December 22, 2010
Yesterday, things still looked reasonably promising for a new facility in Hamilton to replace the aging Ivor Wynne Stadium (pictured above before this year’s East semi-final). The railyards site was revealed to be out of the price range everyone was considering, but there was hope that the venue could switch to Confederation Park, a site owned by the city. That dream died today, with Hamilton council voting 9-6 not to investigate the Confederation Park site. With time running out before the Pan Am Games deadline and the last prominent option withdrawn, the future of the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton is up for debate.
It is interesting that Hamilton council shot the Confederation Park plan down without even fully exploring it. The site had been proposed during the term of the last council when stadium sites were initially being considered, but was removed from the list of options to explore. City general manager of finance Rob Rossini told The Hamilton Spectator that it wasn't clear if Confederation Park was capable of hosting a stadium of this size, and it would require further study. It's possible the plan wouldn't have worked at all, but declining to examine it means we're unlikely to ever know.
However, there is a slight chance that the Confederation Park plan could be rekindled down the road. The Spectator's Emma Reilly reports that council didn't ratify today's controversial vote, which appears to have taken place at a special meeting of council rather than a regular one. They will ratify the decision at a Jan. 12 meeting to allow tempers to cool down. It seems unlikely they'd reverse course, especially that late in the game, but you never know. (As an aside, Mayor Bob Bratina's requested date for a report back from staff on Confederation Park was Jan. 10, so if they wanted to make the final decision on Jan. 12, they could have done it with a full report in hand).
There are a few other options left that involve keeping the team in Hamilton. For one, maybe the railyard plan shouldn't be completely abandoned. That site was amiable to both the team and the city, and seemed to have a lot going for it. The issue there is the price of the land, which CP has pegged as $70 to $90 million. At first glance, that seems unachievable when you consider that the project already has a $20 to $50 million funding shortage. According to The FAN 590's David Alter, though, the Tiger-Cats' current planned contribution is $10 million. There are discussions that they could throw in more, but, if Winnipeg can contribute $85 million towards their new stadium (via a provincial loan paid back over 45 years), it's at least conceivable that the Tiger-Cats could come up with a similar plan, right? If the team's contribution rose to $85 million via a loan, that would leave the initial $10 million for the stadium and $75 million for the land. It seems unlikely that would happen, especially as the team hasn't shown a lot of willingness to put their money on the table so far, but you never know.
It's also possible that the decision could be made to renovate Ivor Wynne Stadium instead of building a new facility. This might be the cheapest option, as it would apparently cost $20 million to keep it going for a few years and $90 million to modernize it fully. That plan also appears to be favoured by Councillor Sam Merulla, who led the opposition to the Confederation Park site. It's unclear how extensively you could renovate the stadium even for $90 million; I've been there, and I know firsthand that it's showing its age. Still, if it's possible to modernize it enough and add enough corporate capacity to keep the Tiger-Cats happy, and if the Pan-Am Games committee goes for it (two big ifs), that could potentially work.
Another option would be to return to the initial East Mountain compromise site, which was on land owned by the provincial government. However, Councillor Brad Clark told The Spectator he believes that land has been sold. If that's the case, the only remaining option would appear to be the West Harbour site council initially voted for. The Tiger-Cats hated that site, and owner Bob Young pulled out of talks and threatened to leave town after that vote. We'll see if they feel differently about it now the other options seem to be off the table.
The big question is if the Tiger-Cats will really leave town if all the stadium plans collapse. It's certainly possible that they could. There are other communities near Hamilton that could potentially host the team with muncipal willingness to fund a stadium, including Milton. A move to a nearby community would allow the team to retain much of its fanbase and its base of corporate sponsors while getting a more favourable stadium deal. Suburban stadiums don't always work out too well, but they don't always fail either.
A move to a different city entirely is another question. Those rumours have come up in the past, but there aren't as many good homes for CFL teams out there as you might think. Ottawa can support the CFL, but it's on track to get its own expansion team in 2012. The only markets without CFL teams that would seem to be a natural fit are Atlantic Canada (Moncton or Halifax) or Quebec City, and both have their issues. In Atlantic Canada, there are questions about population and corporate support as well as a stadium, and Quebec City brings up issues with Laval and the Alouettes' "territorial rights". Both are miles ahead of other potential CFL cities, but neither is exactly a lock.
The Tiger-Cats might be the CFL team that could move with the least issues, as the league isn't exactly abandoning the area thanks to the presence of the Argonauts, and Hamilton isn't the league's most crucial market (based off population, corporate support, and the like). In fact, Hamilton might not get a team if you were starting the CFL right now and picking eight Canadian cities to have franchises. Despite all that, I
would bet that the CFL would be very hesitant to let the Tiger-Cats move.
Keep in mind that the CFL has a lot more to lose by moving teams than most professional sports leagues. Moves like the NHL's Jets leaving Winnipeg, the NFL's Colts leaving Baltimore or the NBA's Grizzlies leaving Vancouver and their Sonics leaving Seattle produce plenty of heartbreak for the affected fans, but they don't have as large of an impact on the league as a whole thanks to the scale. It's a lot easier to write off one market of fans when you have 29 or 31 others to think of. In the CFL, you're talking about somewhere around one-eighth of your potential fanbase (not all teams are supported equally); that's a lot of people. Some of them might still support the league, and new CFL fans in the area might go over to the Argonauts, but you'd be losing a lot of numbers. It's unclear if any gains in Quebec City or Atlantic Canada could compensate for that.
The CFL also markets itself largely by its history and traditions, and having a franchise in Hamilton is a crucial part of that. The Hamilton Football Club was formed in 1869 and joined the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union in 1907 as the Tigers. The Hamilton Alerts, also around early on, brought the city its first Grey Cup in 1912 and later merged with the Tigers in 1914. The Flying Wildcats later merged with the Tigers in 1950 to form the current Tiger-Cats team. They've won eight Grey Cups since that time and been a crucial part of the CFL's history. Hamilton obviously is going to need some form of stadium deal to stick around, but the league has a strong incentive to keep them exactly where they are. Otherwise, the "This Is Our League" franchise isn't going to apply to a lot of gold-and-black clad fans.