Flames president threatens to move team to Quebec without new arena, CEO says, “Who, us?”

Traditionally, sports team owners love move threats, because they scare the bejeezus out of city officials, but hate actually making them themselves, because they get fans (and potentially those same city officials) really mad at you as a carpetbagger and possibly make it harder to sell tickets once you get the new stadium or arena or renovations or whatever you were trying to shake loose with the threat. It’s a big reason why sports commissioners exist, to go around dropping relocation threats so that owners don’t have to.

The Calgary Flames owners already tried that gambit, and it didn’t go too well. Now, they seem to have hit upon, inadvertently or not, a new tactic: Have one of your team execs make the threat, then disavow all knowledge of anything he said.

And:

At the end of the luncheon Burke was pushed on whether the Calgary Flames have any options other than staying in Calgary.

“You don’t think we could find a place to go? Let’s see, Quebec. They have a new building that meets NHL standards.”

Burke is the Flames’ president of hockey operations, and has previously been dispatched to disparage the team’s current arena in the middle of a nine-season sellout streak (“the finest state-of-the-art 1988 building in the league”), among other tasks. (He’s also memorable for saying of hockey labor talks when he worked for the Toronro Maple Leafs, “My theory is, make the first meeting as short and unpleasant as possible. Sometimes it’s better to just punch the guy in the face.”) So he’s totally the guy you want out there demanding that the city revive the $1.2 billion stadium-plus-arena subsidy plan that it previously declared dead, then threatening to move the team to Quebec City if you don’t get it — and best of all, since he’s just a flunky, when the media freaks out you can just do this:

Ken King, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation President and CEO made a statement hours after the luncheon that indicated Burke did not speak on behalf of his organization:

“Brian Burke runs Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames and he and many Calgarians have strong views about this topic. However, he is not our spokesperson regarding a new events centre for our city. We remain committed to our dialogue with the City and very optimistic we will get to a positive conclusion. We admire everyone’s enthusiasm on this subject.”

Now that’s some weapons-grade plausible deniability right there. No idea whether Burke ran his mouth off without permission and King (who still isn’t the team owner, mind you, but speaks more directly for the oil barons who actually own the team) slapped him down, or if this whole two-step was part of the plan from the start, but either way, well played, Flames management team! (Except that Quebec probably wasn’t the best threat location to pick, given that the owner of that arena would want to own any NHL team that played in it, but hey, you can’t have everything.)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, meanwhile, refused to take the bait, as usual:

“We will continue ignoring all of this stuff in the media and trying to come up with a deal that makes sense for Calgarians, that makes sense for taxpayers and makes sense for the team,” Nenshi said.

Makes sense for taxpayers and makes sense for the team is usually a tough nut to crack, which is largely why the Flames still play in an arena built in 1983, which omigod that was more than 30 years ago, had they even invented ice then? We’ll have to wait and see whether Burke’s outburst has any lasting ripples in either the media or the city council, but for now, let’s just enjoy it for the perfect performance art that it is.

New Calgary report: Lookit, a parking lot, maybe somebody could build a Flames arena there?

The Calgary city council was presented with a new city report on the “Plan B” option for a new Calgary Flames arena just north of the Saddledome yesterday, and, um:

The report doesn’t include renderings, or information about cost or funding, and city administration refused to answer questions about the report ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Also:

The new centre, for which there are no plans yet, would include an NHL-level arena along with other “ancillary services” that are yet to be determined, the report says.

“Preliminary site planning and architectural investigations have determined that there is sufficient site area for an event centre with the same specifications and details as the event centre included as part of the CalgaryNEXT design,” the report said.

So basically, this report says, hey, there’s a big empty parking lot near the Flames’ old arena, bet you could fit an arena there. That’s nice and all, but wake me when somebody actually has some idea what it would cost or who would pay for it. Meanwhile, here are some Flames fans debating the new site. (Don’t click the link for the report, it’s broken.)

Flames CEO threatens to move team, denies he’s threatening to move team, universe explodes

Almost 20 years ago, Joanna Cagan and I coined the term “non-threat threat” for the common practice of sports team owners warning that their teams would leave without a new stadium, while simultaneously saying that that was the last thing they wanted. (We could have gone with the “paratrooper gambit,” but in the days before hotlinking we weren’t sure everyone would get the reference.) But until now I’d never seen a team owner actually levy a move threat while explicitly claiming he wasn’t making a move threat — until now:

“There would be no threat to move, we would just move, and it would be over. And I’m trying my level best to make sure that day never comes, frankly,” [Calgary Flames CEO Ken] King said during an interview on Sportsnet Fan 590 in Toronto on Wednesday.

