The Potential Move of the Senators to the LeBreton Flats: A Realistic Look

In general terms, as a consumer I am a great target for the Ottawa Senators. I am a young male, a major hockey fan, and have a considerable amount of leisure time. So how come I do not attend 5 or 6 Sens games a season? The tickets are very reasonably priced for the majority of games. The Canadian Tire Center is a good venue and the inside environment is a lot of fun. However I am hard pressed to attend 2 games a season.

The issue? Inconvenience. The location of the arena is currently in Kanata, outside of Ottawa, which takes about 20 minutes to drive to (in good traffic) from Downtown. In addition, on game nights the increased traffic around the arena is an incredible nuisance, not to mention the issue of parking. With everyone driving, the parking lots are mayhem following games.

This is a well documented issue and is exactly why fans in the city are very excited about the recent news that the Sens are “actively considering” making a bid to develop and relocate to the LeBreton Flats, near the core of the city of Ottawa. When the news first broke the excitement took off and spread like wildfire through social media. CBC Ottawa asked what people think of the potential move. Here are some supportive answers from fans:

However others are not so supportive and mention certain barriers such as traffic issues downtown and the cost of a new arena.

As a major sports fan I understand the allure of potentially having the Sens play downtown. It would make it much easier to go to a restaurant prior to a game, grab some food and drinks without having to transit to a different town to watch the game. It gets even more appealing when you think that this new arena would be directly connected on the new LRT line (Light rail transit) at Pimisi station, which would only increase the convenience of attendance.

For people within the city, this may seem like a home run. However not so fast. There are many roadblocks that may make, what seems like a no brainer situation, infeasible for the parties involved.

The Facts About the Possible Bid

In September of this year the NCC launched a request for proposals to redevelop a section of the land at LeBreton Flats.

This request included criteria for proposals such as “an attraction of a regional, national or international significance” and for it to be a “world-class capital destination.”

The Senators have apparently recently been “approached by numerous well-established private sector companies and community organizations who have expressed a strong desire to partner with us on developing a world-class proposal for the site.”

Due to this support they are “actively considering” making a bid to develop the site, and that they “feel very strongly that this could only be possible with strong community support.”

Eugene Melnyk (the team owner) has shown reserved support of the team making such a bid.

Melnyk has claimed that it is too early to discuss any specifics about a bid however added (about the Canadian Tire Center) “This building wasn’t built to last 35, 40 years,” and further stated that “you have to build a new one eventually, I hope in my lifetime.” Although the bid request to the NCC is due by January 7, Melnyk would like to file it before Christmas, so that the staff aren’t working over the holidays. Sounds like the team is ready to make a bid if you ask me.

Support of a Potential Move

The sens move downtown seems to be well supported by Eugene Melnyk, as well as certain public officials.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, although reservedly, has questioned the current location of the arena. When asked about the possibility of moving the team downtown, the Minister stated “I’m going to keep my powder dry” however added that “I’ve travelled quite a bit and I’ve never seen a major sports arena in the middle of nowhere.” This seems to show his thinking on the topic, although he also made it clear that whatever is built at the LeBreton Flats needs to be state of the art. Ottawa is in a unique position in which the city has the ability to develop a piece of land near its core. Therefore, whatever is chosen to be built needs to be “excellent”, in the words of Baird.

In addition, the fact that the Sen’s have received a high degree of support from private sector companies and community organizations makes the financing of such a facility a little less daunting. However the Senators have made it clear that they “feel very strongly that this could only be possible with strong community support.” This likely means that they will need assistance through public subsidies to finance the project.

Barriers and Drawbacks

First things first, a new arena for the Sens may not meet the required criteria as set out by the NCC to develop a part of the LeBreton Flats. For example an arena doesn’t quite meet criteria such as having a “strong integration with existing and surrounding communities” or that it would be a “complementary use for a waterfront site, with nearby national institutions and memorials.” Further, LeBreton Flats is public land, therefore the NCC has an expectation that the new development will be anchored by a public institution. The Senators are a for-profit, private organization, and therefore a new Ottawa Senators arena would not meet these expectations.

The second, and most important factor to consider is the overwhelming cost of building a new arena.

As we all know, the Sens are not flush with cash, and when they say they will need considerable community support, they likely mean they will require a large amount of public support to help pay for a new arena. The team spends at the bottom of the league in terms of player salaries, and owner Eugene Melnyk has stated that he has suffered a cumulative loss of $110 million operating the team. Although it sounds like the plan is to partner with private organization to help fund this project, the odds that the team and its private investors will be able to fully fund a $400-$500 million dollar arena is highly unlikely. Therefore the Senators bid will likely include requests for a large amount of public subsidies to make the plan work.

In professional sport, the amount of public subsidies teams receive has become a hot topic, and for good reason. Over the past 20 years there have been 101 new sports facilities opened in the United States, and 90 percent of them received direct public funding (Gordon, 2013). In addition, according to the book “Public/Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities” (Long, 2012) the average public cost for a new facility in the 1990’s was $142 million (adjusted to 2010 dollars) while by the end of the 2000’s the average public cost was $241 million. This is an increase of 70 percent. This doesn’t even take into account other public subsidies for the facilities that the professional teams receive such as costs of operations, capital improvements, municipal services, etc. that are often out of the tax-payers pockets.

Therefore it is important to understand what type of support the Ottawa Senators would need, then to determine whether that money could be better served in other areas. Especially since the team already has a fine NHL rink (for the time being) in Kanata, albeit a little inconvenient.

Although a move downtown by the Senators would be extremely exciting for sports fans in the city, it may be unlikely that it happens anytime soon.

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