55 Yard Line - CFL

Despite CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's repeated comments last week (first to several Saskatchewan players and myself at Thursday's breakfast, then to a wider crowd at his state of the league address Friday) that the Winnipeg stadium mess was settled and would see an official announcement this week, nothing appears to have happened on the quest to replace Canad Inns Stadium (pictured above) yet. Gary Lawless of The Winnipeg Free Press, who's been doing a tremendous job on their stadium coverage all year, has an excellent column detailing where things are at. The whole thing is well worth a read. Here's the key part, which certainly doesn't bode well for those who want to see a new stadium in Winnipeg:

The silence Winnipeggers are hearing on the stadium issue is the sound of friends staring at the bill after a very expensive dinner.

No one wants to pick up the cheque and they're all quietly waiting each other out, hoping someone will reach down and grab it first.

Don't be surprised if the restaurant lights get turned out before someone flinches.

A failed stadium project would please at least one group, though. The increasingly inaccurately named Canadian Taxpayers Federation (who seem to represent only a very small chunk of those who actually pay taxes; to quote a certain peasant, I didn't vote for them!) is on the warpath again, and they've got the CFL in their sights. They take specific issue with some of the government funding that went towards Touchdown Atlantic, as well as the proposed stadium project in Regina and the CFL's recent request for government money for a coast-to-coast festival to celebrate the 100th Grey Cup in 2012. Unsurprisingly, they're citing expensive studies that say exactly what they want to hear about funding for sports. Fortunately, what they want isn't necessarily what they get. They don't specifically mention Winnipeg, but do complain about funding for professional sports in general, so it's not difficult to conclude that they'd like that project to go down in flames as well:

The taxpayers federation also cited research from the C.D. Howe Institute that showed government subsidies to sports and cultural activities provide minimal economic benefits, if any.

It applauded the federal government's recent refusal to provide $1 billion to support Edmonton's bid for Expo 2017, and said that should be the position it takes on funding requests for professional sports.

Obviously, any sort of stadium funding by any level of government is going to be a controversial issue, and it's one that certainly can be debated. There are plenty of points you can make on both sides, but the key element is recognizing it's an issue with more shades of grey than the CTF would like to admit exist. For one thing, there's a substantial difference between funding NHL arenas (like the recent controversy over one in Quebec City) and CFL stadiums.

CFL stadiums aren't just about football, as they have the potential to be used for a wide variety of amateur, collegiate, community and international events. For example, Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium is primarily used by the Eskimos and hosted last week's Grey Cup , but it's also played host to everything from FIFA's U-19 women's world championships to the U-20 World Cup to the IAAF track and field world championships and rugby's Churchill Cup. Calgary's McMahon Stadium hosted last year's Grey Cup and is the Stampeders' regular home field, but the Vanier Cup runner-up University of Calgary Dinos also play there (the university actually owns the stadium), as do the junior football Calgary Colts. The newly renovated B.C. Place will be used for MLS soccer, the Vanier Cup and plenty of convention and trade shows as well as just the Lions, and the proposed new stadium for Hamilton is being built to host the 2015 Pan-Am games as well as the Tiger-Cats.

That doesn't necessarily mean that governments should just throw money at any stadium project, but it is important to recognize that CFL facilities are used for much more than the CFL. It's also possible to have them used by more people given the limited demands of football (generally one game every two weeks, and many teams have separate practice facilities). By contrast, the NHL has a much longer season with 41 home dates, and its arenas often don't receive as much community use.

It's also worth pointing out that not all professional sports leagues are on the same playing field, and not all professional sports teams are printing money. According to Forbes' most recent rankings, Canada's NHL teams have franchise values ranging from $505 million (Toronto Maple Leafs) to $183 million (Edmonton Oilers). By contrast, no one knows exactly how much David Braley paid for the Toronto Argonauts, but David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski were apparently asking for $12-15 million (which seems high, considering that the franchise only cost $2 million to buy a few years ago and Braley paid half of that).

Still, even if you took $15 million as gospel and bumped it up a few more million for a team that's actually making money like Saskatchewan, you'd still have a CFL franchise that's worth about one-tenth of Canada's least valuable NHL team (and about one-twenty-eighth of its most valuable NHL team). The CFL is on great economic footing at the moment compared to where it's been in the past, but this is not a league that's rolling in dough. The CTF's attempt to compare CFL stadium funding to NHL stadium funding is disingenuous; as George Orwell might remark, "All professional sports franchises are equal, but some franchises are more equal than others."

Finally, keep in mind that the costs reported for these stadiums often don't tell the whole story. Former city councillor Mike O'Shaughnessy nailed that in an excellent Free Press column published today, detailing just how good the original funding deal was for the city:

The original deal was a sweetheart for the city.

Under it, Asper paid the majority of the costs and was responsible for all cost overruns. The federal government paid $20 million, in the form of a grant to the U of M.

The province paid $15 million as a grant to the U of M and also put most of the cash up front, to be repaid by Asper with proceeds from an upscale shopping mall he proposed for the former stadium site. 

The Bombers were also on the hook for $15 million, although no one has ever seen their cash. Over the past 30 or more years they have only been seen with their hands out begging from government.

The city was on the hook for $2.5 million -- period.

As O'Shaughnessy goes on to discuss, even those costs weren't really what they seemed. The federal contribution would be recouped in the GST on materials and services and the income taxes on the workers involved, while the provincial contribution would be repaid through PST and the school portion of property taxes, the city would get their money back from property taxes, the team and the university would both get substantially upgraded facilities without major investments, and even Asper would have recouped his contribution by developing a new mall on the old stadium site.

O'Shaughnessy points out that the collapse of that deal could leave governments on the hook for more under a new agreement, which is troubling, but the important takeaway from that column is that the numbers presented along with these projects aren't always complete (and often, governments really aren't shelling out as much as it might seem). Also, keep in mind that it's tough to host a Grey Cup without a decent stadium, and I don't think you'll find too many Edmonton merchants complaining about the CFL after the influx of business it brought them last week.

This isn't a call for governments to just go out and subsidize every proposed CFL stadium across the board with no thought or investigation, though. Each stadium situation is quite different and needs to be evaluated independently, and that's a reality that has to be recognized. However, the CTF's approach is disingenuous on plenty of levels. They're claiming to represent taxpayers across the country, but unlike governments, they aren't actually elected by a majority of taxpayers. They're spending money on research that parrots the conclusions they've already come to, which generally involve complaining about excessive spending. (It might be fun to develop a CTF version of MadLibs, which could go along the lines of "Canadians are upset the government is spending money on ______, which expensive research proves isn't any good.") They're treating all professional sports and all stadium and event funding proposals as equal, which a simple look at financial data shows is a ridiculous approach.

Federal, provincial and municipal governments need to be careful how they approach stadium projects, and they need to make sure that they're fairly representing their constituents and providing something that will actually benefit the community. However, they don't need to adopt the CTF's "all stadium funding is equally bad" stance. If they want to see what people think, how about holding public houses or surveying constituents? To me, that would make more sense than listening to a self-appointed "watchdog" organization. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Related Articles

55 Yard Line

Add to My Yahoo RSS

Blog Roll