Flames greet hockey fans with pro-arena ads one week before mayoral election

When it comes to stadium-subsidy campaigns, sports team owners have a massive soapbox and generally aren’t afraid to use it — who can forget the “Yes on Prop C” sign on the San Diego outfield wall throughout the 1998 World Series? The Calgary Flames owners, though, look to be taking things to a new level:

Displaying their bogus and poorly copy edited Powerpoint slides on arena video screens is one thing. Running “Bill Smith For Mayor” ads, whether they were paid for or not, is another, especially when team CEO Ken King previously said:

“We’re not running for office. It’s certainly not an election issue for us,” King said. “We’re certainly not trying to throw fuel on the fire.”

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports that the Flames owners, in addition to seeking public money for a new arena, initially requested “an option to buy and develop land near the events complex, a slice of the Stampede Casino’s revenue, all parking revenue from major events it would manage at the events complex and other goodies.” And also: “the city of Calgary covering the cost of flood insurance, reimbursing the club for all provincial property taxes that may be imposed on the facilities, and requiring local ratepayers to pick up the bill for a public gathering place suitable for festivals next to the arena.” And also:

“Our proposals in the enclosed term sheet outline the minimum requirements for a robust competitive sports environment and the infrastructure needed to compete on the world stage from an entertainment perspective,” Ken King, president of CSEC, said in the letter.

In the latest polls, Smith has reportedly taken a sizable lead over Mayor Naheed Nenshi, based on a massive surge in his support from 18-to-34-year-olds, which is either a sign that Smith’s message is resonating with young people or just a sign that polls suck. We’ll see a week from today.

Calgary residents want Nenshi to stick to guns with Flames, but may not re-elect him

There’s a new poll out in Calgary that should let us see how the Flames owners’ war of words with Mayor Naheed Nenshi over whether paying taxes that everybody else pays should count as “private money” toward an arena is going over with the general public. So, how’s it going over?

Forty-seven per cent of respondents who participated in a Mainstream Research/Postmedia poll for the Calgary Herald/Calgary Sun say the city “should stand firm on its commitment to get the best arena deal for taxpayers,” even if that means the NHL team moves away from Calgary.

Thirty-nine per cent of people who answered the interactive voice response survey on their cellphone or landline said they don’t think the city should stand firm, while 14 per cent of the 1,000 respondents weren’t sure.

That’s a strange way of wording a poll question, especially since Flames execs have only made the most tentative of move threats (and don’t have a lot of good options for places to move to). Still, a plurality of respondents saying, “Stick to your guns, let ’em leave if that’s the way they’re going to be,” is pretty notable.

In a poll with more immediate import, meanwhile, Nenshi is reportedly trailing challenger Bill Smith in the runup to the mayoral election a week from Monday. If you scroll down and look at the breakdown of the numbers, though, you’ll see that the gap is mostly among women over the age of 50 — which, even if it doesn’t imply polling funny business as Nenshi’s team insists, probably is an indication that this isn’t angry hockey fans who are threatening his re-election.


Calgary mayor counters Flames’ tax-break demand, employs curiously familiar analogy

On Friday morning at 8:29 am Eastern time, I posted this about the Calgary Flames owners’ screwy insistence that money they pay in property taxes should count as their own contribution to a new arena’s construction costs:

In no other walk of life would anybody count the taxes that everybody has to pay as a capital cost — it’d be a bit like going to a car dealer and saying, “Sure, you’re knocking almost 50% off the sticker price, but what about all the money I’m going to have to spend on gas, huh?

On Friday afternoon, time undetermined, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said this about the Flames owners’ argument:

“It’s like saying, when you go to buy a car, I want you to knock 33% off the sticker price, but you know what? I’ve got to pay for gas, and insurance, so I’m really paying for that 33% you’re knocking off. Try doing that at your local Ford dealership.”

Okay, sure, great minds and all that. I’m sure it’s just a coincid—

It’s okay, Mayor Nenshi — this time. Do it again, and I’m going to be invoicing you for some of those sweet, sweet Canadian intellectual property royalties. (You can copyright analogies, right? Please don’t shatter my dreams by telling me otherwise.)

