Talk of moving Flames just posturing, says sports economist

A sports economist says Ken King is likely bluffing when he says the Flames will move unless a new arena is built in Calgary for them to play in.

'You can’t just arbitrarily move a team without discussion'

Calgary Flames president and CEO Ken King says without a new arena, the team could leave the city. (Calgary Flames)

A sports economist says Ken King is likely bluffing when he says the Flames will move unless a new arena is built in Calgary for them to play in.

King, the Calgary Flames president and CEO, said in a radio interview last week that relocating the team is one of the possible outcomes if they can't strike a deal with the city on a new arena.

But that may just be a bit of posturing in ongoing negotiations, says Moshe Lander, a professor of sports economics at Concordia University in Montreal.

"I don't believe you can just decide to move a team," he said.

"Ken King's quote was something to the effect of, 'We won't discuss it, we'll just one day be gone.' You can't do that, you have to have the approval of 75 per cent of the [NHL] ownership, and another city has to step forward with a market that's ready to go and an arena."

There are also several logistical factors that have to be weighed, he continued.

"If the team moves, how is that going to affect the other 30 teams now with Vegas?" he said. "How is that going to affect their travel, their scheduling? You can't just arbitrarily move a team without discussion. It's too simplistic to just say, 'We'll just go one day.'"

A rendering of what CalgaryNEXT might look like in the West Village next to downtown. (Calgary Flames)

Part of the playbook

Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based author who writes about using public money to pay for sports venues and co-wrote the book Field of Schemes. He says there are a couple of reasons why the Flames will likely stay put.

"The first item in the stadium or arena demand playbook is always to threaten to move — or kind of allude to a move and claim you're not threatening," he said.

"So it's always difficult to tell how serious they are. I think it's not out of the question the Flames could move, potentially, but there are a lot of things mitigating against it, starting with the fact Calgary is a decent-sized hockey market."

DeMause also points to the fact that other owners have threatened to move their teams during negotiations in the past but not followed through.

"When you look across history, the number of teams' owners who threaten moves are many, many times the number who actually go through with it," he said. "You take it seriously as a possibility but not necessarily a likelihood."

Places the Flames can go

Lander concedes there are other cities the Flames could move to, like Seattle or Quebec City.

"There's two markets right there that are waiting, and if you want to start scanning a map of the U.S., could Portland handle a team? Probably. They have a successful WHL franchise. Could you fill out teams to the midwest, maybe Kansas City or something like that? There's enough markets there."

A collapse of the Canadian dollar compared to the U.S. would make a move more feasible, added Lander.

"Only in that type of case is it possible," he said.

"Other than that, you've gotta have these major Canadian markets build to keep the league viable. You can't have Canadian franchises just up and leave, particularly if it's to the U.S. And there's not a lot of Canadian cities left that are viable franchise destinations, other than Quebec City. Once that's done, you've kind of filled the market, so I don't see any circumstance in which Calgary would leave."

The Flames pitched the idea for CalgaryNEXT — an arena, stadium, fieldhouse and events centre — back in 2015. At the time, team officials pegged the cost at $890 million, however city officials estimate it will cost $1.8 billion, including necessary cleanup of creosote contamination at the proposed site.

The Flames and the city also continue to discuss what's being called "Option B," a possible new arena in Victoria Park. A report on that is due to be presented to city council sometime in the next month. Option B would also include refurbishment of McMahon Stadium and construction of a separate fieldhouse. 

King says he's participating in that process.

With files from Andrew Brown