January 11, 2011
Considering that the Tiger-Cats' stadium situation has gone from a soap opera to a ticking-clock drama and been wrapped up in everything from railyards to elections to parks and relocation, it's appropriate that it's been resolved with a classic cinematic twist ending. Until today, the Tiger-Cats were reasonably adamant that they were leaving Hamilton for at least the suburb of Burlington, if not further. This morning, Hamilton mayor Bob Bratina—a former Tiger-Cats' broadcaster who's a member of the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame—and Tiger-Cats' owner Bob Young caught everyone by surprise with an e-mail and a press conference saying the Tiger-Cats would stay in Hamilton at a renovated Ivor Wynne Stadium (pictured above covered in snow today), an option that hadn't been publicly discussed since the very beginning of this drama.
Despite this plan coming out of the blue at the eleventh hour, there does appear to be a fair bit of sense to it. For one thing, renovating Ivor Wynne removes the costs and issues associated with purchasing land. Renovating an existing facility also requires far less process and consultation at the municipal government level than building a new one, as the neighbourhood is already used to it. There will obviously be discussion around the specific design of the stadium, Hamilton's contribution to it and what can be done to improve the issues of transit access and parking, but there are significant advantages to working with an existing facility instead of trying to create a new one. That's particularly true in a city where every proposed alternative stadium location has seen its share of detractors. Ivor Wynne may not be an ideal location itself, but it's one Tiger-Cats' fans and the general public are used to. That's an important point in its favour.
Can a renovated Ivor Wynne work for the Tiger-Cats? Well, much of that depends on the specific way it's renovated. The plan, as outlined by Emma Reilly of The Hamilton Spectator, involves demolishing and rebuilding the south side-stands and dramatically improving the north-side ones. The stadium capacity would drop from 30,000 to 25,000, which probably suggests that there would be more premium and corporate seating. That makes plenty of sense from a financial perspective, as that's where a lot of the money comes from these days (and the Tiger-Cats weren't drawing 30,000 regularly anyway; the only home game this year that was close to capacity was the Labour Day battle with Toronto).
It also doesn't sound like the Tiger-Cats will have to contribute too much to the stadium, although that's still being worked out; the team's release mentions $70 million in federal and provincial funding through the PanAm Games process and the originally-planned $45 million from the city, plus contributions from sponsors including Tim Hortons, Primus, and Molson-Coors. CP's piece pegs the total cost as only $115 million, but that seems low considering the numbers that have been discussed for other sites; a 120 to $125 million total is probably more like it, and then there are costs and lost revenue from finding temporary places to play during construction. Still, that's a lot less than Winnipeg had to contribute to their stadium, and Young said in a National Post chat that the deal will help make the team financially stable.
Speaking of those temporary places to play, that's going to be an interesting angle of this to follow. TSN initially reported that the team would play at the Rogers Centre in Toronto during construction, but Tiger-Cats' president Scott Mitchell shot that down. That option would make some sense, as the distance to Hamilton isn't that great and the Rogers Centre is equipped to handle CFL games, but it looks like the team favours other options. Drew Edwards outlines the ones they discussed at the press conference, which include playing road games all year (highly undesirable from both competitive and revenue standpoints), phased construction that would see the work done in such a way that the stadium could still be used (which would probably lengthen the construction process), temporary stands (expensive) or a temporary stadium like the one the Lions have used at Empire Field. Young also mentioned Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium (home of the Bills), which seems rather ludicrous, but it's possible that was used just to reinforce his distaste for the Rogers Centre option.
It's important to emphasize that this deal is not set in stone yet. First, Hamilton city council needs to approve it at a meeting tomorrow. Given the rapidly onrushing deadline of Feb. 1 for PanAm funding, this would seem to be their only option if they do still want to try and keep the team in Hamilton, but that doesn't come close to making it a lock. Remember that it looked like the Confederation Park plan was the last chance to keep the team, and that was shot down handily by council. There was more discussion and consultation in advance of that proposal than there was with this one, too; even if councillors were perfectly fine with the plan as outlined (and there probably will be some concerns there, including the neighbouring heritage site, parking and transit), my experience covering municipal politics would suggest they'd still be annoyed at having this presented as a fait accompli one day before a meeting without any prior notice. There seems to be some council support for this idea, and there aren't exactly a ton of solid alternatives left, but this is not a lock to be approved.
Furthermore, Hamilton council's approval is meaningless unless the PanAm Games committee signs off on it, and they've indicated before that they need comprehensive plans rather than vague outlines. If the city and Tiger-Cats can come up with a detailed plan that meets the committee's guidelines by Feb. 1, it's hard to see them rejecting it, as using funds to renovate a 25,000 seat stadium seems to make far more sense from a legacy standpoint than building a small 5,000-6,000 seat one in a different municipality. Detailed planning takes time, though, and time's a scarce resource on this project.
Even if everything goes smoothly, questions need to be asked about why it took so long to bring this idea forward. Young said the key change that allowed them to consider a renovated Ivor Wynne was the PanAm committee opting for soccer in Hamilton rather than track and field, but that happened back in July. Since then, the team shot down discussions of the West Harbour site, brought forward a Innovation Park/railyards plan that didn't go anywhere thanks to the cost, and threatened to leave town for Moncton, Quebec City and Burlington. If this really is a last-minute compromise, somebody should have thought of it sooner. If it's been considered for months, a lot of valuable time and money has been wasted exploring other sites. If everything goes according to plan, this looks like a potentially positive resolution for both the Tiger-Cats and the city, but the way they got here still isn't terribly impressive.