The Ottawa Senators story so far: Then-owner Rod Bryden built an arena in the suburbs in 1996 to be the anchor of a new retail district, then that didn’t work and he went bankrupt. Then new owner Eugene Melnyk decided in 2014 that what he really wanted was an arena downtown, blaming this on the suburban one not being “built to last,” and started angling for development rights to a plot of downtown land, which he got the rights to negotiate for last year. But Melnyk still needs to negotiate how much he’ll pay for those rights, plus whether he’ll get public money toward construction costs despite having promised that “no government money” would be involved, all of which means it’s high time for move threats! Levied by anyone other than Melnyk, because that’s the way this game works.
First up, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman:
“A new downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators,” Bettman said. “The process is ongoing, but I think asking Mr. Melnyk or the Senators the status would be more appropriate than asking us.
“However, we believe there needs to be a solution for the long term.”
That’s a pretty oblique threat, admittedly — “vitally important” to the team’s “stability and competitiveness” could mean a lot of things, from the team leaving town to it just not making as much money as it might otherwise, I think? It’s a nice start, and why Bettman earns is salary, but really you want somebody to come right out and say — oh, hi, legendary hockey announcer Don Cherry:
“If they don’t put an arena downtown they’re gone,” Cherry said during Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday. “I think they’re just hanging on here in Ottawa, not drawing out, with a great team like that.”…
“If they’re not drawing out with that team… I say they’re gone, and I say they go to Quebec,” said Cherry.
The Senators are definitely not selling out despite a contending team, and the suburban location probably isn’t helping. Moving to Quebec, though, would require selling the team to Quebecor, the media giant that owns the management rights to Quebec’s arena and has said it wants to be the owner of any NHL team there. And Melnyk has been pretty adamant that the team is not for sale — even saying “the team is not for sale” and that he’s promised his daughter she can own it when he dies — so that doesn’t seem like a thing that is likely to happen.
More to the point, meanwhile, is that if the Senators need a new arena, they can build one right now: They have the land, and if a downtown venue would be so much more lucrative that it’d be worth the construction costs, then Melnyk can just go to a bank and borrow the money. Unless what Bettman et al are saying is that the only way it would pay off for the team is if Melnyk got public subsidies to help pay for it — either via a sweetheart lease or straight-up cash or tax breaks to pay for construction — in which case this isn’t actually “the Senators need a new downtown arena” so much as “the Senators owner is unhappy with how much money he’s making, and would appreciate it if someone would undo the previous owner’s mistake and build a new arena in a better location, please.”
As for how much money Melnyk is making, Forbes estimates the team turns a profit of a few million dollars a year, while the team is valued at $355 million, up from the $100 million that Melnyk paid for it in 2003 — an annualized return on investment of about 9.5%, thanks to the discounted sale price he got in part because of that whole bankruptcy thing and the lousy arena location.
Tl;dr version: Sports executives have a funny definition of “need.”