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 10: New American Arenas Proclaim NHL Hockey: We’re Number 4

If you dig deep and read between the lines, the current home of the New York Islanders in Brooklyn, the Barclay’s Center provides valuable lessons about the status of NHL hockey in the United States, how to build sports arenas, and even about the future development of the NHL. And none of it is good.

To re-summarize, the New York Islanders have been treated badly since their glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their original home, the Nassau Coliseum held just over 16,000 seats at its peak. That was okay back then when the median seating for the NHL was in the 16,000-17,000 range but it is not acceptable now when the median is probably over 18,000. As the years passed, the Coliseum became the second smallest arena in the NHL ahead of only Winnipeg. The Islanders more than merited a bigger, more modern arena but nothing has ever come from it.

islanders

Eventually the Islanders moved to the Barclay’s Center which has even less seating than their old home and to make matters worse, has bad ice, and obstructive view seats for hockey. The Islanders found they could not sell out even this reduced seating venue and had the second worst attendance in the NHL last season, ahead of only Carolina. And as long as they remain in the Barclay’s Center, it is unlikely attendance will improve.

The Barclay’s Center was built for the NBA Brooklyn Nets. It was not meant to be the home for an NHL team. In fact there is talk that the arena wants the Islanders gone soon. The NHL franchise is in peril. The options are build a new arena, return to Nassau, or move to Hartford.

The NHL will always be at a disadvantage when arenas are built when compared to the NBA. Basketball seating will always be greater than hockey because more seats can be added to the floor of the arena. The Barclay’s Center provides several important lessons for building arenas. First, it is possible to build a bad arena for both sports. Second, it is possible to build an arena that is good for basketball but bad for hockey. Third, it is impossible to build an arena that is good for hockey but will be bad for basketball. And fourth, when designing and building sports arenas, the architect should think hockey first because basketball will always fall into place.

There is no problem building arenas in Canada where hockey is number one. Arenas are always built with hockey in mind. If new arenas are built in Calgary and Ottawa, these cities automatically become contenders for a new NBA franchise as well as their current NHL teams. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman paid his first visit to the new Edmonton arena, built for hockey, he was so impressed he has vowed to reward the city with an All Star Game and to be the host of the NHL draft.

edmonton

If only there was the same attitude in the United States. The new Detroit arena that will open next season will be satisfactory for the Red Wings. And the new Las Vegas franchise had its arena designed for the Knights. But in the United States, that’s as far as it goes.

San Francisco

Right now there are two new arenas being built in Milwaukee and San Francisco and they only have the NBA in mind. The new arenas have been designed for basketball which could make any new NHL expansion team face the same problems the New York Islanders have. The new San Francisco arena will have approximately 18,000 seats, meaning a new NHL franchise will have seating well below the NHL median. The new Milwaukee arena will only have 17,500 seats for basketball which translated to the NHL could make it the third smallest arena in the league.

Milwaukee

It is clear when American arenas are built in this manner, what the status of hockey in the United States is. And with the NHL folding the Atlanta Thrashers and the potential debacle in Phoenix, the American environment is not conducive to building hockey-friendly facilities. The NHL wants to stay in Phoenix but pulling out of an arena that is only 13 years old and was built specifically for the inglorious Coyotes is not going to induce the locals to build yet another new arena in the Phoenix area. And if they did, they would more inclined to reward the NBA Suns, not the Coyotes.

Another potential mess is Seattle. They were the front runner for an NHL franchise in the recent expansion, but lost out when they could not resolve their arena issue. How would a new Seattle arena be built? Most of the talk has been about getting back the Supersonics. Almost all the talk has been about a new NBA owner being the owner of a new arena with an NHL team as tenants. Would a new Seattle arena be suitable for hockey under this arrangement?

Seattle

Commissioner Bettman listed the arena as being one of the three most important factors to be considered when offering terms to Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford to return to the NHL. If arenas in the United States are going to be built to accommodate the NBA first, it also brings into question the future development of the NHL. Under Bettman, the NHL has followed a pro-American path, with expansion and relocation mostly in the United States, mainly to get a good American television contract. But NHL hockey cannot grow in the United States if new arenas are built like the Barclay’s Center. Bad new hockey arenas could mean that the growth of the NHL in the United States is at a dead end.

Would that mean a significant change in direction in NHL policy? Expanding the NHL in Canada or starting a new branch in Europe? Right now the future of the Arizona Coyotes and New York Islanders are unresolved. And the NHL wants to expand to at least 32 teams in balanced conferences so that it can realign. The arena problem is tangled up in these issues. Certainly the Barclay’s Center and the new arenas in Milwaukee and San Francisco confirm that in the chase for status in the United States, in a four league race, the NHL is in fourth place.