Hamilton could tear down arena and build new one to trim 7,000 seats

It was only a decade ago that Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum was being considered as a potential relocation target for various NHL teams, or at least being used as a threat by them. The Ontario city ended up without a franchise, though, and now the 34-year-old arena — since renamed something about a bank — is being targeted for possible demolition and replacement, not because it’s too old, but because it’s too big:

The city’s general issues committee voted Wednesday to set up a steering committee, hire a project manager and look at partnering with private companies to replace the city’s largest entertainment venue with a smaller one.

The move came after city staff said Hamilton needs a “right-sized” venue to replace the former Copps Coliseum — one with about 10,000 seats rather than the 17,400 the aging arena has now…

The Bulldogs are the current main tenant, and the staff report predicts attendance at those OHL games would increase 20 to 50 per cent with a new facility. Increased revenue, staff say, would bring in $20 million over the next 30 years.

But it would cost as much as $130 million to build a new facility, the report says. And some councillors are hesitant to tackle that price tag.

Okay, so a couple of things: First off, the idea that sports teams and the cities that love them too much should be building smaller venues is an old one, and makes sense if the new sports marketing strategy is to sell fewer higher-priced tickets and charge everyone else to watch on TV at home. But that’s if you’re building new — the idea of spending $130 million just to get a new arena that is 7,000 seats smaller is pretty crazy, when you can reduce capacity at an existing building just by throwing a tarp over the upper deck.

The premise here seems to be that the Bulldogs junior hockey team — that’s under-21s — would draw enough more fans in a smaller arena to make it worth the expense, which is at best an extremely speculative notion: Yes, watching sports in a “right-sized” venue can be more pleasant, but enough so that an additional 1,000 to 2,500 people are going to turn up every night just because there’s no upper deck? (The Bulldogs currently average just under 5,000 fans a night in attendance.) And to make a $130 million investment pay off, adding even 2,500 fans apiece at 34 home games would have to spend about $100 each for the arena just to break even on increased attendance alone. (A city report projects that ensmallening the arena would also save a little under $1 million a year in maintenance costs, in which case an additional 2,500 hockey fans a night would just need to spend $90 each to make the numbers work.)

There are other possible upsides to replacing your arena — you can get more modern facilities including revenue producers like ad boards and luxury seating, you can relocate it elsewhere in your city and redevelop the old arena land, etc. — but that seems to be less of a motivation than this “the old one has 7,000 too many seats” thing. Though most likely the real motivation has more to do with the Bulldogs owner making noise about wanting a new arena, after the previous minor-league Bulldogs moved to Newfoundland and were replaced by the junior hockey franchise. So while a new Hamilton arena may not necessarily be the dumbest idea on the face of the earth, it seems only reasonable to consider it dumb until proven smart.

9 comments on “Hamilton could tear down arena and build new one to trim 7,000 seats

  1. The allusion they’re drawing is the London Knights, who moved to a new 10k seat arena and regularly sell out.

    The difference is pretty stark beyond that: The Knights have been the class of the OHL for a long time.London, while a wonderful city, is without traffic two hours from Detroit and two hours from Toronto. The Knights are the biggest sports team in a decent sized city.

    Hamilton’s an hour from Toronto and an hour and change from Buffalo. You can take a train to a Jays game after work or see an NHL game by either paying through the nose or driving to Buffalo. They have a popular CFL team and an up and coming soccer team.

    Copps is too big but, in all honestly, with the tarps it’s completely fine.

    The proposal for a new rink in the Mountain portion makes sense, that’s where most of the Bulldogs fans are.

    • The Knights also moved out of a 5,000-seat arena, not a larger one. It’s pretty self-evident that you can’t draw 9,000 fans a game to a 5,000-seat arena, but you can in a 17,000-seat one.

  2. Or how about this wild idea. If you simply must spend money, there has got to be some way a $20 or $30 million project would make the current arena a lot more interesting and exciting for 7,000 seats. Maybe make the seats bigger with tables in between and bar service? You could try all kinds of things that cost only a fraction of $130 million.

  3. I respectfully disagree that this is not the dumbest idea on the face of the earth…. well, the sports earth anyway.

    There is literally NO upside to Hamilton doing this (at least no upside for Hamilton itself). When Balsillie was looking at Copps as a temp location for the NHL team he would never own, he suggested it could be upgraded to then current NHL calibre for less than $100m (as I recall, MUCH less).

    If the jr. Bulldogs were actually a significant draw, the owner could spend a couple of million (shared 50-50 w city) in upgrades and enhancements to make the viewing experience better for the 7-9,000 fans he’d like to see regularly attending…. the idiotic notion that his landlord needs to demolish their existing 17,000 seat home and rebuild a smaller one that better suits his needs is exactly what it seems at first blush: lunacy.

    Do you suppose that if a convenience store just down the road from the coliseum advised their commercial landlord that the space was too large and to expensive to lease and that this “might” be impacting the tenants business, that the response would be anything other than “you are welcome to find yourself a smaller, cheaper and more poorly located space when your lease is up”?

  4. Has anyone heard of a curtaining system to reduce capacity? Lots of other arenas throughout the US have them installed. With the growth in Hamilton, it might be wise to put some money to upgrade the 34 year old structure set aside an annual amount so it keeps up with industry standards, and if you need full capacity for some shows, you’d have the flexibility to attract and accommodate these shows. Though if the city has a ton of money, build a new one – the new Chase Center in San Francisco – home of the Warriors just spent $1.4 billion.

  5. The dumbest idea in the sports facility realm is a mighty high bar. It would probably make more sense to renovate Copps for about $20 million than replace it for $130 million but it’s easier to get government money for the bigger projects. Politicians love them some ribbon cutting. With the federal election on Oct 21st, this would be the right time to shake the money tree hoping for some falling fruit. Things don’t always work that way up here.