So I sort of know what he’s saying — “There won’t be any warning, we’ll just be gone, boom” — except that saying that on the radio is actually pretty much the definition of a threat. That last bit about “trying my level best to make sure that day never comes,” meanwhile, is straight out of the Vercotti brothers playbook, or concern trolling if you prefer.

The goal of this non-threat threat, of course, is to shift the terms of the Calgary Flames arena debate, from “Why should the city give your team $1.2 billion?” to “How are we going to keep the team in town?” (The timing, coming two days after Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi declared the Flames owners’ previous arena plan “dead,” was surely not coincidental.) And with that “hey, we don’t want to move” element, King simultaneously gets to introduce plausible deniability, which both keeps fans from descending with torches and pitchforks and also sidesteps any questions about exactly where the team is threatening to move to — since it’s not really a threat, see?

Whether this is a real non-threat or a fake one, though, depends on exactly that: What other options do the Flames owners have? The team currently sits smack in the middle of the NHL as far as team valuation, according to Forbes, and turns about a $20 million a year profit. Would oil sands tycoon N. Murray Edwards and his fellow owners really move the team to, say, Seattle (if that city built a new arena) or Quebec (which would require selling the team to local owners there) in hopes that it would catapult them into the upper tier of NHL franchises? It’s not impossible, but it also doesn’t seem very likely, compared to the more plausible interpretation that King is just dropping idle threats (sorry, sorry, non-threats) in order to panic Calgary fans and elected officials into not caring about that $1.2 billion.

And so how’s that panic going, anyway? Mayor Nenshi seemed unperturbed, or feigned unperturbation at least:

“The owners of the Calgary Flames have repeatedly assured Calgarians that they would not threaten to move the team, and I assume that they have not shifted from that position,” Nenshi said. “I plan to enjoy the playoff run while letting the conversations continue.”

The Calgary Herald, meanwhile, scoured social media to find that some people are made at Nenshi (“nenshi do u work as much as u tweet???if flames leaves calgary,you should leave yyc”) while some are mad at King (“If this is such a great idea, then why don’t these well-off business people pool their resources and build one?“), which should surprise no one who’s ever been on social media. (No reports yet on whether the threat has moved the poll numbers on an arena subsidy plan.)

Over the weekend, King tried to clarify things, or at least forestall some pitchforks, by issuing a statement on the Flames website that read in part:

In response to a question, are you going to use the threat of moving as a tactic, I said we would not. I also said we would “just move.” The facts are we need a solution and if it is deemed that there is no made in Calgary solution we will have to make a decision at that time, which logically could include deciding to move the team. It is merely one out of a few possible outcomes if we are unable to reach a deal with the City that will work for both sides.

To which one Flames fan replied on Twitter:

Yep, that about sums it up. Though if it ends up working as a savvy negotiation tactic, King will surely be able to live with the Twitter ridicule.

Calgary mayor sticks fork in Flames-Stampeders combined stadium-arena plan

It’s always best not to assign too much significance to the exact wording of off-the-cuff remarks, and the CalgaryNEXT stadiarena plan for the Calgary Flames and Stampeders has been pretty much dead since it was revealed last April that the public cost would be at least $1.2 billion, and the city council could still overrule him, and declaring one plan dead isn’t the same as declaring all plans dead. Still! Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi actually using the word “dead” — as in, “the thing about a new arena project, and I’ll use those terms because CalgaryNEXT, the West Village project, is dead” — is a pretty good sign that the Chest Protector Dome is, in fact, dead. Time to move on to Plan B, of which nobody actually has a clear one, but it sounds a lot more polite than “lump it.”

The more interesting statement by Nenshi came after the “dead” thing, actually:

“But, the thing about a new arena project is that our first criteria has always been public money for public benefit, so it really is up to the Calgary Sports and Entertainment (Corp.) to figure out what the public benefit is,” the mayor continued.

Again, that’s nothing new from Nenshi, who’s consistently said he won’t approve any plan without a clear public benefit. But it’s also a bit of a thrown gauntlet: You want money for a new arena, first show me why I should build you one. This is an eminently reasonable way to approach subsidy demands, whether from a hockey team or an auto plant, and provides an even better reason to consider making the great leap northward.

