Rob Breakenridge: Make no mistake, the Flames are playing hardball

Ken King, President and CEO of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, unveils plans for a new enclosed sports complex in Calgary, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015.
Ken King, President and CEO of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, unveils plans for a new enclosed sports complex in Calgary, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Ridewood

Well, that escalated quickly.

On Monday, Naheed Nenshi kicked off his mayoral re-election campaign with the release of this video touting the idea of an entertainment district in Victoria Park, centred around a new arena:

We already knew that the so-called “Plan B” for a new arena involved a project in Victoria Park, but so far no agreement had been reached between the city and the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC – owners of the Calgary Flames).

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Nenshi’s proposal made no mention of what sort of a price tag we’d be looking at, or what sort of funding model would fund the cost of the project. It seems clear, though, that Nenshi’s previous opposition to using public dollars to finance a new arena has softened considerably and that public dollars are very much on the table.

But what’s also clear – even if Nenshi is loathe to admit it – is that the entertainment district concept seems contingent on an arena being built. There are other components, to be sure, but no arena leaves a pretty big hole in the plan. So if it’s now a case of the city needing a new arena as well as the Flames, perhaps CSEC believes they now have some considerable leverage.

Whatever the reason, CSEC’s response to Nenshi’s proposal was to up the ante in a dramatic way:

The Calgary Flames are no longer looking for a new arena in their home city, according to the president of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC).

“We had an owners meeting today and we have determined and needed to advise Gary [Bettman] that we’re no longer going to be pursuing a new facility,” Ken King said in a Tuesday news conference. “The owners’ group are pretty clear and pretty definite in their view on that.

“We were asked… in the last year or so, if we’d look at a Victoria Park vision and we’ve been meeting directly for months and they’ve been spectacularly unproductive meetings,” he added.

“And it’s unfortunate because I thought we really had something that would work and it would seem pretty clear that it’s not.”

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LISTEN: Ken King explains CSEC’s decision not to pursue a new arena in Calgary

It may well be that the Flames are frustrated at the lack of progress and probably still frustrated that their CalgaryNEXT idea didn’t fly. But it seems pretty clear that this is a negotiating tactic, even though King denies it. There was no explicit threat to leave Calgary or sell the team, but given everything that CSEC has said about the need for a new building, that threat was more than implied in the announcement.

What was revealing in King’s comments was what he didn’t say. He didn’t elaborate on what exactly CSEC’s proposal was for a new arena project in Victoria Park, or what the city had offered them. King has previously said they would happily accept the deal the Edmonton Oilers received, a proposal that Nenshi criticizes in his video. That may illustrate where some of these differences lie, but we have no idea.

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CSEC clearly knows that we’re close to an election, and simply could have sat back to see what the new council looks like and then go from there. It seems rather deliberate, then, to raise the political stakes in the hopes that worried Flames fans will pressure those running for mayor and city council to give the owners a better deal. It also makes things very awkward for the incumbent mayor seeking another term – an incumbent mayor who has clearly been at odds in the past with the Flames ownership.

Perhaps a deal could have been reached by now. Remember, though, that it was CSEC who waited until August of 2015 to present their CalgaryNEXT proposal. The city did the responsible thing and reviewed that proposal, finding it lacking in many ways. Talks over a so-called “Plan B” couldn’t start until then. CSEC could have simply approached the city at the outset and said “let’s find something that works for both of us.” And frankly, they could have done that long before August of 2015.

LISTEN: Rob Breakenridge on the bombshell announcement from Flames ownership

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The silver lining here is that this development brings the issue to the forefront of the civic election campaign. Calgary voters certainly deserve to know where candidates stand on the question of a new arena.

But certainly those who would make proposals – and that includes CSEC, even though they’re not on any ballot – should be detailed about what sort of a price tag they envision and where the money is going to come from to pay for it.

What do you want to build, what will it cost, and who should pay for it? Simple questions that Calgarians deserve answers to.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News. 

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