While free agency has dominated the headlines last week, there were a couple of recent developments on the Atlantic Schooners front that deserve a little more scrutiny. The information comes via a couple of stories, one by TSN’s Dave Naylor and the other by CP’s Dan Ralph, and both feature subtle warning signs about the viability of the entire enterprise.
They contain extensive interviews with Anthony LeBlanc, one of the three main backers behind Maritime Football Ltd. LeBlanc has been the face and the voice of the franchise and he’s clearly looking to apply pressure to the city of Halifax and the province of Nova Scotia as the group looks to nail down significant financial commitments from both levels of governments.
The narrative around the Halifax franchise has slowly shifted since October 2017 when CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie mentioned it in an interview with PostMedia. “It has to be a creative business model, where it’s financially positive to all,” Ambrosie said. “I think we can do it.”
The following month, Halifax mayor Mike Savage pushed back, calling a potential CFL team an “exciting opportunity,” but said the municipality would not be taking the lead. “A stadium is not a capital priority at this time,” he said. “Any proposal would need to be private sector led and make economic sense for the municipality.”
But by the following summer, Maritime Football Ltd. and Ambrosie were slowly nudging the municipality and the province towards a model that included taxpayer dollars, including changes to the city’s charter to potentially allow for a special tax arrangement and assistance with debt financing. By October, the demand was more explicit: “There’s a lot of players at the table, but I think ultimately there’s optimism that we can do this, as long as everybody is at the table understanding what the shared risk is,” LeBlanc said.
With that opening, the CFL and Maritime launched a season ticket campaign and naming contest, all designed to demonstrate that there is popular support for the project. Now Ambrosie and LeBlanc are exerting overt pressure, with the commissioner using a football metaphor in yet another interview with PostMedia.
“But then you go to the big picture, so ultimately this thing hinges on the stadium,” he said. “In the context of our game, think of it this way: we’re down by five and there is three minutes left to go in the game. We’re getting a lot of first downs right now and our fans are cheering, it’s really exciting, but all those first downs won’t mean anything unless we get in the end zone.”
But will they? LeBlanc’s recent interviews with Naylor and Ralph has left me with renewed doubts.
First and foremost, they’ve dramatically reduced the proposed cost for the stadium from $190 million to around $130 million, with the idea that the site could be developed in phases much like BMO Field in Toronto was. The original cost for BMO was $63 million in 2017 with a $120 million renovation that was completed in 2016.
So what’s there now – a stadium without much by the way of luxury boxes or amenities – was still $190 million or so. Tim Hortons Field, which is a well-designed but hardly extravagant facility, was projected at $155 million (though the final number disappeared into the sea of lawsuits between the provincial government, the city, the Ticats and the builder.)
Mosaic Stadium in Regina was $278 million and the final cost of Investors Group Field has been pegged at $384 million. That whole CBC article is a cautionary tale that shows that when projected revenues streams don’t materialize, it’s the taxpayers that suffer – a lesson that Halifax has already learned with their convention centre,
Anyway, the fact that the Halifax group is already publicly lowering their financial ask is a sign they have doubts about the political will to support the project. And there are real questions, given the economics of the other stadiums around the CFL, about what you could actually build for $130 million.
The other little tidbit is that the Schooners have elected not to hire a head of football operations until after a stadium deal gets done (if it ever does.) Again, backtracking on what seemed like a done deal – both Naylor and our own Justin Dunk had that story – is another indication that there may be some doubt creeping in.
And why hasn’t the league finalized a game on the East Coast yet?
The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is just noise. Speculating about where the franchise might play its games while a stadium is getting built is pointless if the stadium never gets built. The whole thing rests on finding the money to build a bricks-and-mortar facility and until that’s in place, there is no franchise – no matter how much enthusiasm the league and potential owners insist there is.
Another recent story by the CBC featured interviews with a couple of Halifax Regional Municipality Councillors, including Richard Zurawski who doesn’t seem inclined to support the stadium or appreciate the campaign the league and Maritime have waged.
“No stadium has really worked out. It’s become a bit of an albatross for the public,” he said.
“Already, they have broken… two promises. They have engaged in a public relations exercise, sold advance tickets, naming of the proposed CFL team, and decided without consultation with council that Shannon Park is the site.”
Look, I want the CFL to expand to Halifax. I covered two Touchdown Atlantics in Moncton – the second of which did not sell out, by the way – and had a great time. Halifax is an amazing city. I think growing the Canadian market has a lot more potential than partnerships in Mexico or Austria or Germany or France.
But history also informs me that taxpayers often get holding the bag if these things aren’t done exactly right and it feels like the politicians and the good people of Halifax have already figured that out. Asking for a less outrageous sum of money doesn’t solve that fundamental problem.