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Why has Canada not subsidized the CFL?

2008 May 7
by Skip Sauer

This article claims that the Canadian Football League is “could be on the verge of a construction boom.”

Five CFL teams – the Montreal Alouettes, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Saskatchewan Roughriders and the ownership of a conditional Ottawa franchise – are aggressively pushing plans to build new stadiums or drastically alter and refurbish old ones.

Factor in the anticipated makeover of Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium, which could add a retractable roof to the facility, and a potential redesign of Toronto’s BMO Field to accommodate the Argonauts, and the CFL could be looking at well over a half-billion dollars invested in stadium infrastructure during the next five years.

Many would suggest it’s long overdue.

It’s the overdue question that intrigues me. The article notes that no stadium has been built for football since the 1960s, although some teams play in venues built for another purpose. Some are dilapidated.

Why the lack of public investment? The CFL, like other prominent North American leagues, is a closed set of teams that controls entry. The incentive to obtain a stadium subsidy that derives from the league structure and the relocation threat thus exists. The view of Canadian government as fairly liberal with the checkbook would imply public-private “cooperation” on stadium ventures.

The article suggests at one point that “local and provincial governments are wary about investing in pro sports facilities of any kind,” but that doesn’t wash with me. Brad knows all about the current subsidy issue over a hockey arena in Alberta, for instance ;)

I can see two possibilities.

It is possible that the CFL makes so little money and has such a small impact that the relocation threat is not operative. There is in fact relatively little demand for football stadiums, public or privately financed.

Second, the political distribution of power differs in Canada from the U.S. This renders the execution of a relocation threat pointless, since (by assumption) there is not a significant source of local public revenue. [bleg: Anyone know the facts?]

I lean towards the first. But the second is testable: hockey arenas should have a greater fraction of public funding south of the U.S. border, despite the fact that hockey is Canada’s national sport.

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