In newsier news, Nenshi spelled out that he didn’t think funding an arena with incremental property taxes in the surrounding area, as the Flames owners proposed for repaying the city’s share, would work — $150 million in new property taxes are already allocated to other traffic and infrastructure projects based on development the city is getting with or without an arena, and to raise another $225 million as team execs suggest would require “a heck of a lot more development than we are forecasting.” And he promised to leave the door open to further arena negotiations, saying:

“As long as I’m the mayor, we will not leave that table. These negotiations are hard. Guess what — they should be hard. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. And I believe, you don’t have a temper tantrum, you don’t run away. You sit down and you figure out the right way to do it.”

Oh snap, temper tantrum. Wish I’d said that one.

Flames say their arena plan was fair, because paying taxes is like putting in money, right?

In the continuing Calgary war of publicly released arena proposals, the Flames owners revealed some details of what they’d proposed to the city on Wednesday, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of business executives in an industry that relies heavily on corporate subsidies.

The Flames’ presentation, touted on a special page of their team website, was largely in the form of pie charts, like this one:

If you’ve been following this story, you’ll know that this is not extremely helpful, since it shows who would’ve been fronting the money for an arena — the owners of the team that would play in it would put in slightly more than the owners of the city whose residents would pay the team to watch games in it, whoo! — but not who’ll get to recoup their costs from new revenues from it. Since this was the entire issue that negotiations broke down over, kind of a slight omission there, Flames pie-chart renderers.

Chart number two, though, comes with a table, and it’s an extremely illuminating one:

Forget the chart on the right, which is designed to convince Calgary residents that hey, Edmonton did a deal kinda like what we proposed, so it must be fair, right? (And also can’t punctuate the name of the Edmonton arena properly, unless they think it’s actually the sequel to a short-lived but acclaimed 1980s dramedy.) The one on the left is what’s important: If you check out the fine print below, you’ll see that the Flames honchos are claiming that under the city’s proposal they’d have to pay for more than 100% of the cost of the project, because future property taxes on the arena ($243 million) would be more than the city’s share of the up-front cost ($130 million).

This is kinda mind-boggling: In no other walk of life would anybody count the taxes that everybody has to pay as a capital cost — it’d be a bit like going to a car dealer and saying, “Sure, you’re knocking almost 50% off the sticker price, but what about all the money I’m going to have to spend on gas, huh?” [UPDATE: Or maybe a better way of putting it would be: If I take out a student loan from the U.S. government, I don’t get to say, “Hey, it’s nice and all that you want your money back, but can’t you take it out of the income taxes that I’m already paying?”]  Or to flip it around, this is saying to the city, Yes, you’d have to put up half the money for our private project, but we’d pay taxes, and sure we know that normal humans and even business pay taxes on top of paying for things that they want and that’s how government can afford to pay for schools and roads and all that, but come on, man, pie charts!

It’s a perfect exemplar of the Casino Night Principle, in other words, where any cash that the private party has ever touched is “our money,” and how dare do you city officials think the public is entitled to it just because that’s the law? In fact, the Flames’ plan even takes credit for money that the team has never touched, by proposing that the city recoup its share via a “community revitalization levy” (a CRL, which is Canadian for a TIF) on property taxes from unspecified development around the arena.

Anyway, all this is now moot, because Flames CEO Ken King told Global News yesterday that “we’re no longer pursuing this concept and need to move on” and “we’ll just get about the business of operating our teams and having some fun and try to win some championships.” Which sounds like good news — yay, enough with the whining about needing a new arena and just play hockey! — but was clearly meant as a threat against Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the run-up to elections this fall. Speaking of which, how’s that going?

Speaking to Global News on Wednesday, Mount Royal University professor of Communication Studies, David Taras, said arena funding seems to have become “ground zero” for the election.

“To some degree, I think there’s an argument that the [Calgary] Flames handed the election to Nenshi, because if you look back at the last election, Nenshi positioned himself brilliantly as ‘I’m fighting for the little guy against the big developers.’ In this election, he’s positioning himself as ‘I’m fighting for ordinary citizens who don’t want to subsidize billionaire business people – and I’m fighting for them against the super-rich.’”…

“It’s boxed in [opponent] Bill Smith a bit,” [Mount Royal University political science professor Duane] Bratt agreed. “It splits his brand, which has been strong on sport and also strong on taxpayer protection.”

