Look out, Saskatoon, here comes Mark Rosentraub with his tales of arena milk and honey

My apologies for not keeping you up to speed on events in Saskatoon, where the city has been considering building a new downtown arena, at a potential price tag of $375 million plus land costs, to replace the 30-year-old SaskTel Centre. That’s been going on for a few months; I mention it now because University of Michigan sports economist Mark Rosentraub is in town (in Saskatoon, I mean, not in my town or yours, unless you live in Saskatoon) to give a talk about building a new downtown arena, and how totally awesome it would be:

“Sport venues have been very, very successful,” said Mark Rosentraub, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan…

“There is no city where we have not been able to literally put something together something where the public sector gains and the private sector gains,” he told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning.

Setting aside Rosentraub’s odd syntax — it’s a transcribed radio interview, I’ll cut him some slack — you may be forgiven for wondering, What, what the hell is he on about? Isn’t this entire website a 20-year record of cities that have not been able to put together something where the public and private sectors both gain?

Rosentraub has long been an odd duck in the sports stadium world. Way back in 1997, he wrote a book called Major League Losers, which, as you can probably guess from the title, talked about private sports stadiums as bad deals for cities. Since then, though, he’s been more sunny on the prospect, noting that building venues downtown can move economic activity to the city center — true, if your only concern is where people spend their money and not how much they spend in your metro area overall. It will be left as an exercise for readers to determine whether this change of message is related to Rosentraub’s side business of working as a consultant for cities and teams that want to build downtown stadiums and arenas.

Anyway, building a new arena isn’t an inherently terrible idea, if the city will own it and get any increased revenues from it, and — crucially — if those new revenues will be enough to make it worth the $400 million-ish price tag. The only sports tenants are the minor-league junior hockey Saskatoon Blades and the National Lacrosse League team the Saskatchewan Rush, so this deal would have to pencil out based on being able to draw more concerts to town. Could Saskatoon make an extra $25-30 million a year just by offering more concession stands and restrooms? That’s the interesting and important question that needs to be asked, rather than nattering about how an arena can “anchor” an “entertainment district.” I can recommend several sports economists, or even arena managers, who could begin to address that question, if anyone in Saskatoon is interested.


23 comments on “Look out, Saskatoon, here comes Mark Rosentraub with his tales of arena milk and honey

  1. The Blades are not a minor league hockey team, but a junior team (teenagers). They would be drafted by the NHL. This past season they drew just under 4000 a game.

    http://www.hockeydb.com/nhl-attendance/att_graph.php?tmi=7897

      • Totally don’t blame you for missing this one because a lot of people here don’t even know, but we’re getting a team in the new semi-pro basketball league that’s starting up next year. But this could also be short-lived, as this will be the third semi-pro league to come to Saskatoon (all which did well locally, but the leagues crumbled) https://www.cebl.ca/teams/

        • Totally don’t blame you for missing this one because a lot of people here don’t even know, but we’re getting a team in the new semi-pro basketball league that’s starting up next year. But this could also be short-lived, as this will be the third semi-pro league to come to Saskatoon (all which did well locally, but the leagues crumbled) https://www.cebl.ca/teams/

          Also the price tag you mentioned at the top of the article is a bit misleading. That is the cost of a proposed arena combined with a large convention centre. So this would come with additional revenue sources from conventions, large events, festivals, etc. The actual proposed cost for an arena on its own is up to $177.9 million.

    • No, Bill Hunter (the guy who started the Edmonton Oilers) put together a bid to buy the Blues, but it never actually went through because the NHL blocked the sale.

  2. Build a new arena and hope for a NHL team….worked for Hamilton and Quebec City…..

    • I think he’s afraid to say that, knowing he’ll get laughed at, but he might be hoping people will think that. “Hey we almost had and NHL team in the 80s… maybe this will do the trick.” Except the greater Saskatoon metroplex only has 300,000 people. which is less than half that of the next smallest NHL city.

  3. Probably Rosentraub is hoping people will “remember” almost getting the Blues in 1981… or just that the wanna be owners of the Coyotes came up with a plan a decade ago to play five games a year in Saskatoon to help stem the horrific losses the franchise was (and still is) facing in the desert. Although maybe Rosentraub’s hopes are limited to being handed a cashable check by whomever is paying him to come to town and shill for them. Do we know who that is?

    Saskatoon didn’t “almost” get the Blues in 1980/81. They reached an agreement with the then owners (which I believe were Ralston-Purina) and then committed to build Sask Place (as it was then known) for shameless promoter Bill Hunter. This is how they ended up with a $60m (in today’s dollars) 14,000 seat arena for a WHL team that draws less than half that number of fans even in good years.

