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The Flames ending their arena pursuit is a political play

By Jason Herring, September 20 2017 —

Seattle is building a new hockey arena. The city’s mayor recently agreed to a $600-million privately financed arena, set to open by 2020. This couldn’t be further from what happened last week in Calgary and that’s no coincidence.

On Sept. 12, Calgary Flames CEO Ken King dropped a bombshell — the team was backing down from pursuing a new hockey arena to replace the Saddledome, the second-oldest arena in the National Hockey League. The announcement was accompanied by a thinly veiled threat from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: “Without a new building, there will be consequences that everybody’s going to have to deal with.”

In less subtle terms, the Calgary Flames could become the Seattle Metropolitans if the city doesn’t give the team what they want.

What they’re asking for is comically unreasonable. The Flames reportedly turned down an offer that would see the arena’s costs split three ways between the city, the team and ticket-buyers. The team would be responsible for paying property taxes, while the city would take care of infrastructure, land and the Saddledome’s demolition. That’s far more public money than a private enterprise deserves, but it’s still not good enough for King and company who are looking for the city to foot at least half of the bill.

Every dollar of the city’s budget that goes into subsidizing a new palace for a pro-sports team is money that’s taken away from other services. And while it’d be nice to have a new arena, it’s tough to argue that that money would be better off going to the Flames than to things like transportation infrastructure or affordable housing.

But the slimiest thing about the conduct of King and friends is its proximity to next month’s municipal election, timing that seems too perfect to be a coincidence. Though King has denied that his organization is trying to make the arena an election issue, the Flames have sent a clear message — unless you vote for a council who’s going to appease us, you may not have a team to enjoy for much longer.

This is all a game, played by millionaire businessmen who want to exploit the fragilities of municipal politicians and the hearts of hockey-loving Calgarians for their own profit. Unfortunately for them, our council has understood their role, and know that successful sports franchises don’t need massive government subsidies. It remains to be seen how the city’s hockey fans will respond. But make no mistake — for many, this will be the biggest issue of the election.

At the end of the day, chances are that the Flames’ stance is nothing more than posturing and NHL hockey isn’t leaving Calgary anytime soon. There’s a well-documented history of teams making similar threats to get arenas financed, including in Edmonton only a few years ago. But if the Flames do leave, perhaps they’re better off in Seattle, where building an arena was treated as it should have been here — as a private venture.

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