Bettman to Calgary: New arenas are shiny, c’mon and give Flames tax money for one already

Look out, Calgary! NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has come to talk at you about why you should build the Flameswealthy oil-executive owners a new arena whether you want to or not:

“I actually spent an hour this afternoon with the mayor. We had a very cordial, open, candid conversation,” Bettman said. “I’m hopeful that the city and the Flames can be on the same page so this can move forward as quickly as possible.”

And what message did Bettman bring to Mayor Naheed Nenshi? If you had “I will not be shackled to a rusty girder,” you win the pool:

Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome is an “old, antiquated, inefficient building” that “doesn’t hold a candle to what has been done in new arenas,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after touring the facility Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters ahead of Wednesday’s game between the Flames and Boston Bruins, Bettman repeated his comments from a day earlier, when he said the city is in need of a new arena.

“In terms of amenities, in terms of facilities, in terms of egress and the like, for all the events that go here, this building was built in the 1980s, they don’t build buildings like this anymore,” he said. “It’s a grand old building, it’s got a great roofline, it’s historic in many ways, but … these aren’t the facilities our hockey teams typically have.”

And for good measure, he dropped in the “arenas cause unspecified good economic things” argument:

“I’m not sure that people that focus on the deal in the appropriate way would say no taxpayer money,” said Bettman. “If in fact, a new project with development creates new revenues and new taxes that didn’t exist before, reinvesting it in the city, reinvesting it infrastructure, reinvesting it in quality of life, seems to make a lot of sense to me.”

Whether it makes sense to Nenshi — who has shown an admirable dedication to actually doing the math on a Flames arena project to see if it would work for the city — is going to be another story. But Bettman got his message, or the Flames owners’ message if you prefer, across in the media, and that’s what this game is all about at the moment. At least until the CBC website starts up an Actually Doing The Math section.

Calgary residents split on $1B-plus subsidy plan for Flames and Stampeders venues

There’s a new poll out of what Calgary resident think of the CalgaryNEXT plan to build a new combined arena-stadium venue for the Flames and Stampeders, and it looks like this:

  • 19% strongly support the CalgaryNEXT project

  • 21% somewhat support CalgaryNEXT

  • 15% somewhat oppose CalgaryNEXT

  • 25% strongly oppose CalgaryNEXT

  • 20% unsure

That’s close to an even split, though the opponents feel more strongly about their opposition than the supporters do about their support. It’s actually more support than I would have expected, given that a city report estimated it would cost the public between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion and Mayor Naheed Nenshi has summed up the plan as “a lot of money that we don’t have,” but it’s apparently right where numbers have been polling for a while now, so “split” seems a fair assessment for now. The headline news appears to be that the opening of the Edmonton Oilers‘ new arena hasn’t gotten Calgarians green enough with envy to reconsider the finances, which I guess these days qualifies as good news.

Flames and Calgary agree to keep discussing new arena, can’t agree on where to find $1.3B

The Calgary city council voted 12-3 on Monday to continue discussions with the Flames and Stampeders owners on a new hockey arena and football stadium, either via the mammoth CalgaryNEXT complex or a cheaper Plan B whose details have yet to be determined. And the two sides had very different interpretations of where things go from here, not least over what the actual price tag, which for CalgaryNext the city says will be $1.8 billion, while the team owners say they can do it for a mere $1.3 billion. First, Flames CEO Ken King:

“Frankly, who knows which may emerge better. We have a luxury here. We get to choose between what may be two very, very good ideas.”

And then, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi:

“Certainly there’s a difference of opinion on numbers, but if I’m looking at their numbers they still say this is a $1.3 billion project. Obviously there’s a lot more questions, including who’s got $1.3 billion. … Even their best-case scenario is still a lot of money that we don’t have.”

There’s nothing wrong with talking, really, and Nenshi and the council seem to remain determined to take a hard line that any new venue proposals don’t involve shoveling piles of money at the teams that the public would never get back. This could drag out forever — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re King and his fellow Flames and Stampeders execs, wringing their hands about how their profits aren’t as big as they’d be if they got massive public subsidies for a new building or two, and I’m guessing most of you aren’t. Though with municipal elections coming up in 2017, you have to figure King and friends have in the back of their minds that maybe they can wait for a new, more-profits-friendly city government — I tried checking on Nenshi’s latest poll numbers, but they haven’t turned up, though I did discover that Calgary residents are strongly in support of playground swings.

