You know what they say: you can't fight city hall.That is, unless you're a North American professional sports team, in which case you can very nearly always beat the ever-loving shit out of them.This is no doubt the mindset of Ken King and the Calgary Flames, who are currently holding their host city hostage in a bid to get them to foot most of the bill for a new sports arena. The Flames are threatening to leave town unless city council caves to their demands, and the fight has conveniently reached a fever pitch right before Calgary's upcoming municipal election.
All told, this is a pretty by-the-book powerplay for a sports franchise.Just look at Edmonton. When negotiations between Oilers owner Daryl Katz and the city over the cost of building the team a new downtown arena, Katz made a big show in 2012 of travelling to Seattle in search of a city that would appreciate the team enough to sink hundreds of millions of tax dollars into a new stadium. This brought the city back to the drawing board, and eventually they reached a deal to build a new arena—Rogers Place—in the downtown core. Concerns that it would displace a lot of the city's more marginalized people (a stone's throw from the new stadium sits the Boyle Street Community Centre, a drop-in shelter that assists nearly 10,000 people a year) quickly gave way to hopes that it would revitalize Edmonton's otherwise dead downtown. (It's too soon to say whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs, but the Oilers did make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in a decade in their first season downtown, so… fuck it, right?)
Of course, Edmonton had a lot of very specific needs (and anxieties) about downtown redevelopment that made the arena deal (or extortion, depending on who you ask) especially attractive. But there are a whole host of other reasons why sports franchises all over the continent have managed to wring subsidies out of their hosts. Keeping a sports franchise in town is a major point of civic pride and, more importantly, a major draw for fan money. And you'd be hard pressed to find any local politicians eager to wear "person who cost us The Team" while they're gunning for re-election.
But it's also worth pointing out that the economic spinoffs that come from moving heaven and earth to placate sport-loving oligarchs are often greatly exaggerated. Estimates of the long-term jobs and tourism revenue they generate are almost always overblown, and it's very easy for the cost of the public subsidies to outweigh the warm feelings of civic pride that come from your team being good at scoring sports points.If Edmonton is a local story where everything worked out okay (we think?), St. John's, Newfoundland can offer a cautionary tale in the opposite direction. It's not an NHL town, but the city went balls-in on building the Mile One stadium downtown at the turn of the millennium in order to better host the St. John's Maple Leafs, Toronto's AHL farm team. That team left for greener pastures not long after Mile One opened, and the city has be en throwing good public money after bad ever since in an effort to woo new full-time tenants who always seem to flame out after just a few years in the capital. (R.I.P. the Fog Devils and the IceCaps; we hardly knew ye.) The city has just signed a new deal to host an National Basketball League of Canada team at Mile One, which is delightful because it's an objectively better sport than hockey (editor's note: it's not), but it also needs to average 1500 spectators a game to break even or else they're back to eating a loss.(Calgary will probably not have this problem, because their city is not run by a troupe of clowns. But it's worth pointing out as a worst-case scenario.)Every city is its own microcosm, and what does or does not work in Edmonton or St. John's will be very different in Calgary. Like their league rivals in Edmonton, the Flames' owners likely have some inkling that the city has its sights on winning a bid for a future Winter Olympics. This will almost certainly require some spiffy new sports infrastructure, and the team is no doubt playing this up as much as Katz played up Deadmonton's decaying downtown.But Calgary city council surely also knows that the city is one of the best hockey markets in the NHL, and is ready to call the Flames' bluff about pulling up those stakes. It's actually admirable that the city is demonstrating for the rest of the continent that you actually can stand up to a rich kid with a sports franchise and survive. The city offered the team a three-way funding scheme that would still see them covering a third of the cost of the new arena, which is more than reasonable given everything else Calgary has on its plate. The Flames should probably just suck it up and work it out, because they probably won't get anything better than this.Or they could just leave the city and hand complete Alberta dominance to my boys up in Edmonton. Either one is good, honestly. Seattle could always use a team.Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.