The week of infamy has begun for Toronto Blue Jays fans. Three years ago their team was a powerhouse, seemingly on the brink of a trip to the World Series.
But the week before Major League Baseball’s 2019 trading deadline finds the Blue Jays gone from powerhouse to house of cards. The power and the glory of the José Bautista days has vanished as the team owners trade anyone and everyone who has a pricey contract.
The defenestration of the Jays began on the weekend as the team dumped its golden-boy pitcher, Marcus Stroman, for, in the vivid words of Paul Simon, “a pocketful of mumbles such are promises.” Veteran infielder Eric Sogard was also given his get-out-of-Toronto-jail card. He was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays for players so valuable they’re both called To Be Named Later.
It’s clear the team is making a spirited run at the toothless Tigers of Detroit for the honour of being MLB’s worst squad (which might be tough seeing how Detroit has just 30 wins so far). More than that, team owner Rogers Communications is making a payroll purge to guarantee that those empty seats in September won’t be a point of contention at the next stockholders’ meeting.
As it has so often in the past, Rogers is turning its pockets inside out like that man on Monopoly’s Chance card. See? No money here to run a proper team. We’re just poor, modest Canadians trying to keep our heads above water. Don’t blame us if we can’t compete with the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.
That narrative is so much bunkum, of course. The Blue Jays represent the fourth largest urban market in North America. The Golden Horseshoe has about eight million people within 90 minutes of the Jays’ home park. They also have a monopoly on the 37 million citizens of Canada, many of whom are forced to take Rogers’ telecasts of the punchless Jays.
They can compete with anyone should they want to. But they let on to fans that they’re just poor Canajuns when, in fact, they’re gutting the team because they’ve gotten themselves into such hot water with their $5.2-billion National Hockey League TV and digital contract. The millstone that Rogers acquired from NHL commissioner Gary ‘We Can Get It For You Wholesale’ Bettman is strangling the company’s financial flexibility.
The Rogers staff cuts of Bob McCown, Bob Cole, Daren Millard, Gord Cutler and many others are symptoms of the panic infesting the inner sanctum of Rogers. The poor old phone salesmen are groping for answers. And one of them is to rob the Blue Jays – and their fans – to keep from having to sell off parts of the broadcast contract.
That’s just business, you might say.
Okay. But don’t let anyone tell you they’re a small market, limited, resources-stretched franchise (as the Toronto Raptors did when they let Kawhi Leonard walk to National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers). Toronto is a big market, a very big market, with abundant resources to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.
It’s the very antithesis of the situation being faced by the people of Calgary, who will know by midweek if they’re helping to build a new arena for the hometown NHL Flames. It will cost the city $275 million of the proposed $550 million total, with much more to come in infrastructure, etc.
Building an arena for or in partnership with the Flames’ well-heeled owners was never an easy sell. Now it’s made worse as property taxes have shot up by much as 30 per cent in some cases (my own went up 18 per cent). Having said no to the dream of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics, Calgary citizens are clearly in an ornery mood. They’re not overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour of pro sports at the moment.
The new arena issue has been circulating in Calgary since 2005, when Flames Sports and Entertainment Corp. president Ken King told listeners to my radio show that the Flames would be in a new building by 2013 – at the latest.
Deadlines came. Deadlines went. Shovels never went near the ground. Costs zoomed even as the civic economy was savaged by the oil collapse and the cancellation of several pipelines.
It’s a lousy recipe for selling a huge commitment of public money. But if Calgary wants to keep its precious bragging point of being home to an NHL team, it needs a new arena. Playing in the decrepit Saddledome or in a building where they can’t reap all the revenues their competitors get from their stadium complexes is a ticket to losing the team.
So Calgary taxpayers and their feckless politicians have to ask themselves the opposite questions now being asked by Toronto sports fans.
Do you feel big league? How much are you prepared to pay for it?
Toronto can afford the luxury of a shiny sports franchise. Calgary is at its breaking point, pushed to compete with markets that dwarf it in size and corporate support. How much do Calgarians want to pay for a good civic feeling? Do they want to spend like big shots to stay in the league?
We are about to find out.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.