Stampeders left out of arena conversations in Calgary (again)

Photo courtesy: City of Calgary

The Calgary Stampeders have been held out of a major sports infrastructure development in the city. Again.

In August 2015, the reigning Grey Cup champions were 5-2 and fresh off a 48-3 demolition of the Ottawa Redblacks at McMahon Stadium, avenging an early-season loss.

CalgaryNext, a proposed $900 million downtown venue that would house Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation’s (CSEC) teams, was announced. The project would have provided the Stampeders and Flames with brand new facilities, replacing outdated buildings whose lack of amenities had worn out welcome with fans.

Less than a year later, facing ballooning material and environmental remediation costs on the proposed site, the project’s budget grew to an estimated $1.8 billion. CSEC and the city cancelled the deal when they couldn’t agree on which party would be responsible for covering the extra costs.

In 2021, a new arena deal was announced to replace the Calgary Saddledome, though it also collapsed under rising costs.

Cut to Tuesday when CSEC once again announced a deal for a new facility, again leaving the Stampeders out in the proverbial (and literal) cold at McMahon Stadium. The new venue will cost an estimated $1.2 billion with $537.5 million coming from the city and $330 coming from the province. CSEC will cover the remaining $356 million.

“We have the Fenway Park of the CFL and we have to change the narrative,” club vice-president of business operations Jay McNeil told the Go Stamps Go Show earlier this week. “McMahon Stadium is our home and it’s not going to change any time soon.”

Built in 1960 in 103 days for little more than a million dollars by the McMahon brothers after the province and city refused to fund the project, McMahon Stadium has since been donated to the University of Calgary and undergone several expansions and renovations over the years to reach its current capacity of 35,650.

The venue has played host to five Grey Cups, the Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, the World Police and Fire Games, an NHL Heritage Classic, and 62 seasons of CFL football.

“You talk about the tradition, the players who have come through there, and you look at the Wall of Fame. All those players have been a part of that history that belongs in that stadium,” said McNeil. “There are people who go to Boston specifically to go to Fenway park. Nobody’s coming to Calgary just to come to (McMahon) but let’s celebrate what we’ve got and start talking positively about it.”

McNeil recognizes that the old barn isn’t without its shortcomings, which include overcrowded concourses, a lack of concessions, seating that is difficult to reach for those with accessibility issues, and a shortage of bathrooms. He’s optimistic that some of these issues can be rectified before a new building is (hopefully) constructed someday.

“No professional sporting venue should have porta-potties and I’m investigating options to see if we can eliminate them. I’m hoping we can,” he said.

“We’ve got some changes planned for this year and we’ve got changes planned for next year already to make it a better spot. And to make it (a better) atmosphere on game day, we’re working to provide something that you can’t get on TV that when you come, you can only get at McMahon. It’s about creating that atmosphere.”

For now, it seems as though Stamps fans will have to be content with the “Fenway of the CFL” unless a new set of McMahon brothers is waiting in the wings to build a new facility.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Horsemen Radio Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.