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Oilers owner Daryl Katz (Reuters)
Oilers owner Daryl Katz (Reuters)

Gary Mason

The Oilers mean all to Edmonton – and Katz knows it Add to ...

Nearly as controversial as Monday night’s abysmal game-ending call by National Football League replacement officials was the presence in the same Seattle stadium of a delegation from Edmonton.

The group – which saw the Green Bay Packers robbed of a victory that was rightfully theirs – was led by Canadian billionaire Daryl Katz, owner of the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, who was ostensibly in Seattle on a fact-finding mission.

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Seattle recently reached agreement with San Francisco-based hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen to build a $490-million arena that is hoped to eventually play home to a National Basketball Association team – filling the painful void that has existed since Seattle lost its beloved SuperSonics in 2008.

Mostly, however, the visit by Mr. Katz and members of the Oilers’ executive team was a thinly veiled ruse. Mr. Hansen has talked about wanting to attract an NHL team to the arena one day. Mr. Katz, in stalled negotiations with Edmonton city officials to construct a new building there, was said to be exploring the option of moving his team to Seattle if he can’t get a deal of his own.

It wasn’t subtle, but publicity stunts rarely are.

What we are seeing is another unseemly tug of war with a rich team owner on one side and civic politicians representing the poor, downtrodden taxpayer on the other. Along the way, various forms of coercion are used by the owners, including idle threats, to persuade taxpayers to help build their new, modern sports palaces.

These threats most often centre around the promise that said owner will take his ball – or puck – and go elsewhere if he doesn’t get his way. Occasionally, it happens. More often, it does not, because the two sides realize how much they both have to lose.

The fact is, a professional sports team has become an integral part of a city’s economic, political and social fabric. Home games become tribal gatherings. The franchise is a source of civic pride, deeply ingrained in the host community’s broad culture and psyche. Certain wins, as well as certain losses, become milestones and lifetime points of reference for supporters.

It’s easy to overstate the importance of sports. It’s easy to understate it, too.

The Oilers mean everything to Edmonton – and Mr. Katz knows it. He knows that despite the pressure they are under to safeguard taxpayers’ dollars, civic politicians know how important the team is to those same taxpayers. After years of being a last-place laughing stock, the team appears to be on the brink of building a potential Stanley Cup contender. The mayor and his council would be hanged in effigy if the franchise was to leave – or at least that’s what Mr. Katz wants them to believe.

On the other hand, council knows that Mr. Katz has nowhere to go. His franchise makes money, which is something many NHL owners can’t say. The notion of him packing up and moving the team to Seattle if he doesn’t get his way is ludicrous.

Firstly, there is no guarantee the league would ever approve such a move – especially when there are owners who have been in the league a lot longer than Mr. Katz, propping up teams in money-losing markets, ahead of the Oilers’ proprietor in the lineup for relocation. And, of course, there is absolutely no guarantee that he’d make money in Seattle, a midsized U.S. city that only has so much corporate capacity to support pro sports teams.

In the end, a deal will get done in Edmonton because it’s in the greater interests of both sides. A new arena will help revitalize a part of the downtown core that desperately needs a facelift. At the same time, a new building will allow Mr. Katz to make even more money than he already does.

On Monday, Mr. Katz saw football players deprived of something that was rightfully theirs. He can only imagine how the residents of an entire city would feel losing something they believe is rightfully theirs.

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