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.