Sticking to running a hockey team is probably a good idea for King & Co. — they don’t seem to be much better at electoral meddling than they are at pie charts.

Nenshi’s election rivals aren’t eager to throw public money at Flames arena, either

That whole “let’s blow up our arena negotiations and hope everyone gets mad at the mayor during the election campaign and forces him to make us a more lucrative offer” plan by the Calgary Flames owners is really not going as planned at all:

  • Asked whether he thought Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s plan to split both costs and revenues with the Flames was a good one, opposition candidate Bill Smith said: “There’s still a lot more to be looked at, and one of things I’m waiting to see is where the Flames sit on this … you need to see what the whole deal looks like. … One of the reasons we’re in this situation right now is a failure of leadership. We have a mayor who won’t deal fairly with anyone.”
  • Andre Chabot, another Nenshi opponent, declared the city’s plan “reasonable.”
  • Nenshi taunted Smith for not taking a position, saying, “If you want to be mayor, you’ve got to tell people who’s giving you money, who you’re working for and, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to tell people how you’re going to spend billions of dollars. I think it’s kind of important.”

Also, Smith and Chabot are likely to split any anti-Nenshi vote, leaving the mayor likely to win election to a third term. So, yeah, this threat seems to have fizzled. How long you think before Flames CEO Ken King tries having himself photographed at the Seattle airport?

Flames CEO says city recouping its arena cost via taxes means “us paying for everything”

As promised, on Friday the city of Calgary released its proposal for funding a new Flames arena that team owners rejected, and it looked pretty much exactly as previous reports had had it: Costs would be split one-third/one-third/one-third between the city, the team, and a new ticket surcharge, and the city would recoup its third via a combination of property taxes on the building, team rent, and revenue from non-hockey arena events:

Sounds simple, right? Split the costs, split the revenues. Unless you’re Flames CEO Ken King, who immediately fired back that this would leave his team paying “120%” of the costs:

“Their proposal has us not only paying for everything, but more, when you consider incremental taxes,” he said. “Flames’ cash comes from Flames’ revenue—I think we all agree on that. User fees comes from Flames’ revenue, I think we can all agree on that. And in whatever form they want this payback, that comes from Flames’ revenue, as well.

What’s going on here is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of “our money.” I could explain this in economic terms — King wants to count every scrap of arena income, and even taxes they’d be paying just as everyone else pays, as Flames revenue — or in metaphorical terms — as I told the CBC on Friday, the Flames’ position that they should get to pay off their costs with arena revenues but the city shouldn’t is like asking someone to dinner and saying, “Let’s split the check, but then I get to eat both meals.” But I’d prefer to direct you to the ultimate authority on this matter, which is the Odd Couple’s “casino night” episode. If you don’t want to sit through the ads, here’s a transcript of the relevant part, which starts at around the 11:00 mark and comes after one of Oscar’s friends has won big at the casino night fundraiser for Felix’s opera club:

Felix: What have you got there? Where’d you get all that money?

Oscar: From Arnold, he owed it to me.

Felix: What?

Oscar: Yeah. He owed it to me since the year one.

Felix: The “let it ride” guy owed you money?

Oscar: That’s my Arnold.

Felix (reaching for a pile of cash): Well, that’s wonderf—

Oscar: Don’t touch the money, Felix.

Felix: But what a—

Oscar: Don’t touch it, I told you not to touch it.

Felix: But now the opera club gets its money back. Yay!

Oscar: I don’t think I heard you.

Felix: We’re saved! We get our money back!

Oscar (hastily gathering up his money): Now I know I didn’t hear you.

Felix: Surely you’re not thinking of keeping that money?

Oscar: Why not? It’s my money!

Felix: No, it’s not! It belongs to the opera club!

Oscar: How do you figure that?

Felix: Well, Arnold got it from us, you got it from him, you give it back to us! Then everybody’s even!

Oscar: That can’t be right. See, I’d be out all this money.

Felix: No, you wouldn’t! You’d just be back where you started from!

Oscar: Yeah, but only Arnold wouldn’t owe it to me anymore. See, I had this money coming to me.

Felix: But it came from the opera club! From them to him to you to me! It’s like an isosceles triangle!

