Calgary doesn’t need the Olympics to build a new arena

In just under a month, Calgary will vote on whether or not to bid on the 2026 Winter Olympics. While hosting in 2026 would bring outside cash into the equation, a victory for the “no” side in November’s plebiscite won’t kill the chances for a new home for the Calgary Flames.

How did we get here?

Way, way back in the spring of 2005 – as the National Hockey League’s lockout was dragging onward – the Flames quietly began chatting with stakeholders about potentially building a new home for the hockey team. At the time the then-Pengrowth Saddledome was slightly over 20 years old and the thought process was likely that there was plenty of time in the lease and the lifespan of the building to come to a thoughtful arrangement on a new barn.

That we’re still having this conversation over a decade later speaks to how challenging unforeseen circumstances – both economic and flood-related – can be to a negotiation. But two parallel tracks have seemingly revived hopes for a new building: the ongoing bidding process for the 2026 Winter Olympics and recently revived talks between the Flames and the City regarding a new arena (or “event centre”).

The timing of the revived talks, roughly a month before a Nov. 13 non-binding vote on whether Calgary will bid for the 2026 Olympics, have led to some suspicions that the two are connected. To assuage any confusion: they’re not.

But it’s worth going into a bit of the mechanics about how the arena and the Olympic bid are intertwined, especially given the possibility that either side of the Olympic plebiscite debate could seize on confusion.

Does a successful Olympic bid require a new big arena?

The International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 reforms are aimed at making hosting the Olympics easier (and less costly) for host cities. The main way they’re doing that is by discouraging bid cities from building new stuff explicitly for the Olympics – there’s a cottage industry of Tumblrs devoted to ghost-like photos of decrepit, abandoned venues from recent games, after all.

But the Calgary 2026 bid only includes two new builds – a proposed secondary arena and a field house – with both of them connected to the life-cycle needs of the city’s sports infrastructure; the arena is connected to both the aging of Father David Bauer Arena and the impending demolition of the Stampede Corral, while the field house has been one of the top unfunded municipal projects since 2012.

Building a larger arena would nominally serve the same purpose as the proposed secondary arena, but it would also strengthen the economic case for Calgary’s bid. The biggest money-makers for most winter Olympics are hockey and curling (both men’s and women’s); it makes a ton of sense to have two big arenas (the Saddledome and the new build) instead of just one to maximize ticket revenue. The bid works without a new big barn – the IOC famously has said that the Saddledome is adequate for Olympic needs – but the business case makes a lot more sense with it involved, just as long as it’s not built only for the Olympics.

In short: a new large arena would help the case for the bid, but the bid works without it.

Does the new big arena require a successful Olympic bid?

A successful Olympic bid would see roughly $2 billion of outside cash flow into Calgary to help fund the infrastructure needs of a 2026 Olympics – with funds ear-marked for the proposed secondary arena. Presumably some (or even all) of the ear-marked funds could be diverted to help fund a new Flames barn.

In short: yes, the Olympics could help make things a bit easier financially on both the City and the Flames (and would potentially result in less reliance on loans or a ticket tax).

But also recall that arena negotiations were going pretty well by all accounts before they hit the skids in July 2017, with the impasse arguably as much about philosophical differences as it was about finances. Simply put: there was enough money on the table between the City and the Flames to get a deal done before the Olympics became a possibility, so while having extra cash available definitely helps, it’s not necessary to get a deal done.

In other words: if the Olympic bid dies on the vine due to the Nov. 13 plebiscite, it won’t necessarily halt the momentum of the arena deal. It takes a bit of money off the table, but the construction of a new building will be as much about philosophical fit as it will be about the financial elements of the deal.

  • freethe flames

    The arena could very well become an issue in the provincial election. So far I don’t think either side on the Olympic debate has sparked much interest from the general public. I do think that many are skeptical of taxpayers paying for white elephants. (Note even if the Feds and the Province put money in it is still taxpayers money). My opinion remains the same there needs to be a fair revenue sharing package to keep the taxpayers from paying for the entire thing; pus IMO there should be money set aside from all revenue generated for the needed upgrades and eventual replacement of whatever is built.

