December 29, 2010
Today brings another twist in the long-running soap opera of the Tiger-Cats, thanks to a front-page article in Moncton's Times And Transcript about the Hamilton stadium mess and Moncton officials' apparent interest in perhaps catching the Tiger-Cats if they do decide to move. There have been some brief discussions of possibly moving the team to another area entirely before, particularly after the Confederation Park plan collapsed, but this is one of the first serious displays of interest from local officials outside Ontario. There also is significant support for the CFL in the Maritimes, as demonstrated by the success of events like this year's Touchdown Atlantic game (pictured above). However, moving to Moncton could be disastrous for both the Tiger-Cats and the CFL as a whole. Here are five reasons why this plan isn't a good idea for anyone.
1. Relocation outside a market is the worst move from a league perspective.
That is a bit of a blanket statement, but I think it can be demonstrated to be true. There are three possible benefits from relocation, as I see it: opening up a new market for a league, increasing a team's attendance/corporate sponsorship, or giving a team a new stadium. There are many more negatives, including destroying an existing market (usually more significant than opening up the new one; more fans tend to care about a league in cities that have never had a team than cities where a team has left), hurting traditional rivalries, abandoning history and damaging the league's image.
Furthermore, all of those benefits can usually be achieved without the doomsday option of relocation. New markets can be tapped with expansion teams (which bring in revenue for the league through franchise fees and don't sacrifice existing markets or fanbases), there are ways to increase attendance and corporate sponsorship in any market, and deals can be done to get new stadiums either in your initial city or a surrounding suburb. Relocation to a suburb often isn't a great solution, but it can provide a way to get a new stadium without abandoning your fans, and if done in a location accessible from your main city (as the Aldershot plan would be), it's a far better solution than leaving the city entirely. Relocation outside a market is much like the old nuclear brinksmanship during the Cold War; it's much more effective as a threat than an actual weapon, because it does plenty of damage to your own cause as well.
2. Relocation for a stadium is the worst kind of relocation.
A franchise moving to another city because it doesn't have the necessary attendance or corporate support in a market to remain financially viable is still extremely damaging to a league. However, it's far better than a team that leaves a promising market solely because of stadium issues. For an example, compare and contrast the departures of the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies and Seattle SuperSonics.
The Grizzlies left in 2001 after several years of declining attendance, largely fueled by their awful on-court performance. There's still plenty of debate around that move; many of us are convinced the team could have made a go of it if the league had done their expansion draft in a way that let the team get more talent. If the team had developed a better on-court product and/or been a bit more patient waiting for success, they might still be in Vancouver today. Even NBA commissioner David Stern has admitted that abandoning Vancouver so early may have been a mistake. However, it's true that the team was having substantial financial struggles and attendance issues when they left, and while they were mourned by basketball fans in the Vancouver area, there wasn't anywhere near as much uproar around the move as there was in the Seattle situation.
The Seattle relocation was much worse. It wasn't largely based around attendance or corporate support, as Seattle had long been one of the NBA's stronger franchises, but rather a group of owners who apparently bought the team with the intention of moving it from the start. The pretense that allowed them to do so after a lengthy trial was based on arena issues, and some of those were certainly present. However, there was no shortage of opposition to the move from fans, local and national writers, and that opposition remains strong years after the fact, as shown through the success of efforts like the Sonicsgate documentary. The team's doing fine in Oklahoma City, and that's proving to be a solid NBA market, but the league could have expanded there or relocated a different team with more attendance issues. By choosing to not do so and move a team over stadium issues, they created one of the largest black eyes in NBA history and one that remains poignant to this day. It's very easy to envision the Tiger-Cats' move to Moncton proceeding along similar lines.
3. The Hamilton market is important for the CFL.
This is a matter of degree, as the CFL could probably handle losing Hamilton easier than losing any other team thanks to the proximity of the Argonauts. There isn't a lot of geography that would suddenly be uncovered. (Whether Hamilton fans would support a Toronto team is another question, but it's one that would probably see its answer change over time). However, having a franchise in Hamilton does provide substantial benefits for the league.
The CFL is the only major professional league with two franchises around Toronto, and that's important. Toronto, Hamilton and the surrounding cities have a tremendous amount of people, and you're going to draw more of that market with two franchises than you are with just one. Hamilton also has the potential to pull in fans from all the surrounding cities west of Toronto who might not want to make the trek all the way downtown to watch the Argonauts. The Tiger-Cats also have a tremendous history and a great rivalry with the Argonauts; losing that would also hurt the CFL, which uses tradition, history and rivalries as major marketing points.
4. Relocation causes severe short-term issues.
Moving a professional sports franchise from one market to another isn't a particularly easy task. For one thing, there are all sorts of contracts that come into it, new ones that have to be negotiated and old ones that have to be broken. There are stadium issues that come into play as well; Moncton's proved it can host a single CFL game without significant problems, but its stadium would need some considerable upgrades to be able to host a team for an entire season. Those upgrades require time and money.
There are still plenty of negotiations to be done around the possibilities of stadiums in Burlington, Hamilton or other surrounding municipalities, so even if the Tiger-Cats decided to move to Moncton at the end of those, they probably wouldn't make that decision for months. Once they make that decision, it's got to be approved by the league, and that also takes time. It's highly unlikely that the Tiger-Cats would be in Moncton at the start of the 2011 season, and that probably means that they'd have to play at least part of a lame-duck season in Hamilton. Those seasons can be the worst thing possible for a team; few fans or companies are interested in supporting a team that's clearly on its way out.
5. The CFL is less able to afford a relocation than any other professional league.
This league is a bit of an anomaly in our current world of professional sports, as it's largely been in the same form since it was formed in 1958. Eight of the nine initial teams remain in the league in their original locations, and the ninth (Ottawa) is set to return in a few years. There have been ups and downs, particularly in Montreal (where the Alouettes folded, the replacement Concordes folded and the current Alouettes returned from Baltimore), and the American expansion era drastically altered the league, but the current CFL is basically the original one. Most of the teams date back even further to the amateur and semi-pro days of Canadian football. The CFL sells itself as a unique, distinctively Canadian league (remember "Our Balls Are Bigger"?), and a large part of that identity comes from the history of the league, its franchises and its trophy.
The current "This Is Our League" CFL marketing efforts carry on that approach, and the league largely tries to sell its game as a family-friendly history-rooted sport, not the big-business model favoured by the NFL or the NBA. Allowing an iconic franchise like the Tiger-Cats to move across the country would drastically damage that brand, particularly as their issues are centred around a stadium rather than the financial/attendance/mismangement issues that brought Ottawa under. The Tiger-Cats do need a new (or renovated stadium), and Moncton can probably eventually play host to a CFL franchise, but any attempt to kill both birds with one stone would probably see the rock bounce off one and come back to hit the league in the face. A new or renovated Hamilton stadium or an in-market relocation, along with an eventual expansion franchise in Moncton, would be a much better idea, and one much less likely to cause serious long-term damage to the CFL.