NHL

NHL's Canadian hubs offer little economic benefit, but morale boost is valuable: experts

A plan to operate NHL game hubs in Edmonton and Toronto could draw hundreds of hockey players and staff to both Canadian cities, but business experts say their presence won't give a huge boost to local economies.

Financial benefit of two bubble communities under tight seal would be 'modest' at best

Workers stand by after pausing arena assembly for a Toronto Maple Leafs home game at Scotiabank Arena in March. Toronto, along with Edmonton, will be one of the NHL's two hub city locations when play resumes. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

A plan to operate NHL game hubs in Edmonton and Toronto could draw hundreds of hockey players and staff to both Canadian cities, but business experts say their presence won't give a huge boost to local economies.

While hundreds of people could be employed in positions relating to the games and hubs — such as security jobs, rink staff, food services and hotel housekeeping — the financial benefit of two bubble communities under tight seal would be "modest" at best, suggested Bank of Montreal chief economist Douglas Porter.

"When you think of how many tourists would normally be in Toronto during peak tourist season, I'm quite sure this is less than one per cent," he said.

"The reality is, it's not going to move the needle."

But Porter, a lifelong hockey fan, said he anticipates a "reasonably meaningful positive" morale boost to Canadian sports fans who've been eagerly anticipating players returning to the ice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The games are slated to start Aug. 1 with six Canadian teams qualifying for the 24-team resumption of play. No fans will be in the seats.

Edmonton and Toronto were confirmed as the NHL's hub cities on Friday night.

WATCH | NHL, NHLPA approve return to play for Aug. 1:

CBC News' Raffy Boudjikanian outlines the NHL's return-to-play plan, including the decision to use Edmonton and Toronto as the two "hub cities." 2:31

"The fact that part of our world is getting back to some kind of normal will help reinforce the sense that things, generally, are moving in that direction and could help support the recovery," Porter said.

The gradual comeback of major sporting events has drawn plenty of interest in recent weeks, with debates raging over the risks of putting players back into the games, even if spectators aren't allowed in the facilities.

Further questions have been raised over whether rigorous testing is enough to prevent outbreaks within the isolated community, which could potentially throw the whole plan into a costly disarray.

Many of these factors make placing a value on hockey's return especially difficult.

Michael Naraine, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said the largest amount of money is on the line at large corporations, which he said is driving the return of major sporting events.

"The primary revenue driver for sports is broadcasting," said the assistant professor of digital sport management and marketing.

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The league took one step closer to returning with a tentative agreement on its return to play plan and CBA extension. Rob Pizzo breaks down the deal.  2:01

"They need television advertisers come back. The league itself needs to gain its revenue from NBC and Sportsnet here in Canada."

Politicians have preferred to emphasize the positive aspects of a deal with the NHL.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney eagerly promoted Edmonton as the ultimate hub city for the hockey league, posting videos on Twitter that prominently featured the Rocky Mountains and other popular destinations in the province.

Naraine said those public expressions by leaders are more an attempt to "pander" to their constituents than actually drive any meaningful economic impact. He said this is especially the case in Edmonton.

"Having major events come to town allows them to beat their chests and say, 'We exist. We're on the map. Come look at us,"' he said.

"But the fact that the hub city will be in Edmonton is no different than whether the hub city would be in Toronto or Vancouver or elsewhere. It's not going to significantly drive tourism all of a sudden."

Patrick Rishe, a sports professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said he sees value in showcasing a lesser known Canadian city on broadcast television with "beauty shots" of the locale. He said it may also sit well with NHL executives.

"You never know," he said. "Doing and serving a good deed for the league now, this could pay dividends down the road."

Any semblance of a regular hockey season would be welcomed by Dana Parris, owner of the Lockeroom sports bar in Barrie, Ont.

Even though her business is over 100 kilometres away from downtown Toronto, she anticipates the excitement would reverberate to her customers.

"If we could have sports come back and we hit Stage 3 (of Ontario's COVID reopening plan) around the same time, I will probably stop crying myself to sleep," she said.

"If those two come together it's just going to be the most beautiful thing."

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