    The NHL was not then and is not now interested in Saskatoon, so they refused to approve the sale and relocation.

    Saskatoon was no closer to owning (or hosting, on a semi permanent basis) an NHL team in 1981 than I was (and remain). The league would add teams in Tucson, Vermont and Wichita Falls before they expand or relocate one to Saskatoon.

    • Well-recalled, John. The only nit: 1983, not 1981. In ’81, the Blues finished second only to the Islanders in the overall standings. It was by ’83 that Ralston-Purina wanted to sell to Batoni-Hunter in Saskatoon, and then dumped the team on the NHL after the veto. The Blues didn’t even draft in the summer of 1983. As I remind kin in the Lou: Danforth money (Ralston-Purina) controlled the Blues then, and Danforth money (son-in-law Tom Stillman) runs them now.

      • Thanks Russ. I remember seeing/hearing Wild Bill in the media during those years… forgot about the Batoni connection.

        As for Stillman, yeah, plus ca change. I wonder if the city finds it easier to give taxpayer money to the individual rather than the company?

  4. A lot of the talk has also focused on making TCU Place part of this development. Saskatoon loses out on some conventions and theatre shows because both buildings don’t have current capabilities required for todays shows (ie rigging from above, not a high enough roof). I think doing the arena WITHOUT looking seriously at incorporating a new convention centre would be misguided but I could see how a combined facility would make more sense.

    • Just for some context, the metro is a similar size to Duluth MN. Not sure the main reason they are “missing out on things” is the venue amenities.

      Even if it was partially that, why is this the city’s problem?

      • Because without being able to get shows or conventions, the surrounding area misses out on dollars coming into the community from people traveling from outside the city. These dollars create economic spin offs for the city in hotel accommodations, meals and shopping.

        • Are there seriously large numbers of people across North America who would be booking conventions in Saskatoon, if only it had a newer convention center? Or are you just suggesting that Saskatoon should build its economy around stealing spending from Moose Jaw?

        • Garth Brooks and Shania Twain have both played multi night engagements at the present arena, as have acts like Jeff Dunham (not a personal fave but to each their own…) etc.

          It’s all well and good to say Saskatoon is “missing out” on events… but name me an act bigger than those two/three who will actually come to a larger facility in a city of less than 300,000 but would not come to the current one?

          U2? The Rolling Stones? Drake? Eminem?

          As I recall, the Stones did play at old Taylor Field once… I just don’t see what it is that the city is losing by not having a larger facility.

          In the same vein as a question posed during the discussion around a 40k seat domed stadium for the Riders in Regina, exactly what will such a facility be used for that could justify the huge cost increase for a domed (and heated) structure?

          One can argue that Regina needed a new football stadium (and that it could have spent considerably less than $270m on one… Winnipeg’s cost under $200m after all). There’s just no viable argument at all that they should have spent $800m on a domed stadium.

          The fact that they didn’t opt for the more expensive option is a shocking example of good decision making in municipal/provincial govt.

          Unless people actually believe the NHL is interested in Saskatoon (and it is not), there is no legitimate reason for a larger/taller/increased capacity arena.

      • That’s a little misleading in Saskatoon’s context – the provincial population is very spread out, so people in the rural areas are used to driving several hundred kilometers to either Saskatoon or Regina for shows. Indoor shows typically go to Saskatoon because the current arena is the largest indoor one for at least 500 km in any direction, while outdoor concerts play in the CFL stadium in Regina. The realistic draw area for concerts and such is the entire province (1.1 million people). Saskatchewan also has the second highest household incomes in Canada (even with the downturn), so there is money to spend on entertainment.

        That said, I live here and have no idea why it’s the city’s problem, but that may not stop it from happening – the city just paid most of the bill for an $80 million art museum on the riverbank that may never function without subsidies, so city council isn’t afraid on spending money on their pet projects.

        • That’s a little misleading in Duluth’s context – the regional population is very spread out, so people in the rural areas from the eastern end of the UP, Northern Wisconsin, the Iron Range of MN and even Thunder Bay CA are used to driving several hundred miles/kilometers to either Duluth for shows.

          The realistic draw area for concerts and such is (1.1 million people).

          See how easy that was!

          • Duluth built a new arena a few years ago. And left the old one up next to it.

  5. “There is no city where we have not been able to literally put something together something where the public sector gains and the private sector gains,” he told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning.

    This analysis clearly doesn’t include opportunity cost. You can say a city gained an asset (one that depreciates very quickly, mind you) but that omits that any city likely could have done something more useful with that money.

    • Yes, it very much depends on your definition of “gains” doesn’t it?

      • Exactly.

        It’s basically lying by omission since the hundreds of million of dollars spent on an arena could have paid for a lot of other stuff or remained in the pockets of taxpayers.