. Every hockey fan wants a local NHL team with a good facility but there has to be a return to common sense first. North American professional sports have become more and more unreal, catering only for rich fans. But when every taxpayer, rich and poor is on the hook for sports facility projects, the mindless worship for professional sports has to be set aside. There is too much money being wasted right now. Some cities are waking up to it. We’ll see what plays out.


Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 4: Was Pro-American Policy The Best Choice For The NHL?

As mentioned in the previous article in this series, once American Gary Bettman was hired as Commissioner by the NHL, his main priority was to raise the stature of hockey in the United States and get a rich American television contract. He has succeeded to a limited extent. There are now more American NHL franchises; the NHL has a better American television contract than before, though nowhere as good as the other three “big 4″ North American sports; revenues are up; more young Americans are taking up the sport of hockey than ever before.

But was this the right path for the NHL to follow, cater to the United States? The NHL Board and Bettman would probably say “yes”. But there were other choices that could have been taken.

Take for example the path to the new American television contract. Bettman’s plan was to place new American franchises in unfamiliar markets to give American television at least the illusion that hockey was “America’s game” and merited a television contract on par with the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. But that meant ignoring three key American cities, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland where hockey has roots and where any new NHL franchise would be a sure money maker. He also allowed two existing American franchises that had roots in hockey, Minnesota and Hartford to be shifted elsewhere.

Would it have not been better, if the NHL had claimed its secure three new markets, and straightened out Hartford and Minnesota instead? Many of the new American teams lost and some continue to lose money, something that probably would not have happened in Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee. And more people would probably watch the NHL in these three markets and in Hartford and Minnesota on American television which would mean better ratings and possibly a better American television contract than the current one. Let the debate begin.

But that is not the only other policy. Would it not have been better to pursue a more pro-Canadian policy? Sure there has always been opposition by NHL Canadian franchise owners about sharing Canadian markets and Canadian television revenue. But should it not be Bettman’s job to reign in the Canadian owners for the good of hockey and the good of the NHL? First came the embarrassment of having to shift Atlanta back to Winnipeg. And two major Canadian markets Quebec City and Hamilton/second southern Ontario (And possibly second Montreal) still have no teams, two sure money makers whose full revenue potential are not being tapped by the NHL.

Quebec has been put into suspension because Bettman and the NHL currently cannot find a suitable owner for a franchise. Hamilton is being excluded because Bettman and the NHL Board will not force Toronto and Buffalo to set some reasonable compensation package for a new franchise in their territory like what was done in New York and Los Angeles. Two more money makers are being lost while a questionable market, Las Vegas gets a team.

And a pro-Canadian policy does not end there. NHL revenues are up but a huge percentage of the growth comes from the 7 Canadian franchises, even with a bad Canadian dollar. Putting more teams into Canada, despite the elitist and selfish opposition of the Canadian franchise owners makes sound economic sense. And it is Canadian television, not American television that is the NHL’s biggest money maker. But it is American television that is allowed to call the shots. NBC and ESPN, not TSN and CBC dictate when playoff games are played. Should it not be the person who pays for the most freight who calls the tune?

And there is a third possible policy for the NHL, an international one. Since the 1970s, the NHL has steadily become more Europeanized. The NHL has recognized the growing importance of Europe but it has hardly tapped into its full potential. And the NHL gets hurt in several ways because it will not develop its potential European markets fully.

First there is the talent problem. Neither the NHL, nor any of the “big 7″ countries have done much to turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″ or better. There are about a dozen European countries (now joined by South Korea) stuck at the notch of play (the “B-level”) just below the “big 7″ level. Raising the quality of play in these countries would increase the stature of hockey in the world. For Bettman, who recently brought back the World Cup and probably has hopes of raising its stature, the best way is to improve the quality of play of the “B-level” countries so that the World Cup is widened, more countries care about it, and its prestige grows.

He has a second good reason for improving the quality of play in the “B-level” countries. The NHL hopes to expand to becoming a 40 team league and with each expansion, the critics claim the talent level gets watered down. That would not happen if the quality of play of even a few of these “B-level” countries was improved. There would be a huge glut of new talent to draw from.

And the NHL would sell more of its merchandise in Europe and get better European television contracts if it catered more to its European fans. If American television is reluctant to recognize the importance of the NHL, go to Europe instead. If hockey means more to Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Finland than it does to the United States, those are the places to go.

And if it is the ultimate goal of the NHL to set up European divisions that compete for the Stanley Cup, why delay things? Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are just as good markets as Milwaukee, Portland, Seattle, Hamilton, and Quebec. Soccer has learned to live quite nicely without undue importance on the United States. So can the NHL.

So there was more than one policy that could have been tried when Gary Bettman became the first NHL Commissioner. Things have improved since he became the boss. But did he and the NHL choose the best policy? Let the debate begin.


