By Michael Sun
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, in early November, that the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames needed new arenas, it was a sign of the league’s involvement in arena politics with the thinly veiled threat of relocation.
“A new downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators,” Bettman told the Ottawa Sun.
As it happens, Senators owner Eugene Melynk and the NHL are pushing for a new downtown arena to replace the 21-year-old Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata as part of the LeBreton Flats redevelopment project. The Sens are part of a consortium currently working on the massive real estate deal with the National Capital Commission.
The situation brings up two important questions: How heavily should pro sports leagues be involved in arena politics? And should a new stadium be built with none, little or lots of taxpayers’ money?
And lurking behind those questions, don’t forget, is that ever-present threat of relocation. It’s a cruel reminder of the business aspect of professional sports.
For example, the Flames’ current arena conundrum is at a standstill, and public funding is the main issue as the team looks to move from the 34-year-old Saddledome into a proposed new venue. The last meeting between the Flames and the City of Calgary in July was deemed “spectacularly unproductive” by Flames president Ken King.
The team’s arena proposal involved the Flames paying $275 million of the $500 million arena cost with the remainder — $225 million — covered by the city.
The relocation threat is real: new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has stated he’s interested in bringing an NHL franchise to Houston. Although Bettman said the NHL is cautious about relocating teams, the possibility remains. Just look at the history: The Winnipeg Jets were relocated to Phoenix in 1996 to become today’s Arizona Coyotes. The Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011 to become today’s reborn Jets franchise.
In the past, the Hartford Whalers, the Minnesota North Stars, the Quebec Nordiques and other clubs have also moved. Relocation is typically the result of a team struggling financially and failing to reach a deal with its host city to construct a new arena.
For the City of Ottawa and Melynk, the key question should be: Is the price for keeping this pro sports team in the capital worth it? The city has proposed a list of guidelines for the LeBreton Flats negotiations, insisting Ottawa taxpayers “must be protected” to minimize the financial burden on citizens of the overall redevelopment.
The NHL sees the new arena as an opportunity to move the Senators downtown, ensure automatic sellouts and boost revenues. The Senators are currently 24th out of 30 NHL teams in attendance, averaging 15,286 per game. A recent Ottawa Citizen report noted that Melynk has lost $94 million since become the owner of the Senators, about $10 million per year.
The other question for the city is: What should be done with the old stadium if a new one is built? Mayor Jim Watson has said he doesn’t want the Canadian Tire Centre to be vacant like abandoned arenas in Edmonton and elsewhere. Viable plans for the future of the CTC must play a role in the Senators planned move downtown, according to Watson.
Time and again, the NHL has proven that politics and sports do mix, particularly when it benefits the league.
“But we never threaten communities,” Bettman insists, summing up the financial reality of professional sports leagues. “Whatever happens, happens, in the natural evolution. If a team needs a new building and can no longer survive without one and they can’t get one, then things happen.”
Things like relocation.