To his credit, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was calmer than Oscar about the whole thing, replying that “our argument is that the city needs to share in the upside, if we’re going to share in the cost,” and that he was open to any and all ideas for achieving this: “If it makes more sense for the city to own and the [Flames] owners to pay rent we can absolutely look at that. If it makes more sense for there not to be rent, but a revenue-sharing agreement we can look at that.”

As for what the Flames ownership were asking for, meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports (citing unnamed city sources) that the team wanted not only to pay no property taxes and share no arena revenue, but to have taxpayers foot the bill for police presence at games and give Flames fans free public transit rides on game days:

The requests would put a multimillion-dollar dent in the city’s finances and could result in higher taxes. Waiving transit fares on game days, for example, would mean giving up about $10-million in revenue annually, according to one of the sources. Calgary would then have to fill this gap, perhaps by cutting transit services to other parts of the city or raising property taxes, the source said. Covering the cost of extra policing would also amount to an operating subsidy, according to the source who provided the detail about security expenses to The Globe and Mail.

What we have here, folks, is a good old-fashioned impasse, though only one of the two parties has math (or geometry) on its side. I’d suggest Nenshi and King settle this by trying to double their money at the pool hall, but I’m not sure the showrunners would go for it.


This week in boondoggle vivisection: Plenty of good seats available in SF, Cleveland, Ottawa

We’ll get to the weekly news roundup in a minute, but first, I need to mention this editorial from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, which makes several eminently reasonable points about how Calgary shouldn’t capitulate to the Flames owners’ extortion attempts for arena cash (“using past bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions does not qualify as logic,” “arena financing is a hamster wheel, and here is an opportunity to jump off”), and then says this:

Everyone involved should take note of a remark this week by Neil deMause, renowned stadium boondoggle vivisectionist and creator of the fieldofschemes.com website: “The number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero.”

That’s right, I am a major-newspaper-certified renowned boondoggle vivisectionist, y’all. Clearly it’s time to order some new business cards.

Okay, the rest of the week’s news:

  • The Los Angeles Rams aren’t the only California team having trouble getting fans to turn out for games in the September heat: The San Francisco 49ers are seeing so many empty seats on the sunny side of their stadium that they’ve hired architects to see if it’d be possible to add a sun shade. One problem: The stadium can’t get any taller, as it’s in the flight path of San Jose’s airport. Until then, the 49ers are handing out free water bottles and sunscreen to fans on the hot side of the stadium, which is nice and all, but probably isn’t what you want for your big marketing push. This once again points up how smart the 49ers management was to stick fans with PSLs before the team got lousy and people noticed how crappy the new stadium was for actually watching football in.
  • And speaking of empty seats, the Cleveland Indians won their American League–record 22nd straight game yesterday, but they still can’t sell out their ballpark, which not that long ago saw a record sellout streak of 455 straight games. Indians GM Mike Chernoff blamed Cleveland’s small size, the start of the school year, and “weekdays,” three things that apparently didn’t exist in the ’90s. At least he didn’t blame the 23-year-old stadium or demand upgrades as a solution — yet, anyway.
  • And also speaking of empty seats, the Ottawa Senators have begun tarping over part of their upper deck for every game, because they can’t sell tickets there. The Senators owner is already blaming his 21-year-old arena for that one (apparently the last owner built it in the wrong place), so team president Tom Anselmi was left to say: “We just need more of us to come to more games more often.” Can’t argue with that!
  • And also also speaking of empty seats, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have only sold about 5% of available tickets so far to actual fans (ticket brokers have bought up another 18%), with less than five months to go before the games start. If you’re looking to snap up a bargain to watch curling, though, be forewarned: Not all the new hotels planned for the Olympics are finished yet.
  • And speaking of seats that a team hopes won’t be empty, the Oakland A’s will be letting in fans for free to a game next April against the White Sox. Make jokes all you want about how dismal an A’s-White Sox matchup will be, it’s still free baseball, and you never know what you might see that you’ve never seen before.
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that that the scaled-down Nassau Coliseum is “not a viable option” for the New York Islanders, two weeks before the team is set to present plans to Nassau County for a new arena near Belmont Park. A total coincidence, I’m sure.
  • The Rhode Island state senate started hearings on a new Pawtucket Red Sox proposal yesterday, with the team owners and their allies noting that “the team’s 54-percent share of stadium costs is the highest portion of private investment in 14 AA and AAA ballparks built over the last decade,” according to the Providence Journal. What was that someone was just saying about using bad decisions to justify terrible future decisions?
  • Deadspin’s Drew Magary has come up with a new nickname for the Atlanta Falcons‘ new iris-roofed stadium: Megatron’s Butthole. Drew Magary needs to be put in charge of all stadium nicknames, starting immediately.

