When Jason Kenney sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week asking the federal government to consider relaxing regulations on incoming travellers, so that Edmonton might serve as one of the NHL’s playoff hub cities this summer, the Alberta Premier trumpeted the possibility with a bold claim.
“I believe that the NHL playoffs could play a key part in the economic relaunch of Alberta,” Kenney wrote.
But if he was referring to the direct financial benefits, the experts would beg to differ.
“It will have a modest economic impact,” said Adam Legge, the president of the Business Council of Alberta, in a statement supporting the proposal.
If the NHL’s scenario proceeds according to plan, 12 teams will gather in each of two cities in North America, likely in early August. (The league says it hopes to announce the two cities sometime over the next three weeks or so.) Each team will play two exhibition games, followed by a preliminary round of up to five games, which together should take about two weeks. (That’s less time than usual, because there will be none of the travel days usually built into playoff schedules.) That will lead to another four rounds, including the finals, which will likely be staged in only one of the two hub cities.
Here’s how the likely economics break down for Edmonton. The NHL will cap the number of personnel in the city at 50 per team, including players: a total of 600 from 12 teams.
A spokesperson for Rogers Sportsnet told me this week that a crew of about 30 is typically required on-site to produce a Hockey Night in Canada game (with another 30 back in the studio), though the network does not yet know how many will be permitted under the protocols the NHL will draw up. That number could either increase – because there may be more cameras and other equipment to operate, to help make the productions more compelling without fans in stands – or decrease, depending on how concerned the league is about possible contamination from TV techs.
Some media may fly in to cover the games, though given the expected restrictions – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week said that, even if media were permitted on site, “there aren’t going to be a lot of people on the event floor coming anywhere close to the players” – it seems unlikely that number will reach anywhere near its normal levels. (There’s not much point to being in the arena if you won’t be able to get anywhere near players or coaches.)
Still, being generous, let’s say 100 out-of-town reporters are permitted on site. Add in some league personnel, and you’re up to maybe 800 people who have travelled from elsewhere, staying in local hotels and dining in restaurants that will probably be out-of-bounds for the public.
(Will players be able to leave their hotels to shop or even walk around? That seems risky. You don’t have to be a James Bond screenwriter to imagine someone placing a huge bet on a team playing the Washington Capitals and then sending in someone with COVID-19 to sneeze on Alexander Ovechkin as he saunters through downtown.)
Within the first two weeks, four teams will have been eliminated, removing 200 people from the base of out-of-towners.
After the first official playoff round, another four teams will have been eliminated, leaving a whopping 400 people. After the next round, you’re down to two teams, or about 300 people including media and other personnel. The finals may or may not then move to another city.
Deluxe hotel rooms at the JW Marriott Edmonton Ice District, which joined in the bid submitted by Oilers Entertainment Group to the NHL, are available for the first week of August at about $330 a night. NHL players per diems, which cover meals, are about $120 this year.
Mike Holden, the vice-president of policy and chief economist for the Business Council of Alberta, told me that he estimated holding the playoffs in Edmonton might have an overall impact of $15-million to $20-million. That’s about 0.2 per cent of the approximately $9-billion that Alberta’s tourism industry generates in an average year.
Still, 2020 is anything but an average year. The occupancy rate for Edmonton’s hotels was 29.1 per cent in March, according to an Alberta Tourism market report, down 32.2 per cent from 2019. April and May are almost certainly far worse. The city would be happy to take anything it can get.
But Kenney touting a potentially massive financial boon – which a back-of-the-envelope fact-check undercuts – highlights how the field of economic impact studies is littered with shoddy analyses. “You get these garbage studies done, it just makes everybody look worse and worse and worse,” said Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at Guelph University’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics.
“There’s nothing wrong with the figure skating national championship bringing in $300,000 and doing wonderful things for the community, but don’t go out and try to tell people it’s bringing in $50-million.”
Rather, says O’Reilly, those promoting Edmonton’s host bid should ask whether hockey fans watching two months of broadcasts from there might “have a better view of the city; do they feel good about it; do they promote it; would they move there for work? There’s some benefit there, but I think you’ve got to think about the other, non-financial benefits.”
“Where I see the greatest opportunity for this is, as with most NHL games, is broadcast exposure for Edmonton,” said Shelley Grollmuss, the vice-president of industry development for Travel Alberta. “I see this is an inspirational play. We’re opening up again, we’re getting the economy going again. We’re demonstrating the restart of things, which is so important for Albertans themselves, as well as helping to demonstrate that to others outside of the province.”
Ian O’Donnell of Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association suggested to me that rural Albertans who want to let loose after the quarantine restrictions might travel to the city just to be part of the playoff scene. Peter Widdis, a professor with Toronto’s George Brown College, suggested it might become what he termed a “social-distancing destination."
Holding the playoffs might also enable the city to tout its low COVID-19 numbers: As of Thursday, the most recent day for which data are available, Edmonton had 53 active cases, only one of which was new from the day before.
If the case count is low enough by the time the playoffs start or as they proceed, it is still possible that some fans would be permitted in stands at Rogers Place.
While NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly referred this week to games being played in “empty buildings,” and said there would be “no fans in stands,” that’s not necessarily true.
On Thursday night, a league spokesperson told me in an email that “the hub-city approach anticipates no fans – at least to start." Still, she said, “we’re not ruling anything out regarding fans in the stands. We’re following the guidance of governmental and medical authorities.”