As talks on new arena drag on, could Edmonton Oilers really relocate?
The Oilers continue to try to make a deal with Edmonton for a new arena, but without a new facility, the team is letting people know they'd move.
The talks have stalled, the animosity is high, threats are being made and it seems like the majority of people are against the ownership. No, we're not talking about CBA negotiations.
The Oilers have been working on securing a new arena in Edmonton for a while now, working with the city to try to find a way to finance a new state-of-the-art downtown arena. Rexall Place might have the best ice surface in the NHL, but it's hardly the best arena around at this point. In arena terms it's a dinosaur having opened in 1974. Thus, there is a need for a new arena.
What happens when you have a need? You need to have the money and as we so often see in sports today, and that's where the city comes in. After all, it's tough for anybody, save Bill Gates, to privately fund an entire sports arena from his/her own wallet.
For some time now, Oilers owner Daryl Katz has been working with the city to build a new arena. Thus far the city has agreed to pay -- get this -- more than $400 million for the arena costs. That hasn't been enough to finalize the deal with Katz, which was scheduled to cost $450 million. Delays in funding have increased the projected cost to $475 million. Costs go up, you know.
The stalemate has led to a standoff between the city and Katz. How bad is it? Consider this quote from Katz himself to the Edmonton Journal:
"If this deal doesn't work, what can I say, obviously all bets are off and we'll have to figure out what comes next. And I don't know what that will be."
Just in case you're having a hard time reading between the lines, the Oilers helped to clarify with a tweet from their official account, one which has since been deleted, but not before Pro Hockey Talk was able to capture it.
Here is the link to the story, which the Oilers retweeted. It almost reads as if it were written by Katz's assistant. That's another way of saying it defends Katz and the search for arena funding to the fullest.
The Oilers, threatening relocation? Yes, this is really happening right now. The argument is the same one we've seen many times before in sports: "If you don't build it, we won't come," or something along those lines.
But the only way this threat could ring more hollow is if it were the Maple Leafs or Canadiens making the threat. There is zero doubt about the passion of Oilers fans, which is also reflected in their revenue numbers, placing in the top 10 in the league. Despite picking first in the draft for three years running, the team still fills all the seats every game and they have a pretty rich history to their credit. Ever heard of these guys named Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier? I heard they were kind of good playing for the Oil.
The threat seems to be nothing more than a negotiating ploy, the same as what the NHL already has begun commenting on about nixing the Winter Classic way earlier than expected to put pressure on the union. It's similar to how the Penguins flirted with Kansas City to put pressure on Pittsburgh for its new arena. But does anybody want to see if Edmonton will call Katz's bluff?
This comes in an age where there is a movement to have more teams in Canada, not less. With Winnipeg's return a year ago, the country now has seven teams, and it is hopeful for nine as Quebec City and Markham each proceed in building new arenas despite not having teams.
Then again, there might not have ever been a better time to threaten relocation in the NHL. There seems to be a long list of interested cities in Canada, as well as Seattle and Kansas City in the States. If you're going to make a hollow threat, might as well make it when there is at least some semblance of it happening.
If you want to put any stock into it you can also point to the fact that after the lockout in 1994 two teams left Canadian markets (Winnipeg and Quebec City). And the Canadian dollar has come a long way since then, making it a comparison of pucks to baseballs.
Moreover, a team needs a place to play and the lease at Rexall is up in 2014. So in that regard, there is some teeth to the threat. You need a place to play and if the Oilers were to deem Rexall as not suitable anymore then the alternatives would have to be examined.
So let's just pretend here that the Oilers did move. Is there any doubt that a new team would be coming to Edmonton very soon again and probably retaking the Oilers name and logo? I don't think so. But without a new arena, Katz and some others do. More from the Journal:
Without the Oilers, Katz said, the city "would have to pay all the capital and operating costs, just like Quebec City will, just like Kansas City, just like Phoenix, just like Seattle, just like Hamilton, and just like other cities that would all like an NHL or an NBA team to subsidize their arenas.
"So, you see, in our view it is the team that acts as a subsidy for a city's arena, which is effectively infrastructure, not the other way around."
Just to clarify, Seattle's push for a new arena isn't proposing a massive commitment from the city, but instead from private finances via Chris Hanson.
Now I don't want to make it seem like Katz isn't putting in any of his own money here. Of course he is, it's just a matter it would seem of how much. He did agree to pay $5.5 million per year for 35 years to pay back some of the costs. Still, Katz is asking for the city and its taxpayers -- presumably many of them already spend money attending Oilers games -- to spend a lot of money.
Katz is doing his part to try to remain a sympathetic figure in this story. He came out and defended himself and the team's stance, selling the idea of a new arena as part of a project to revitalize downtown Edmonton, which would bring in a ton of money for the city. It just feels like the threat of moving the team: a bit hollow.
Hopefully what isn't hollow is Katz's belief that a deal still isn't too far off.
"I think we are close to realizing our vision with the city and I think if we work together and are reasonable, we can do so," Katz told the Journal.
"We have to move quickly, time is our enemy. The longer it takes, the more it will cost, and cost [increases] will make the project prohibitive for all of us."
In the meantime, the relocation threat will hang over the entire situation as Katz tries to use his leverage -- some like the people at The Copper & Blue would call it blackmail -- to get a deal done. The threat certainly appears to be nothing more than that at the moment and when it's all said and done it's very difficult to see Edmonton without a team.
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