Flames rejected Calgary’s arena plan because taxpayers would’ve gotten paid back

Following Calgary Flames CEO Ken King’s announcement on Tuesday that his team was going to take its arena-negotiating ball and go home, the Calgary city council voted yesterday to release the city proposal that King had called “spectacularly unproductive.” The details aren’t public yet, but the basics, according to Toronto Metro:

  • An estimated $500-600 million in construction costs would be shared one-third by the city, one-third by the Flames, and one-third by a ticket surcharge.
  • The city wanted to get its third repaid either by new property taxes or by getting a cut of arena revenue.

That’s … perfectly reasonable? That second item would be, in fact, required by law if this were Seattle, and in any event “We’re splitting the costs, let’s split the revenues” is a sensible proposal in any world other than the sports one.

The Flames owners, according to Metro, “balked” at this, and asked for an exemption from property taxes on top. That wasn’t going to get a deal done. So while the talks may have been “spectacularly unproductive,” that doesn’t appear to have been the fault of Mayor Naheed Nenshi or the council.

Declaring an impasse now is clearly meant to put pressure on Nenshi with elections coming up; already two of his opponents in the upcoming election tried to take advantage by saying how they think a new Flames arena is important, though only at the right price, which is actually what the mayor himself is saying, so. There’s also, as Maclean’s columnist Jason Markusoff points out, an element of “the Edmonton Oilers got a new arena, we deserve one too”: Flames CEO Ken King grumbled yesterday, “If we can beat the guys up north—apparently we can’t beat them on the building front, but maybe we can beat them on the ice.” This will not go over well, predicts Markusoff:

A large portion of the Calgary populace will view ceding the arena-building race to Edmonton not as a loss, but as a win: that Cowtown didn’t acquiesce to its hockey barons’ demands. Until the Flames owners can appreciate that, they’ll be stuck in their current saddle.

Maybe? Certainly the mayor and the council’s first reaction — we made a perfectly good offer, here, look at it — doesn’t smack of panic, but we’ll see where things head as the election campaign continues. Ham-fisted threats and unintentionally hilarious self-promotion are kind of Flames exec trademarks by now, but there is that old saying about blind pigs and acorns.

Flames CEO: Mayor Nenshi was mean to us, we don’t even wanna new arena now

As surprise announcements yesterday go, this was less of a shocker since we’ve seen things like it before, but still a bit of a bombshell: Calgary Flames CEO Ken King announced that the team was cutting off talks with the city over a new arena after what he called “spectacularly unproductive meetings,” and will instead remain at the Saddledome for “as long as we can”:

“Scotiabank Saddledome will continue to host a couple million people a year,” he told reporters at a hastily-called news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ll just go on and run our business and do what we can to operate and try and figure out what the future will look like at some point later.”

If you’re wondering if that was a threat, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand to not make it any clearer for you:

“They’re going to hang on as long as they can,” the commissioner said. “At least, that’s the current view.

“That’s not a prospect that thrills them or anybody else. But it is a realistic assessment of the situation they find themselves in.”

This is partly the old “we can’t be competitive without a new arena” gambit, which we detailed in Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes way back in the first edition. The timing, though, is almost certainly intended to put pressure on Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign, as well as the rest of the city council — or at least to send a message to voters that if they want arena negotiations to resume, they’d better pick some leaders with less backbone.

How well that will work out is hard to predict — the number of mayors who’ve been voted out of office for standing up to sports team subsidy demands remains zero, and Nenshi’s tough stand against the Flames owners’ demands has been fairly popular. Still, with the mayor’s poll numbers softening to where his re-election is maybe no longer going to be a walk in the park, King and the other Flames execs clearly saw an opportunity here and went for it; the puck is now in Nenshi and the council’s, uh, ice.

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.


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.