Skip to main content

Culture wars start with just this kind of question: If museums and opera houses and symphony halls all get public funding because of their social value, shouldn't hockey arenas and football stadiums get it too?

It may be hard, days after the Super Bowl's cheesy excesses, to think of professional sports franchises as needy, noble cultural institutions. But that's a key part of the pitch campaigners for new sports venues across the country use to get at government funds - money originally earmarked for broad-based community projects, not facilities used by for-profit professional teams.

Take the plans for the new $400-million Quebec amphitheatre, which will be announced Thursday. The building may look and sound like a hockey arena designed to lure back an NHL team to the home of the long-gone Nordiques, but for fundraising purposes, according to Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume, it's actually a "multifunctional" entertainment facility: an amphitheatre where pro hockey will take its place in the social hierarchy alongside concerts, Québécois galas and feel-good Olympics-style events.

The notion of public good is always going to be hard to pin down in a capitalist democracy, especially at the cultural level: Is the idea to make people better citizens or to give them what they want? Should we aim for the Parthenon-style building and drama festivals of the Athenians or give in to the happily mindless bread-and-circuses entertainments of the Roman emperors?

But there's a new wrinkle in the argument for subsidizing sports facilities: that the choice no longer needs to be positioned as elitist versus populist. Even big-money sporting events, as the Vancouver Olympics showed, can help achieve the goals of both.

"There are a lot of people who go to the theatre, the opera and the ballet who also go to sports events," says Bruce Kidd, a professor of physical education at the University of Toronto, who started an artists-athletes coalition, "to stop the sniping from both sides," more than three decades ago. "In terms of expression, both activities are very dramatic and very emotional, and both pull us out of ourselves in very memorable ways."

Quebec is just one of several Canadian cities lobbying for new pro-sports facilities where those heightened feelings can be created. Edmonton also has made plans for a state-of-the-art hockey arena, and Calgary wants to replace its aging Saddledome. Hamilton and Regina both require new CFL stadiums - Regina's proposed $430-million dome will feature a retractable roof if all goes according to plan.

"I really do believe there's a public good to it, much like arts and culture," says Ken Cheveldayoff, the Saskatchewan cabinet minister responsible for moving forward the province's own "multipurpose entertainment facility." He describes it as "enhancing the quality of life in the province."

Transforming pro sports into a cultural product may sound like fundraising sophistry, an ingenious way of persuading governments to subsidize professional franchises the same way they support other cultural institutions. But to be cynical about sport's civic role is to miss the transformation that's been going on in Canadian society: Patriotic pride doesn't distinguish between different modes of excellence, and sports, with its higher visibility, can actually inspire, not rival, the arts.

Stuart Reid discovered the social power of sport when he became the executive director of Regina's MacKenzie Art Gallery: His staff presented him with a green Roughriders jersey shortly after he arrived. "Every season is thrilling; there's a wonderful craziness here," he says. "One of our goals is to be part of a creative city that has a fervent pride in the arts. And I think the kind of pride that's demonstrated around the football team is something we'd like to see in the culture world."

The stereotyped conflict between jocks and artsies doesn't play out in Regina - when the Riders celebrated their centenary, they commissioned art projects that were unveiled at the MacKenzie. A similar bonding took place at the Vancouver Olympics where Toronto poet Priscila Uppal wrote well-received daily poems about Canadian athletes. "I don't think it should be the case that sport is pitted against the arts," she says. "I think the two communities should come together much more and find creative ways to make sport spaces that are also great cultural centres."

That's the kind of argument being employed by stadium and arena lobbyists who can obtain federal funds only if they can demonstrate broader community benefits. But it's also evidence that the two-solitudes divide between the athletic and creative classes has become outdated, however much commentators such as Don Cherry still play up the differences.

A new study of Canadians' expenditures on performing arts by Hill Strategies Research backs up a coalescence of sports and arts. "A lot of people who spend money on performing arts are spending money on sports - people who go out and do things clearly do a range of things," says analyst Kelly Hill. "The arts supply the social benefits of belonging and pride, and I'm pretty sure those are the benefits of sports as well."

Community passion isn't new or particular to our sports-obsessed society: The democratic leaders of ancient Athens, says Mark Golden, a classical historian at the University of Winnipeg, saw no problem in underwriting public festivals that celebrated the achievements of athletes and artists side by side.

"The people of Athens put serious money into their public festivals, as much as they spent on running their democracy. A few intellectuals naturally thought athletic achievement didn't contribute much to the city, but in general everybody was a big fan of these competitions."

There was no taxpayer lobby in Athens to complain that governments shouldn't be funding equestrian competitions among the elite or paying for dramatic festivals featuring high-brow plays by the likes of Sophocles. But money wasn't the object back then - these gatherings were more about the bonding experiences that sport and art provide.

As the CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Victor Rabinovitch might be expected to resist the civilizing claims made by sports-stadium proponents. Instead, he welcomes the chance to work together in search of that nebulous thing, the public good.

"We're trying not to look at professional sports and cultural events as being in opposition. What's important is that people get off their couches, get out of their homes and go to a venue where they share an experience in common. Sports have this strong element of creating solidarity - if you have a high-quality venue that brings people together, it becomes a way for a community to feel vibrant and alive."