Friday, September 10, 2010

Governments should not fund professional sports stadiums. Period.

While there are many notable differences between Canadians and our American cousins, one interesting one has been that while the Americans have always been eager to throw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into sports stadiums where millionaire athletes play for billionaire owners, in Canada we’d always expected pro-sports to pay its own way. It has been an interesting dichotomy, particularly given the stereotype of Canadian interventionists vs. American free-market worshipers.

This noteable difference, however, may soon evaporate, if special interests in Quebec get there way. Apparently Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau wants to bring the NHL’s Nordiques back to Quebec City. So does Quebec City’s mayor. And Jean Charest. So does Stephen Harper. Hell, so do I. I’m not sure many people would object to an NHL team in Quebec. Or Hamilton, Winnipeg or Saskatoon. Let’s give Halifax a team too, while we’re at it.

Of course, the odds of an NHL led by Gary Bettman ever doing this are astronomical. But that hasn’t stopped Quebec from channeling Field of Dreams and deciding if they build an arena, a team will come. But instead of the billionare Péladeau opening his wallet, Quebec wants the taxpayers to foot the bill. Fighting for his political life, Premier Jean Charest has promised to kick-in. And now they’re trying to hot the federal government up for a cool $175 million.

Sadly, the Harper Conservatives haven’t dismissed this asinine notion out of hand. Not when there are votes to be bought in the Quebec City region, the one part of the province they still have a shot. Their Quebec MPs are on board (except Maxime Bernier) and Harper is promising arenas for all, while out West his caucus seems aghast.

My Liberals are sadly mixed. Denis Coderre, who inexplicably again has a critic portfolio, is pressuring Harper to fund the arena. Other Liberal MPs, such as Keith Martin and Joyce Murray, have taken to Twitter to oppose the idea.

And then there’s newly-minted deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale who, unfortunately, told the media that if Quebec is getting $175 million, that’s cool, but he wants “over” $100 million for a football stadium in Regina.

No, no, NO! The Conservatives are wrong on this, and Liberals like Goodale and Coderre should not be egging them on. The government has no place subsidizing professional sports stadiums. And if you fund one, you’ll have to fund them all. It’s a dangerous precedent we can’t afford to set, particularly in today’s budgetary climate.

This isn’t investment we’re talking about here. It’s subsidy. We’ll never see this money back. If these are economically-viable projects, they wouldn’t need government funding. They would be financed by the private sector. If the private sector won’t fund it, then it’s not a viable project, and all the government funding in the world will only delay the inevitable business failure.

Now known as Rogers Place, Vancouver’s General Motors Place was built in $160 million in 1995 (gee, how’s that for inflation?) and was privately financed by the Griffiths family. Sure, Arthur Griffiths ended-up overleveraging himself by buying an NBA expansion franchise at the same time and ended-up losing it all to John McCaw, but point is he had an economically-viable project and he got it financed privately, without blackmailing the taxpayers for donations.

There’s no reason why Quebec City, Regina, and every other city can’t do the same. And if they can’t, then they must not be able to support a team and probably shouldn’t have one.

I hope the government comes to its senses and kills this thing in its infancy. And I hope the Liberal leadership brings the caucus together, gets everyone on the same page and says a firm No to taxpayer-funded stadiums, wherever they may be.

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The Rat said...

While I agree that public funding of sports arenas is sketchy I think your thesis is just plain wrong. Almost every stadium in Canada has had some if not all public financing. BCer that you are all you need do is look at BC Place and the T-Empire stadium in Vancouver. Look at the National soccer stadium in Toronto. Look closely and you will see public dollars everywhere. Harper is being opportunistic and is trying to buy votes, yes, but this is hardly some "Americanization" of the public purse.

penlan said...

Agree with you, wholeheartedly. This proposition is insanity. Let Paledeau, the billionaire, build his own stadium/arena.

Brent said...

I understand Ralph Goodale's "If they get one, we should get one too" attitude, but it's all a moot point. The issue here isn't the government funding a stadium. The issue is the government funding a stadium that will never turn a profit so a billionaire can buy himself a hockey team that will also never turn a profit without losing too much money.

RuralSandi said...

h/t: CalgaryGrit 2010-09-10

"Canadians are being forced to subsidize millionaire hockey team owners and that's a misconduct."
- Stephen Harper, 2000

CoteGauche said...

I think there are conditions where public funding is appropriate - but the Quebec City proposal doesn't meet them.

Governments can and should invest in long lived public infrastructure. Generally these projects make sense when they are linked to a broader, multi-use facility or program. The Big-O and the Saddle Dome were built as part of Olympic bids. BC Place was built to replace a public facility that the province and city wanted moved and as a part of the Expo 86 bid. Virtually all CFL stadiums in Canada were publicly funded because stadiums of this size are very expensive and no CFL team could fund the debt required to build a football stadium. Most are also multi-use. Most Opera/Concert halls in Canada are publicly funded. Most convention centres are publicly funded.

The questions with respect to the Quebec City proposal are:

1. Is the project viable without public funding. With the exception of the Saddle Dome, all of the other NHL arenas in Canada were privately funded. The Saddledome was built for the 1988 Olympics.

2. If the Federal Government is going to invest several hundred million in public infrastructure in Quebec City, is a hockey arena (with the prospect of attracting an NHL team) the highest priority recipient.

3. Based on the same criteria, is the Federal Government ready to invest similar funds for arenas in Winnipeg or Hamilton - who also hope to attract NHL teams?

Jeff said...

Rat, I think the "in" to some degree of public funding which I can reluctantly accept is when there is a major event around it. BC Place is before my time, but wasn't it built for Expo 86? The Saddledome in Calgary was built for the 88 Olympics. BMO Field was build for the 07 FIFA U-20.If Quebec was to bid for AND WIN a winter olympics, they'd have a case to make for funding. In these cases, the benefit to pro-sports teams is incidental. And the government should charge rent.

In this case though, there is no wider benefit to merit public funding, and it's a project of dubious economic value.

Canadian in Paris said...

I would like to put in my two cents in there. I, like many of you, also think that public funding for sports' related stadiums should be considered with attention. However, I think that we should not indulge into elitists positions. Public funds financed the construction of many "public oriented" facilities such as concert halls or convention centers across the country. In essence, we would hope that our governments build public facilities for us to enjoy. In this sense, we are financing a public good. When we try to make the argument for public funding for a new and top of the line opera hall we agree that the benefits of such a construction outweigh the financial costs. My point is this, you need an argument that would permit "high cultured" facilities to be built with public funds while also rejecting the same for "low cultured" activities such as sports. I'm not sure I can do that without making an elitist judgment. Then again, I wonder why sports fans should not get what they want; as a collectivity, we shouldn't make a judgment of the value of peoples' hobbies. Also, I am always annoyed with the "lets play it for Quebec" argument, when you look closely, public funds do finance indirectly professional sports organizations with tax breaks, incentives, across the country. Now, I think 175 millions is a bit exaggerated, and Peladeau has a history of blackmailing governments to get what he wants, but i'm not against some form of public funding, even if I don't like hockey.

ridenrain said...

“If you want Ottawa to participate, you have to vote Liberal”