Thursday, April 09, 2009

Whitecaps: NDP threatens to axe retractable roof

The upcoming B.C. provincial election has invaded many areas of life, but sports wasn't really a key issue until now. Tyler Green and Mike Martignago from The TEAM 1040 reported on their blog this afternoon that the provincial New Democrats are threatening to scrap the planned retractable roof for B.C. Place, which of course was a key element in the Whitecaps' successful bid for MLS status. According to the TEAM's sport business commentator Tom Mayenknecht, their goal is "to scrap the plans for a retractable roof and proceed with a simpler replacement fixed roof."

With a retractable roof, as I've written before, B.C. Place could actually become a solid soccer stadium. The renovations are based on Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, home to Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga and a stadium that hosted World Cup matches in 2006. The new design for B.C. Place follows the lines of Commerzbank Arena quite closely and has a lot of potential.

Without that roof, B.C. Place will not be a great facility for soccer. Yes, it's still not horrible, and the Whitecaps have hosted large-scale matches there before (notably a friendly [Tim Booth, USA Today] against David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy back in 2007). However, the promised B.C. Place renovation was one of the key factors [myself, Sporting Madness] that led the Whitecaps to officially bid for this round of MLS expansion [myself, Out of Left Field]. As Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province wrote last year, the Whitecaps were only willing to consider B.C. Place because of the proposed major renovations, and MLS affirmed it as an acceptable venue only with those renovations. If they are cut or scaled back, both the Whitecaps and MLS will be in a very difficult position; MLS can't easily revoke the expansion franchise, but the Whitecaps won't have a suitable arena to play in, thanks to the ongoing mire of politics preventing them from building their preferred waterfront facility any time soon.

This will also hurt the CFL's B.C. Lions, who will share B.C. Place with the Whitecaps. At the moment, B.C. Place isn't a bad arena to watch a football game. It's anything but a great one, though, and it often gets hot and cramped during the summer months. With the new renovations, it should be one of the better arenas in the league; without them, it's acceptable, but not desirable.

The proposed slashing of the retractable roof will additionally limit the facility as a venue for concerts and other events, according to Mayenknecht. Thus, it's not simply the costs that need to be compared, but also the potential lost revenue. He calculates that the net difference between the original retractable roof plan and a cheap fixed roof would work out to only about $125-150 million. Yes, that's a fair bit of money, but is it really enough to sabotage two beloved professional sports teams for?

Moreover, this is a ready-made infrastructure investment, which the NDP should be all in favour of. The plans are completed, the money's been found, and the renovations will provide jobs in the construction community and the services sector once the new facility opens. Green and Martignago go into more detail on the matter in their post:

"PavCo estimates that the full renovation and retractable roof plan will generate $100 M in annual economic activity, cause savings in energy costs associated with a fixed air-supported roof and create more than 2,000 jobs. Government officials have reported that 300 people are already working on-site on the initial phases of the renovation.
Estimates for the economic impact of an MLS franchise playing at BC Place are in the $25 M per annum range. The BC Lions could drive $35 M to $40 M annually with the increased attendance projected from a retractable roof. The 2011 CFL Grey Cup would generate at least $75 M (based on results from the last hosting in 2005)."

Many economists are justifiably skeptical of hard numbers in economic benefits from sports teams, but it is difficult to argue that the renovation wouldn't help the local economy. It's already in the pipeline as well, so cancelling it now would strike quite a blow to the Lions, the Whitecaps and the workers involved. This could come back to haunt the NDP politically, according to Mayenknecht:

“It’s beyond me as to why the BC NDP would even consider such an anti-sports development platform given the proven economic, social and health benefits of a sports and active living agenda for young people,” said Mayenknecht. “I’m sure there will be tens of thousands of sports fans, in particular those close to soccer and football, in the Lower Mainland ridings who will take a close look at this position before voting in May.”

It's disappointing that this has to turn into such a political issue, though. Yes, the Liberal government brought the plan forward in the first place and provided the funding for it, but just because an idea was brought up by your opponent doesn't make it a bad one. There are a lot of aspects of this project that would fit well with the NDP's proclaimed values, particularly the job creation and the economic stimulus. Moreover, if the NDP is elected and they don't scrap the project, they wouldn't likely be blamed for cost overruns or potential problems, as they could trace it back to the Liberals. This move seems more like a way to try and make a political point, rather than reasoned policy based on the good of the province. There are plenty of other issues for the parties to fight about without imperiling the future of sports in Vancouver.

There is perhaps some hope on the matter, as this doesn't appear to be a central plank of the NDP's platform. Maybe it will stir up enough outrage among their own supporters that it will be dropped. Maybe they'll keep it in and lose. If they win and try to implement these cuts, though, it could be a dark day for soccer in Vancouver.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].

Update, April 10: A couple of relevant links from the comments. The Friends of Soccer are quite annoyed by this, and particularly upset about NDP ads that apparently ask voters to choose between social services and stadiums. You can read a more NDP-friendly take here, which suggests that this wouldn't have been an issue if the TEAM didn't make it one.


  1. Leaving aside PavCo's ridiculous $100 million/year in extra revenue blather aside for a moment...*

    Has anybody asked Mr. Mayenknecht what actual explicit evidence he has that justifies the wurlitzering up of this story on the very day that the NDP released their platform?

    *Unless, of course, it's going to come from the third reincarnation of Mr. M's big-time revenue generator...The Vancouver Ravens!.


  2. Anonymous10:40 PM

    Actually, Gazetteer, the NDP started this story on March 31 when they started running anti-BC Place web ads on soccer fan sites. It prompted a response from the non-partisan grassroots group Friends of Soccer.

    They still haven't said clearly they'll go ahead with the renos, despite repeated calls from the public.

  3. Thanks for the link: good to hear that Vancouver fans are aware of this.
    @Gazetteer: I did mention that the economic numbers are subject to interpretation. It would be tough to argue that this project wouldn't provide at least some economic benefits, though. On the timing of the story; it sounds to me like the NDP brought this on themselves, as it certainly appears that they're trying to turn the stadium into an election issue. Thus, it makes sense to explore their plans after their platform didn't commit them either way; it wouldn't have been worth running this beforehand for the party to come out with something different in the platform.

    I don't know Mayenknecht, so I can't speculate as to his motives, but this is a newsworthy story in my mind and is very important for the future of sports in Vancouver. That's why I wrote about it: the NDP appear to have made B.C. sports into an election issue. This isn't a politics blog and I'm not going to tell people which way to vote, but voters should certainly know what the parties' plans are for B.C. Place before they decide who to elect.