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CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie delivers his annual state-of-the-league address to reporters during Grey Cup week in Calgary on Nov. 22, 2019.

Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine.

It’s hard to tell if Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie was being deliberately provocative or just plain careless when he floated the idea of a new football stadium in Calgary during Grey Cup weekend in late November.

“I’d like to say this is the last time we’ll have a Grey Cup at McMahon,” he said, referring to the venue the Stampeders have called home since 1960. “Looking into the future, we’ll play the next one in a big, beautiful new stadium.”

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The unstated assumption here: It won’t be Calgary Sports and Entertainment, the owner of the Stampeders, who will pay for most of that stadium. And while it’s hard to imagine that Calgarians will be enthusiastic about more corporate welfare for an ownership group that just received a $275-million handout for its National Hockey League team, the Flames, it’s harder to imagine them saying no to it.

That’s not because the people making the case for public funding of new stadiums and arenas have good arguments, mind you. As the Brookings Institution’s Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist wrote in 1997 (and reaffirmed in a 2011 book), new sports facilities don’t have the kind of positive economic impact their proponents invariably claim. “Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighbourhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area," they wrote, "the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus.”

That’s because rather than creating new economic activity, they simply reallocate existing entertainment spending – usually to the detriment of other businesses. “Most spending inside a stadium is a substitute for other local recreational spending, such as movies and restaurants,” they said. “Similarly, most tax collections inside a stadium are substitutes: as other entertainment businesses decline, tax collections from them fall.”

In the new book Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development, authors Jay Scherer, Linda Sloan McCulloch and David Mills aren’t shy about describing the game professional sports franchises are really playing: “We have entered the new Gilded Age, and the billionaire owners of major league sports teams are the new robber barons, primarily interested in accumulating as much money as possible through ever-increasing and ever-expansive demands for public subsidy.” Those demands reached almost tragicomic extremes in Edmonton, where billionaire Oilers owner Daryl Katz paid just $1-million in cash up front on a $600-million-plus arena project while the City of Edmonton was saddled with more than half a billion in new debt. Most galling of all: A detailed study of whether a new arena could be privately financed was never even produced.

Calgary’s municipal leaders drove a harder bargain on their new arena. It looked like the city wouldn’t capitulate to the usual farrago of false promises and empty threats; indeed, the most recent civic election was fought over a new rink for the Flames in 2017, with Naheed Nenshi, who had consistently refused to buy what the team and its proxies were selling, winning decisively.

That makes what happened next all the more dispiriting. This past summer, Mr. Nenshi suddenly became far more amenable to the idea, eventually helping broker a deal for a new arena and giving local residents only a week to weigh in on the terms. “Today is not about selling a pile of magic beans and talking about how magnificent economic development will occur from this project,” he told reporters in July. “This deal makes sense on its own merits.”

In late November, council was given a chance to revisit those merits – ones that should have looked less compelling in the face of both enduring economic weakness and funding cuts to local policing and the Green Line LRT. But the same 11 councillors who voted in favour of the deal they struck in July nixed the motion to reconsider it. “I don’t think we’re giving money to the Flames owners,” councillor Jeff Davison said. “In fact, I think we’ve actually encouraged them to give us $275-million.”

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That comment alone should encourage Calgarians to quickly shoot down the CFL’s recent trial balloon. They should know that the Stampeders won’t go anywhere – and they surely must understand that the team’s owners can afford to pay for a new stadium. Yes, cities across North America, and the politicians elected to represent them, continue to roll over like sedated kittens when faced with the possibility of losing their local sports franchise. But by refusing to show its collective belly here, Calgary can prove to other cities that negotiations with local sports teams don’t have to end with the presentation of a blank cheque.

Who knows? Calgarians may not end up with a new football stadium, but they may get to reclaim some of the civic dignity they lost the last time the owner of the Flames and Stampeders came calling.

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