Hamilton’s Bungled NHL Bid

In light about my recent article about elitism in Canada,  particularly explaining why Hamilton  does not have an NHL team,  it is appropriate to remember how Hamilton lost its best chance to get into the NHL in 1990.  Hamilton had been hungry to get into the NHL since the start of the 1980s, the heyday of NHL expansion into Canada.  The NHL and WHA had merged in 1980, bringing Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg into the league.  The next year, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary.  Of the nine major Canadian cities, only Hamilton and Ottawa did not have an NHL team.

Hamilton, located midway between the NHL franchises of Toronto and Buffalo had no problem with a fan base. In 1980, Hamilton, like Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg had a population between 500,000 and 700,000. Hamilton may have had the smallest municipal population but it had the best regional market of all six cities. A Hamilton NHL franchise could draw fans from as far east as Mississauga, as far south as Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, as far north as Owen Sound, and as far west as London. Besides the towns just named, the region included Guelph, Kitchener, Oakville, Burlington, Brantford and many other mid-size towns and cities as well.

The only stumbling blocks were an arena and ownership. In 1985, the arena problem was solved when Hamilton built the 17,000 seat Copps Coliseum. Its intention was obvious. Though it would be a money-maker hosting other events, the prime gain was to be an NHL team. Hamilton put its feet up and waited for the next NHL expansion and a suitable owner to appear.

In 1987, Hamilton got its first hockey reward. Most of the 1987 Canada Cup, including the final game would be played in Hamilton. It proved to an overwhelming success, with enthusiastic sellout crowds. Many times, the cameras would spot placards in the crowds, addressed to the NHL and President John Ziegler, to award Hamilton an NHL franchise. For that tournament, Hamilton was the center of hockey in Canada. It seemed the logical place to put a new NHL team.

In 1989, the waiting seemed to be coming to an end. The NHL planned to expand by seven teams before the year 2000. The first expansion would be in 1992 and Ziegler and the NHL Board were not adverse to putting more teams in Canada. Hamilton recruited a suitable potential owner, Tim Donut, headed by Ron Joyce. The NHL announced its terms, the most important being a $50 million expansion fee. In light of the recent $500 million expansion fee, the $50 million one in 1990 would have the same effect. In 2016, the $500 million fee would come across as an unrealistic price for an NHL team. Of the 16 potential applicants, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec would see it through to the end. In 1990, with the recent sale of the Minnesota North Stars for only $31.5 million, the $50 million fee gave off the same impression. The final payment would be due by the end of 1991 with the team to start playing in 1992.

The NHL received 11 bids from 10 cities, including both Hamilton and Ottawa. Other candidates were from Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee, St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Miami, and Houston. Many cities dropped out without even making a presentation to the NHL. Hamilton, along with St. Petersburg were supposedly the front-running cities. But the NHL rejected them along with Miami because the bidders wanted to alter the payment schedule. The NHL was adamant. Pay the way we want you to pay or you don’t get a team. They refused to consider any negotiations. Ron Joyce and the others considered this to be poor business sense and reluctantly dropped out. Thus disappeared Hamilton’s best chance to get an NHL team. Like Quebec and Las Vegas, a quarter of a century later, only fanatical Ottawa and Tampa Bay agreed to all of the NHL terms, particularly the payment schedule. And neither of them had a suitable arena built at the time.

Looking back, there were several other good reasons to put a team into Ottawa instead of Hamilton. Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary would dramatically grow in population to over 1 million residents while Hamilton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg stagnated. And like with the NHL franchise in Washington which bought some political goodwill from the American government, putting a team in Ottawa bought the NHL goodwill from the Canadian government.

In recent years, the wall of opposition to a Hamilton team has grown. Buffalo and Toronto want extensive compensation if a Hamilton or other southern Ontario team is created. There has never been a suitable formula worked out like there has been in New York and Los Angeles. Thus one of the best markets in Canada and one of the best arenas (Which the city of Hamilton is willing to renovate with ironically $50 million to a more than adequate 18,500 seats), along with Quebec City has no NHL team. Attempts to move the questionable Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton by Jim Balsille were doomed to failure.

But if Hamilton had been given a team in 1990, would Ottawa have a team now too? My guess is yes. Ottawa was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada and then there is the advantage of buying political goodwill. As would be proved, Ottawa with a proper arena and suitable owner would be a matter of time. But there should be eight Canadian franchises in the NHL right now, not seven. Hamilton was and is a perfect choice. But it lost its best chance to join the NHL again in 1990, and given the fact that the NHL caters extensively to its monopolistic Canadian franchise owners, a new Hamilton team is not even on the horizon.


Bettman’s Birthday Present To Canada: New Franchises in Quebec and Hamilton

Now that the World Cup of Hockey has come and gone, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has proclaimed that the next major project on his agenda will be the year long, official, centennial celebration of the founding of the NHL in 1917. Recently at press conferences during the World Cup in Toronto, Bettman outlined several initiatives for this coming event. These include outdoor, regular season games in Canada, most notably Toronto-Detroit in Toronto and Minnesota-Winnipeg in Winnipeg and possibly more in Montreal and Ottawa. There will also be the creation of a mobile unit traveling to communities in Canada and the United States explaining the heritage and development of the NHL. Wayne Gretzky has also been named as the NHL’s official centennial ambassador.

