Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Glendale repeats our long-ago mistakes

Propping up teams proven to be folly

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Three hours before boarding a (delayed) flight out of Phoenix last November, I was on the hunt for souvenirs.

I have become a bit of an expert in mining the best stuffed animals and T-shirts out of airport gift stores. This time, my task seemed easy as the Phoenix airport has a fairly large duty-free mall for international passengers.

For my daughter, I scored a painted pony statue. For my son, it has to be sports memorabilia. On this trip, I needed Phoenix Coyotes swag.

At a store dedicated to sports goodies, I was immediately confronted by an entire wall of crimson souvenirs dedicated to the Phoenix Cardinals (NFL), and smaller walls for the Arizona Diamondbacks (MLB) and the Phoenix Suns (NBA). Then there was the Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and two lesser colleges I had never heard of. There was even stuff from minor-league baseball teams.

I asked the pleasant man behind the counter where he was hiding some Coyotes gear. He pointed to the far end of the store where there were five T-shirts and a shelf with four shot glasses.

"That it?" I said rather incredulously. "Yep," he replied. "Nobody asks for Coyotes. And who knows where they're gonna be next year. I'm not going to buy stuff for a team that might leave."

The impending threat of departure gave this small businessman a prime excuse to ignore the Coyotes. The truth is people in Arizona really don't need an excuse; they've been ignoring the Coyotes for a very long time.

As was graphically demonstrated in that airport gift store, Arizonians have a lot of choices when it comes to spending their entertainment dollar. The awful reality is more people in Arizona probably attend high school football than NHL hockey. And right now, the tickets are about the same price.

Free Press reporter Bartley Kives was sent down to Glendale City Hall to cover the debate over whether to backstop the Coyotes' losses for the next year to keep the team in Arizona. Kives made a key observation in the last paragraph of his story. With their beloved hockey team on the verge of leaving town, Coyotes fans could not fill the 285-seat city council chamber.

We now have a new adjective for lacklustre public support: Glendalian. As in, "there were fewer people there than showed up at Glendale City Hall to save the Coyotes."

Undeterred by the absence of widespread public support, Glendale council voted to cover the operating losses of a professional hockey team for one year. It's a crazy thing for Glendale to do. We know this in Manitoba because we tried it and we failed spectacularly.

Two decades ago, the Province of Manitoba agreed, rather foolishly, to backstop losses for the Winnipeg Jets in a bid to keep the team in a league where salaries were rising faster than the Canadian dollar in the wake of the Bear Stearns collapse.

Taxpayers were already on the hook for most of the team's operating losses. The city, through the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, owned the arena and 36 per cent of the team. As a result, the city paid 36 per cent of all losses up to $400,000 and 100 per cent of the losses for anything over that amount.

In November 1991, the city was balking at having to pay losses for the upcoming season that were estimated in the range of $3 million. With the private owners threatening to relocate the team, then-premier Gary Filmon was forced to get involved.

The deal was complex. Local businesses would contribute $10 million to pay management fees to the private owners for six seasons, which it was thought would buy enough time to build a new arena that would generate revenues to support the team outright.

The province got an 18 per cent stake in the team, for which it agreed to split losses with the city on a 50-50 basis.

If there was no agreement in place to build a new arena by June 1994, the private owners could sell the franchise. Local interests would get first shot at buying the majority shares for the princely sum of $32 million.

History will show no arena was built, no new local investors stepped forward and the team was sold instead to a group that moved it to the Arizona desert. History will also show it was a horrible decision. The Jets/Coyotes have been an abysmal failure in the desert. And unless there's a massive, sudden run on Coyotes shot glasses, Arizona cannot support the team.

Glendale should study the sorry history of efforts to save the Jets. Deals like this rarely succeed, and tend to make governments look like suckers.

If insanity is making the same mistake over and over again and expecting a different result, then we owe a debt of gratitude to Glendale council.

They have shown insanity is not exclusively a Manitoba commodity.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2010 A4

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