ADDENDUM: And then there’s this:

Flames owners on arena Plan B: Reply hazy, ask again later

Ever since the city of Calgary shot down the Flames owners’ plan to build a $1.2 billion combined arena-stadium complex (after discovering it would actually cost $1.8 billion, and the public would be on the hook for the difference), we’ve been waiting for someone to announce next steps. And it sounds like the next step is … to figure out a next step:

In a letter that season ticket holders received Monday, CEO Ken King said the company “accepted an offer from the City to examine a Plan B.”

The less ambitious Plan B would see an arena and event centre located on the Stampede grounds, a separate field house in the northwest, and some renovation to McMahon Stadium.

How much would such a scaled-back (but still sizable) plan cost? Nobody knows, which is what “examine” means. The Flames owners are supposed to provide a response to the city’s report later this month, but even that doesn’t guarantee that an actual plan or price tag will be in place — it’s a fair assumption that we could be here awhile as the details get worked out, which when hundreds of millions of public dollars are at stake isn’t a bad thing at all.

Flames, Calgary to discuss how neither of them wants to pay for new arena

The Calgary Flames have responded to last week’s damning city report on the projected costs of their stadium-arena proposal, and it looks like both sides are going with “everybody smile and hope things will somehow work out so that everyone is happy.” Flames CEO Ken King said that he’s “thrilled” city officials want to meet to discuss possible alternate sites, while Mayor Naheed Nenshi made a classic hey-always-willing-to-talk statement:

“Calgarians have been pretty clear that they would like to see better facilities, but they’ve also been pretty clear that public money has to go for public benefit and the real issue there is to square this circle and see if we can put those two things together,” he said.

Of course, King also ruled out putting in any more of the team’s own money (“Our financial proposal stands for CalgaryNext”), and Nenshi said that bit about how public money can only go for public benefits, so this may be less a question of squaring the circle than of getting two non-intersecting Euler diagram circles to meet. Talking is always good, though! Maybe either King will find some more money in his other coat pocket, or they’ll figure out how to build an arena out of staff — if they’re just going to replace it 20 years later, it could sort of work.

Calgary report: Combined stadium-arena would cost public $1.2B, Flames should give up and start over

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is not your average mayor when it comes to sports subsidy deals: He’s insisted on evaluating the Flames owners’ arena plan on whether it’s good for the public, not just good for the team, openly called out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as being a paid shakedown artist, and promised a public debate about any arena decision. Now the Calgary city manager’s staff has completed a hard-eyed analysis of the plan for a combined Flames arena and Stampeders stadium, and determined that it would cost $1.8 billion, double the total that the teams had estimated, with the public cost coming in at between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.

That’s a hell of a lot of money, even in devalued loonies. According to the city report, the extra $900 million would go toward “land, municipal infrastructure, environmental remediation, and financing.” Most of that isn’t even the long-worried-about creosote contamination cleanup (which comes to around $65-110 million), but other items: New transportation infrastructure is down for another $166 million, for example, and finance charges would be an additional $371-390 million. (It’s not immediately clear if these are present value or nominal figures — if the latter, then it’s not really fair to count them as an added public cost, since it’s just the cost of paying later instead of now, like the additional money you pay on your home mortgage over time compared to what your mortgage is actually worth.)

The city council is scheduled to discuss the report on Monday, but it’s likely to be a short discussion — the CBC says the $1.2-billion-plus price tag “effectively scuttles the proposal as it stands.” And the report itself recommends as much, indicating that “the CalgaryNEXT concept is not feasible in its present form or location and alternative development concepts, locations, and financial models should be investigated.” In particular, it suggests looking at building a new arena near the site of the current Saddledome (which the Flames owners previously rejected as not ambitious enough) and putting a new football stadium and field house at the current site of the Stampeders’ stadium at the University of Calgary.

There’s still some concern here that by focusing on alternative sites, this could end up becoming a battle of where to build the new arena and stadium, not whether to fund one with public money — though given that the report repeatedly indicates that the city government’s first priority is that “public money must be used for public benefit,” and Nenshi has said the same, probably not too much concern. Mostly, instead of taking the team owners’ demands and price figures as a given, Calgary sat down and trying to figure out if it made sense financially from the city’s perspective — and the answer came back “hell, no.” Now they’re kicking it back to the team to come up with a plan that makes sense. It’s all eminently logical and responsible, and only remarkable because so few city administrations do anything like this.

So far, Flames CEO Ken King is insisting on keeping CalgaryNEXT alive: “I realize we may sound simplistically optimistic, but we still think there’s some room here,” he said yesterday, which is definitely either the first or third Kübler-Ross stage. There’s still many months or years of haggling to go here, almost certainly, but Calgary has set an excellent example for other cities on how to go about tackling the first round.