One thing that most fans (particularly outside Canada) do not know is that the founding of the NHL was an all-Canadian affair. The first American NHL team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the NHL until 1924. So the emphasis of the celebration will be in and about Canada.

The reason for founding the NHL was a shabby affair. The owners in the previous existing league wanted to get rid of an unsuitable Toronto franchise owner and simply dissolved their old league and started the NHL without the old Toronto franchise. One of the founding members of the NHL, from the previous league was the Quebec Bulldogs, who ironically lacked the means to compete that year in the new NHL. Quebec would play one year in the NHL before the franchise was shifted to – you guessed it – Hamilton where it would survive for a few years.

It so happens in the present day that the two areas in Canada most desiring an NHL franchise are Quebec City and some sort of second southern Ontario team (for me preferably Hamilton). That is where most of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada lies.

In spite of the myths that Bettman and the NHL are “anti-Canadian”, he actually has treated Canada very well. The real reason for Canada only having seven teams is because of the greed and opposition of Canadian franchise owners themselves who do not want to share television money or have any new Canadian franchises infringing on their territory. When Quebec and Winnipeg were threatened financially in the 1990s with high player salaries, a low Canadian dollar, and not having built modern arenas, no rich Canadian stepped forward to save the franchises. Quebec was moved to Colorado and Winnipeg to Phoenix for which Bettman received the undeserved blame.

But ever since the departure of the Nordiques and Jets, there were strong movements by the local fans to get the teams back. In Winnipeg, a pressure group called the Manitoba Mythbusters was founded, dedicated to bringing back the Jets. In Quebec, 80,000 Nordiques fans signed a petition urging the Nordiques be revived and indicated they would not object if municipal and provincial tax dollars were used to build a new, modern arena if that was necessary.

In 2010, Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them reasonable terms for rejoining the NHL (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). These included a good fan base (no problem for all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable owner. When Atlanta got into trouble, Winnipeg was ready and there was no problem turning the Thrashers into the reborn Jets with good ownership and a new arena. Quebec followed suit.

Unfortunately while the new Videotron arena was acceptable to the NHL, the potential owner, Quebecor was not. Quebecor’s majority owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a supporter of the separatist provincial party, Parti Quebecois made unacceptable racist remarks about the NHL owner of the Montreal Canadiens, Geoff Molson, thus dooming the current attempt of Quebec to return to the NHL. In public, the NHL likes to pretend that they rejected Quebec’s bid because of league conference imbalance and the low value of the Canadian dollar, but Peladeau’s remarks made Gary Bettman’s rejection of Quebec automatic.

But the story of a returned Quebec has not ended with the NHL’s rejection of the Quebecor bid. Commissioner Bettman is not going to make a tour, offer terms, tell municipal and provincial politicians to spend nearly $400 million in taxpayer money to build a new arena and then reject the city. He also wants that $500 million expansion fee. Right now behind the scenes he is probably trying to find a suitable owner for a returned Quebec Nordiques. It is strongly suspected by the author that two current events – the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins by Mario Lemieux, and the unexpected resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche – are part of Bettman’s plan to build an ownership group for a returned Nordiques fronted by suitable French Canadians.

This dovetails nicely with the centennial celebration of 2017. Bringing back one of the original founding cities of the NHL to the league would be the crowning jewel of the centennial year. There would be no better gift Bettman and the NHL could give to Canada (which is also celebrating its 150 year anniversary) than to get Quebec and its fierce rivalry with Montreal (which may have been the best in the NHL when it existed) restarted. And Quebec is a much bigger and wealthier city than it was when the Nordiques existed. A returned Quebec with a good owner in a proper NHL size arena is a sure winner, a permanent member of the NHL this time unless a disaster occurs.

But as well as Quebec, Bettman could do something about Hamilton. A second southern Ontario franchise is long overdue. In fact this author believes that the area is so good that two more teams could be added to make it just like the New York City area.

Hamilton has been kicked around enough. It was the front-running city for an NHL team back in the 1990s, after building an arena and hosting the 1987 Canada Cup Final. But the bidder, Tim Donut, made the mistake of questioning the NHL’s expansion terms and a returned Hamilton team became a returned Ottawa Senators instead. Since then it has made repeated bids for a franchise and then endured the Phoenix Coyote heartbreak.

Hamilton’s current arena seats 17,000, but the city council was willing to spend $50 million to update the arena to an NHL acceptable 18,500 if the Coyotes became their team. If the NHL can accept the 15,000 seat Winnipeg Arena, it should not have any problem accepting Hamilton.

The main stumbling block is that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres do not want another team muscling into their territory. But if New York-New York-New Jersey and Los Angeles-Anaheim and all the shared market teams of the other three professional leagues can find suitable compensation, then so can this situation.

Returned Quebec and Hamilton franchises would be a fitting climax of the 2017 NHL Centennial Celebrations. It would also get most of Commissioner Bettman’s Canadian critics off his back for at least ten years until Saskatchewan and Montreal ask for new franchises. The early NHL years saw Quebec and Hamilton teams. After 100 years it would be fitting to see them again.