A subsidy for Quebec's arena? Depends how you sell the story

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The Gazette, Monday, September 13, 2010

When Conservative MPs from the Quebec City region donned blue Nordiques jerseys to show their support for federal funding of a new hockey arena, they were setting the wrong media frame.

While a new Colisee is a prerequisite for a successful bid by Quebec City for an NHL franchise, it's not on that basis that Ottawa might agree to match the Quebec government's pledge of $175 million for a new building, with $50 million coming from Quebec City itself.

The pretext, and political cover, for Ottawa partnering with Quebec isn't to support its NHL aspirations, but to advance Quebec City's bid on the 2022 Winter Olympics. Long story short, the International Olympic Committee won't even consider a bid from a city that doesn't have an arena with at least 18,000 seats for hockey and figure skating.

Ottawa spent more than $1 billion on security and facilities for the 2010 Winter Games, and $175 million up-front for the Quebec bid is a relatively modest request.

What Quebec City does have going for it -- apart from snow, and lots of it -- is geography. It's in North America's eastern time zone, which would drive the price of TV rights through the roof.

Quebec's bid also has friends in high places in the Olympic family, notably IOC member Dick Pound, who negotiated all those billion-dollar TV deals with NBC. As a general practice, the IOC does not award the Olympics to the same country twice in the same decade, but 2022 is in the next decade.

Finally, Quebec City has the strong backing of the Canadian government, particularly after the success of the Vancouver Games.

The fact that most of the federal funding of the Vancouver Games came after the city won the bid is interesting but not fundamental.

As for the number, $175 million, it's a rounding error in terms of Ottawa's fiscal framework of $250 billion a year.

If you asked Canadians if they supported the Winter Olympics coming to Canada for a third time, the answer would be yes.

For that matter, if you asked them if Winnipeg and Quebec City, both small markets but good hockey towns, should have NHL franchises, the answer would also be yes.

But if you asked them if public funds should assist an NHL bid, they would say no, and decry special treatment for Quebec since Winnipeg already has a 15,000-seat rink. And they'd also ask what about an upgrade for the NHL buildings in Edmonton and Calgary. Or how about money for the new Lansdowne Park in Ottawa? Or how about federal funding for a domed football stadium in Regina, so it can host the Grey Cup in late November? You see where this leads.

"Cities clamour to play Quebec's stadium game" the Globe and Mail headlined in its Friday edition. "Puck pandering," sneered an editorial in the same paper.

By visually framing the story as backing Quebec's NHL bid for partisan political gain, the Conservatives have unleashed the politics of envy, on what should have been a slam-dunk positive story on the Olympic bid.

As for financial backing for the Nordiques bid, Quebecor's Pierre-Karl Peladeau is prepared to put up $225 million to secure a franchise. That would obviously work as a convergence play for his television and print media properties. For that matter, he would probably put up another $100 million in naming rights for the building, unless he was prepared to see Rogers or Bell have their name on it. So in that sense, there would be private money in the arena. Nor does it take much to work up an impact study that governments would recover their costs through consumption taxes generated by ticket sales and concessions. This is not heavy lifting.

But it is a leadership moment for Stephen Harper. He can either step up or step back. Welcome to the NHL, Prime Minister.

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