A recent briefing by the Conference Board of Canada entitled “What Will the Canadian Pro Sports Scene Look Like in 2035?” speculates that our country could have up to 10 NHL teams, 15 CFL squads, three more MLS soccer franchises and both the Expos and the Grizzlies returning to Montreal and Vancouver respectively within the next 23 years. Sorry guys, but if that actually happens, I’ll announce my candidacy for prime minister. While the astute statisticians at the Conference Board rely on demographic trends like projected population growth and income levels to state their case, their research tends to overlook the realities of pro sports in favour of some kindergarten theory that “Every Big City Deserves Sports.” In reality, however, this is hardly the case. Here are a few things they failed to consider:
1) It’s all about the money, money, money… Let’s face it, none of the major sports leagues are controlled by some rep-by-pop scheme that dictates franchise placement solely by the size of potential markets. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have NFL teams in Jacksonville (population: 828K), Buffalo (261K) and Green Bay (106K) while the Los Angeles market (population: 3.8-million) remains untapped. Teams aren’t assigned to cities–they’re bought and sold by owners. And if people want to keep plugging in the cash to keep franchises in Upstate New York or small-town Wisconsin, well, the NFL isn’t going to move them by force. Ditto for the NHL, NBA and MLB, though I can’t speak for Major League Soccer cuz that’s not a real sport.
2) Hey, get offa my lawn! According to the Conference Board projections, Ottawa, London and Kitchener could all host CFL franchises. Now, Ottawa might be a few hours away, and it’s a sizable market, to boot–in fact, the league is looking to reestablish its presence in the nation’s capital–but if three Ontario teams is a crowd, then five is just plain unrealistic, especially when all but one are within a two-hour drive of each other. As it stands, Toronto and Hamilton struggle to fill their stadiums, so who’s to say there’s enough CFL fans in Kitchener or London to begin with? Likewise, the suggestion of Toronto or Hamilton adding an NHL expansion team seems highly unlikely. Not only do most hockey fans in the southern part of the province bleed blue and white, but the new teams would hafta compete for airtime with a franchise co-owned by the two television providers (Bell and Rogers) who service the entire GTA. Good luck with that!
3) Ya don’t get fooled again! The suggestion that Major League Baseball would even consider putting a team back in Montreal is laughable. After all, the Expos were dead-last in attendance for, oh, about a decade there. Hey, we all know that Montreal was screwed by the ’94 lockout, and they never got over it, but who’s to say that putting a team back in MTL would suddenly make people want to go back to baseball games? Besides, have you ever been to the Big O? Just ask the NBA how that’s working out in Charlotte, a city that boycotted basketball when the Hornets’ owner raped a cheerleader (or something like that). Even though BET magnate Robert Johnson brought a team back there a few years later, fans haven’t flocked to the Bobcats, who finished 25th in attendance this year.
One might mention the successful return of the Winnipeg Jets, but they don’t really belong in this discussion. Winnipeg always had a solid fanbase; it was the low Canadian dollar combined with the inability to maximize revenue (ie luxury boxes) that forced the owners to move the team. A new arena and a new economic reality allowed the Jets to come back; one thing that never changed was the fan support. And on that note…
4) If you build it, they will come… Can you picture someone putting up 30,000-seat football stadiums in Moncton, Kitchener and Halifax? Well, if it doesn’t happen, the CFL wouldn’t award a franchise to those cities. You’ve gotta have a place to play that’s on par with the rest of the league–and if we don’t ever see an NFL team in Toronto more than once a year, it’s because Rogers Centre isn’t considered an NFL-caliber field (which brings me back to the Big O vis-a-vis baseball). Winnipeg was awarded a team because the Thrashers were selling, they had owners willing to buy–and most-importantly, a brand-new arena at their disposal. Having been to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, I can tell you that you’d never move an NHL team there. It would be like having hockey at the Stampede Corral–in the 21st century. On the other hand, Quebec City is in the process of following Winnipeg’s lead by building a new barn with a little help from Pierre-Karl Peladeau and the provincial government. Will that necessarily lure an NHL team in? That’s what they’re banking on, anyways. Then again, Quebec might not even be a part of Canada come 2035. All it would take is a référendum d’initiative populaire…
5) Face it, some people just don’t like soccer. Phoenix may be home to almost 1.5 million people, but that hasn’t made the NHL a success in that city. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to even find an ice rink other than the Jobing.com Arena in the Arizona capital, so hockey’s far from a natural fit–and anyone who’s been following the NHL these past few years can tell you about the trials and tribulations of the Coyotes. While hockey’s hardly a hard sell anywhere in Canada, I’d be somewhat surprised if this country saw its number of MLS soccer teams double. I understand the strong support for soccer in cities like Toronto and Montreal, with strong immigrant communities from countries where futbol is king. But you stick a soccer team in Calgary or Edmonton, with their proud CFL traditions, and I don’t think you’d get too many sellouts. Besides, the MLS is still relatively small compared to the major pro sports leagues, and it still has several American cities it could expand to before bringing more teams up here. Mind you, in their case, L.A. is not one of them.