Edmonton's new arena. Photo: daveynin/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A closer look at Alberta’s arena deals

Public money for private profit.

Taylor Lambert

Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development
Jay Scherer, David Mills and Linda Sloan McCulloch
University of Alberta Press
464 pages

Reviewed by TAYLOR LAMBERT

After years of battles and debates, after huge numbers and complex financing concepts weaponized in public discourse, Edmonton’s Rogers Place opened for business in September 2016.

Whatever one thought of it—how it came to be, what it represented and who paid for it—there it was, shiny and new, a done deal that will change the city for better or worse.

And like the physical structure, the saga of Rogers Place isn’t going away anytime soon either.

A new book by two academics and a former city councillor provides a thorough, methodical examination of Edmonton’s arena story. In Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development, Jay Scherer, David Mills and Linda Sloan McCulloch not only clear the fog, they situate the whole ordeal as only the latest example of a long pattern of North American pro sports teams coercing public subsidies for new facilities.

In a way, Rogers Place is not so much the book’s strict focus as its climax.

The authors explore in rich detail the background and context that enabled the arena deal, stretching from 19th century hockey-boosterism through the Peter Pocklington era, when the Oilers owner repeatedly threated to move the team. More time is spent on the various relationships and personalities in the crucial years leading up to the new-arena campaign.

The variously conflicting or aligning interests of the Oilers, Northlands (the non-profit that operates, among other properties, the Coliseum), city officials, the Katz Group and others are examined as they intersect with each other, driving the narrative towards its infamous conclusion.

I hear you, dear reader: Do I really want to read a hefty tome on arena financing?

If you care about the future of your city, and are skeptical when a deal sounds too good to be true, then yes, this book is for you. Here’s why.

The authors cite estimates that conservatively put the total “public gift to the Katz Group”—including not only arena costs, but foregone revenue, increased team valuation and other considerations—at $1.5 billion.

That true figure was obscured throughout the public discourse with complicated language and concepts like community revitalization levies. This helped sell the argument that the city was investing a relatively small amount for the “revitalization”—some would say gentrification—of downtown Edmonton.

In reality, the city was offering incredible sweetheart clauses, bending over backwards for a multi-billionaire at least in part due to implied threats that he might move the team.

If these tactics sound familiar, it’s because they are.

The City of Edmonton was offering incredible sweetheart clauses and bending over backwards for a multi-billionaire.

The song-and-dance routine of team owners, developers and local boosters is so familiar as to be predictable. Start by noting the age of the current facility not in absolute but relative terms. A 30-year-old arena in sound condition is one thing—but the second-oldest rink in the NHL? Good gracious, how shameful.

Other familiar tactics: Claim the team struggles to turn a profit in an aging facility (don’t, under any circumstances, release specific data to prove this). Cite the non-hockey benefits of a new arena (“event centre!”) to the city at large. Play on the emotional attachment that comes with sports by suggesting that the team might have to leave town without a new facility.

The Calgary Flames ownership, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. (CSEC), has checked all those boxes over the past few years. In fact, the comparison of Calgary and Edmonton’s respective arena battles is so inevitable that the authors included an epilogue titled The Oilers Get A New Arena, So The Flames Want One, Too.

When it comes to the political and social landscape such a debate plays out on, there are indeed many similarities between the two cities. But for Calgarians, the question is less “Why didn’t we learn from Edmonton?” and more “Why didn’t we learn from anyone?”

As the authors note, more than 100 new sports facilities were built in North America between 1990 and 2010, with public money contributing a mind-numbing total of $20 billion.

But the public is told that “private financing of the arena is impossible” despite the “unimaginable” wealth of the team’s ownership. The authors were referring to Darryl Katz (US $3.1 billion) but CSEC’s ownership, which includes Murray Edwards (US $1.5 billion) and Allan Markin ($630 million), is not exactly strapped.

Make no mistake: the insistence by the Oilers and Flames for new arenas was rooted in a desire for increased profits.

Last year, Forbes estimated the Flames’ value at US$450 million with an US$11 million operating income. (A decade ago, their value was US$200 million with an operating loss of US $800,000.)

Make no mistake: the insistence by the Oilers and Flames for new arenas was rooted in a desire for increased profits, not out of actual need, as Power Play shows. Prior to Rogers Place, Rexall Place was a “profitable, safe and well-used facility” that, aside from hosting Oilers games, was the 12th busiest concert venue in the world.

No amount of massaging the messaging or shiny renderings will cover up the most fundamental divide in these debates: whether scarce public resources should be spent building something that will generate private profit, and which many citizens cannot reap the benefits of.

The authors of Power Play note, with apparent snark, that Rogers Place certainly played a role “in the transformation of Edmonton’s downtown and in the expansion of leisure and residential choices—and income opportunities—for the city’s business and professional elites, for whom living in a ‘world-class city’ matters.”

Both city councils made a choice to spend enormous sums on these projects rather than fund public transit expansions or social services to address, say, the deadly opioid crisis or homelessness. Calgary’s libraries can’t afford to stay open past suppertime on Fridays and weekends, and the badly needed Green Line is in peril.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s simply an Alberta tradition. After all, Canadian taxpayers provide billions of dollars of annual “support” to highly profitable oil companies.

What’s a few hundred million to a hockey club every now and then?

Taylor Lambert is a Calgary writer and the author of Darwin's Moving, which won the 2018 City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.


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