After getting home from Finland, The Hockey News annual Money & Power issue came and contained their yearly ranking of the top 100 people of power and influence in the game of hockey. At number 16 this year and last is Dave Andrews, President & CEO of the American Hockey League. I take no issue with his ranking or his accomplishments over time, as he has guided the AHL to stability and success. However, THN gave him a full page and praised his leadership in bringing about the new Pacific Division. For those that don’t know, the AHL shifted 5 teams to California this season and put 2 other teams with them to form the new division. While this is surely a fine development for the NHL parent teams that wanted their affiliates closer and may help grow the game in the west, it is quite a blow to the fans and communities the teams left. I cannot speak to all of the cities impacted, but I have been to Manchester, New Hampshire for games before and they have a large, vocal fan base that cheered on the Monarchs. Now dropped to the ECHL, fans are forced to watch lower level talent or nothing. The city even built a new arena for the Monarchs back around the turn of the century. Obviously that building was not enough to save the team either.
Sports teams have moved for as long as sports have been around, but in the old days these ventures were not supported with public dollars and corporate demands like they are now. To see these 5 AHL teams just spirited away does not sit well with me. On an even grander scale we saw the NFL move the St. Louis Rams last week and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman publicly sparring with Calgary government over plans for a new arena. I am originally from Buffalo and that city, county, and state government most likely will be ponying up around $1 billion to build a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. All of these deals cater to the corporations and wealthy team owners and only care about the public when fans emotions are used to propel these decisions forward.
When a city like Buffalo, among the 5 poorest cities in the United States, even considers corporate welfare such as $1 billion for a new football stadium, you have to step back and ask some very hard questions. Is that money going to benefit their citizens in any way other than providing another outlet for them to spend money they don’t have? It does not seem like there is a groundswell to demand that the facility at least double as a convention center or something else, so there will be a huge new edifice that gets used 10 times per year. In Calgary, Bettman was basically calling for action on a new arena without worrying if the public would be consulted. At least the mayor there is committed to an open civic process.
The disturbing trend of the last few decades is stadium demands as a ransom for the team not being moved. The rampant sports-as-development model has been trumped up as well, for your average sports league team and for things such as the Olympics. If you read the postmortem studies, in very few cases have these facilities actually revitalized an area. When they do it has usually been tied to other significant development that brought jobs or residents.
As much as I am a sports fan and always have been, I think it is time that these tactics be outlawed. Let the teams move if they must, but if the civic systems that coddled them are no longer allowed to, maybe the team will have nowhere better to go.
Personally, I have scaled back my sports spending over the years from when I was a Sabres season ticket holder. Their product and management were not improving, but the costs kept rising, so I got out. Then a few years later, even when sporting a pathetic record, the fans kept flocking in. I know if the Bills stadium were soundly renounced by government there would be a fan uprising, no matter that the Western New York region could put $1 billion to much better use. If Congress could take their valuable time to debate steroids in baseball, then I think this issue could be brought to a legislative head. Once public funds are involved to the degree they are now in modern sports, I don’t believe the decision to move a team or build a stadium is at the sole discretion of the team owner anymore. Think about if the movie theater in your town or suburb is a few decades old. What if the owner of that theater came to the city council and demanded that they build a new movie theater with public funds or the theater owner would leave town? I think we all know he would be sent packing and laughed at on the way out, yet somehow it is different for sports teams, as an apparently unique form of entertainment. I say if they cannot be self-supporting, including arranging for the building they play in, then they can go their merry way. There are many other issues in society that deserve attention and funding in equal or greater measure than privately owned sports teams. I am glad to now live in Maine where these decisions either don’t come up at all or are much smaller in scale, but I realize the damage it does to many other communities.