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Saskatoon’s Future: Being blackmailed by billionaires

As Saskatoon grows bigger, more and more people have talked about bringing a pro sports franchise to the city. Hockey has been dreamt about since Bill Hunter tried to bring the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon in 1984.  We saw one group try to bring the Phoenix Coyotes here for at least a couple of games a season and there has been been some talk of a CFL franchise coming to Saskatoon (even if it meant that it would kill the Riders). A pro sports franchise would be fabulous in the short term. We would sell out Credit Union Centre and cough up money for some much needed renovations and capital improvements. There may even a new stadium built downtown, where Credit Union Centre should have been built in the first place.  That is how it will start out but let me tell you how it will end.

Over the weekend, the Edmonton Oilers’ owner and senior management went to Seattle to tour the Key Arena in an effort to get the City of Edmonton to pay for an even larger part of a $500 million dollar stadium deal. After getting the city to pay for the entire stadium up front and then giving billionaire owner Darryl Katz a sweetheart loan for his portion (to be paid back over 35 years), he wants an additional $6 million subsidy to run the arena. Instead of paying back his portion back $5.5 million a year, Katz is now demanding that he gets a free half-billion dollar stadium and $500,000 a year to run it. Where do I sign up?

Katz isn’t the only owner to behave badly. For every responsible sports owner with deep ties to his community, there are numerous ones that extort their community to buy them things or as the threat goes, they will move their franchise. The threat works as there is an empty hockey stadium in Kansas City and Seattle is building a new stadium to lure back the NBA (probably the Sacramento Kings).  Hockey is an excellent second tenant to make even more money. Seeing everyone else do it, enables even local billionaires to behave badly. Katz which has deep roots to the Edmonton area and is a very profitable market with a very loyal fan base is basically blackmailing the Edmonton city council to give him the deal that he wants or he will move a team that has spent its entire existence in Edmonton to Seattle.

Now that Seattle has reached out to him (and he has reached back), expect a Kansas City visit as well.  Why not play multiple markets off each other until Edmonton City Council responds to the bullying. While it doesn’t excuse Katz’s behaviour, many other owners behave the same way. The NFL has an empty Los Angeles market where the threat of teams moving to Los Angeles has gotten it better stadium deals in almost every market where the NFL has a new stadium. It will be used for leverage in the upcoming years in Jacksonville, Miami, Oakland, and San Diego. While FedEx Field in Washington is only 15 years old and still cutting edge, owner Daniel Snyder has already declared it as “half-life” and wants a new downtown, stadium.   Instead of wanting Washington to pay for it, he is willing, if they give him a big chunk of land to develop for free.  So why does a 15 year old stadium that is the largest in the NFL need to be replaced after only 15 years? He wants to keep up with the Giants/Jets/Cowboys and maybe even the new Rider stadium.  EIther the Washington taxpayers pay for the stadium or give him premium land for his own profit.  Either way, taxpayers pay. Just watch, if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will move the team. Threats of moving teams got a new stadium built in Miami even when there isn’t a great market left to move to and this was after Jeff Loria had already proven that he is the worst owner in sports (he destroyed the Montreal Expos).

Heading back to Seattle, the Key Arena was completely renovated in 1995 and brought to NBA standards. NBA commissioner David Stern called it state of the art but less than a decade later, he was in town demanding that Seattle build the Supersonics a new team, invest another $220 million into the stadium or they would move. When the city said no, the team moved to Oklahoma and became the Thunder. In 2002, the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans because of their antiquated stadium that was built in 1988. The fans supported the team through 364 consecutive sell-outs but even that wasn’t enough to keep the team in town. The stadium didn’t make it’s 20th birthday before being demolished (it was 13 years old when Charlotte had their first referendum on building a new stadium).

This is what happens. Billionaire owners of profitable teams want more and the expectation is that taxpayers give it to them. It happens all over the place and as Saskatoon grows, it will happen here, whether it is a NHL team, a CFL team or even a AHL team; it’s great for a while and then all of us have to pay up for the right to buy tickets to watch a team. It’s a sick system and I feel bad for the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Oilers fans, and fans of sport in the city because it’s not right.

Will the same thing happen in Saskatoon?  If pro sports come to Saskatoon in a real way, of course it will.  We will tell ourselves that it won’t happen, we have local owners, and we are a growing market in a booming economy; just like Edmonton told itself when Katz bought the team.  It’s only a matter of time.

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