  • buts

    Where is the stampede board with all there money in all of this? If it’s built in Victoria park then I’m sure they benefit especially during the stampede. I wish the combination of a field house arena stadium obviously not in west village was still an option as McMahon is a dinosaur and why could it not fit in Victoria Park.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    I don’t think a new arena is necessary. Seattle is renovating the old structure for 700 million to make it suitable and profitable. I’m sure 700 million spent on the saddledome would vastly improve it to make it more than adequate. The location is great, downtown, c train service. I’m sure there are plenty of smaller arenas to host the curling events.
    A lot cheaper than building a brand new structure.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    I’d argue that a successful Olympic bid might kill a new arena by 2026. The proposed budget for the 2026 Olympics does not include the construction of an arena to replace the ageing Dome, nor does the IOC recommend Calgary replace it, so unless, by magic, truckloads of private money arrive to fund a new arena just in time for the Olympics, no new arena for Calgary until after the 2026 games. Ditto for a new stadium to replace dingy and dilapidated McMahon.

    Bettman is on record as saying that as long as the Flames continue to play out of the Mausoleumdome, Calgary will not play host to the all-star game or the entry draft. Loved it last month when Bettman said in China that he was very open to the idea of the NHL All-Star game being played in China. Take it to the next step and Shanghai gets an NHL Entry Draft before Calgary does. A successful Olympic bid by Calgary won’t change that sad but hilarious fact one iota.

  • Flamesfever

    This is not right time to bid the 2016 Olympic. The economy is downed. If flames want to have the new building then must come from their pocket, not from the tax payer. Montreal, Ottawa, and torontcan do it. Then why can flames do it.

  • Justthateasy

    The money has already been spent on a monument Library. As a library card holder you should have received a personally addressed invitation letter to attend the opening ceremonies on November 1st. More money wasted.
    We’ll never know what’s going on because it’s all Secret Squirrel stuff.
    Sorry, all I’ve got is negativity when it’s about other people spending my money on a two-week winter party.

    • theartfuldodger

      It blows my mind that we are even having a discussion about the Olympics. Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments are in deficit budgets and we are talking about spending billions and hundreds of millions from those budgets on a two-week winter party? WTF is wrong with people?

  • Dunk

    But apparently we can spend 4 billion on a tunnel LRT to 16 ave.
    We should use that money for the Olympics and a new area and a ton of other more pressing needs then that enormous waste of money..

    • Dunk

      It’s called the Green line cost 4.65 billion. Yes that is correct……
      Has any one heard of anything more ridiculous…..well maybe a $280,000,000 library…who is running the asylum…

    • theartfuldodger

      Uhm… LRT and transit is hardly a waste of money. That LRT needs to get to the SE industrial and the more the many communities in the far southeast that are currently under served by transit. An arena and Olympic party from tax coffers is the waste of tax payers money. Wow.

  • Dunk

    It’s called the Green line cost 4.65 billion. Yes that is correct……
    Has any one heard of anything more ridiculous…..well maybe a $280,000,000 library…who is running the asylum…

  • TheWheeze

    I admittedly can’t add much in the way of personal experience here, but friends I have who travel a lot and have been to the new state of the art arenas gush about them and say how incredible they are, and how the Dome seems like a bus station. Plus the fact major concert tours pretty much don’t come through here much anymore. Like the library, I never go to the library yet tens of millions of tax dollars went to the new downtown building, you don’t hear me complain. Anything to bring Calgary into the 21st century needs to be considered.

  • It’s time for the CSEC & city council to come up with a compromise arena deal that neither is totally happy with but both can live with. I’d hate to see the city pledge hundreds of millions after a Yes vote plebiscite & winning IOC bid for 2026 then turn around & plead poverty when the CSEC submits a revised, “take it or leave it” proposal that leads the Flames to relocate for the 2020-21 season.