The CFL in Moncton: A Winning Idea

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The CFL in Moncton: A Winning Idea
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

After reading the Amazing Steve Thompson's latest bleacher report, "CFL Targets Wrong City in Moncton," I feel strongly compelled to disagree.

Moncton is not the Canadian Football League's goal.  Halifax is.  But how do you get there?

I have made this point to several others who have attacked the "CFL in Moncton" idea.  Moncton is a means to an end for the CFL Board of Governors. Playing in Moncton is frankly an excellent idea for the CFL to try to get to their ultimate goal.

Moncton Mayor's Lorne Mitton and George LeBlanc were smart to put this together.    Mitton got the stadium built and LeBlanc worked the deal with the CFL.  This deal is a win-win deal for everyone but Halifax politicians.  And the cherry on top is that the biggest winner is the City of Moncton.

But let's start with what the CFL gets out of this.

Moncton built a near CFL sized stadium.  It has 10,000 permananent seats with 10,000 more temporary seats currently being put in place.  For building this 20,000 seat stadium, they are getting CFL games for their effort.  This sends a loud (if possibly inaccurate) message to cities like Kitchener and Windsor that while they might not get teams, there is a good likelihood they'd get some CFL games if they build a stadium.  It reinforces to cities like Quebec City that they might get a team if they build a stadium. 

It is no secret that building a usable stadium is the biggest hurdle to getting a city in the CFL front door—that has been the conventional wisdom for quite a while—but Moncton getting games makes the transaction appear a lot less theoretical.

Moncton is tiny in terms of Canadian cities with only about 126,000 people in their CMA (Census Metropolitan Area).  The fact that the CFL will work with them suggests a friendlier CFL than say when Windsor's mayor talked to them a few year back.  Is that true?  Probably not.  It is highly likely that the CFL owners are still the ruthless, self-centered, untrustworthy batch they have been for years, but the perception this creates among fans will likely help them a bit in their quest for stadiums and stadium improvements in Quebec City and Ottawa.

The CFL also finally gets an acceptable home for a "Touchdown Atlantic" game.  Playing in Halifax in a stadium that caps out at 11,000 seats required essentially double price tickets ($40-62) to generate the necessary revenue.  Playing in a 20,000 seat stadium in Moncton can be done with more normal $25-30 tickets.  That allows TD Atlantic games to be played more frequently without fearing a fan backlash arguing price gouging.

The CFL will easily sell out the 20,000 seats at that price.  Playing once or twice a year out there will be enough to excite Maritimes fans, but not enough to risk "overexposure"—the games seeming too common and frequent, leading to a failure to sellout.

This gives the CFL exactly what they need out of the Maritimes—a guaranteed sellout site in which to play a game or two a year and recharge the CFL fanbase out there so those fans will watch TV and buy CFL merchandise—without the financial risk of ACTUALLY placing a team there.

What does this mean to Halifax?

This is a huge thorn in the side of Halifax football fans and politicians.  When these games start happening football fans  could get quite sour with local politicians over the fact that those politicians could not get a stadium deal done.   Angry football fans can easily throw a close election.

The CFL probably hopes anti-football politicians will get voted out and new officials will get voted in.  Then, in say 5-10 years, the stadium the CFL really wants might get built in Halifax (Metro population 411,000).

And finally, lets look at what this means to Moncton.

I give major props to Mayor Mitton and the Moncton leadership under him for the size and setup of the stadium.  I know many would argue that if they just spent their $22-28 million dollar budget and built the slightly larger stadium initial reports suggested — one with 25-28,000 permanent seating—they would have a CFL team.  Certainly that is conventional wisdom among CFL fans.  Initially, I argued that as well.

Sure it would be a cheap stadium, but where else in Canada would the CFL put a new team?

I suspect the Moncton leadership was told by the CFL that the league was probably never going to base a team in a city as small as Moncton, and was not going to base a team in a $30 Million stadium due to the precidence that would create in efforts to get new $100+ Million replacement stadiums built in other CFL cities. 

It just wasn't going to happen.

This would fit in with what appeared to be a lukewarm reception the CFL's former commissioner, Tom Wright, had with Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis.  Prior to the meeting Francis was very excited about landing a CFL team for Windsor.  He was publicly quoted talking about expanding a stadium in Windsor to 25K with government funds to house a CFL team.  I think it is highly likely Mayor Francis talked about upgrading Windsor Stadium for what the CFL considered "on the cheap" ---say for less than $50 Million  --- and was told not to bother over the precidence that would create. After the meeting the money for that was spent elsewhere. 

But Moncton didn't give up.  They kept talking to the CFL and went about their business building their stadium to fit their own needs.  A 10K stadium that is expandable to 20K is a perfect asset for today (to steal away a CFL TD Atlantic game or series of games) and for tomorrow (to potentially host CIS football at U de Moncton in a CIS sized 10K stadium and expand it from time to time for concerts and other athletic competitions including possible CIS playoff games).  

Building it to easily seat varying audience sizes was a very useful decision for Moncton, with their history in conventions and concerts.

Additionally, consider if Moncton did build a 25,000 seat stadium. The likely scenario had they built such a stadium, found an owner willing to endure Million dollar losses for many years, and received a CFL team would be for the team to struggle to average the needed 80 percent sell through (20,000) over nine games.  The stadium would be seen as cheap and substandard vs. say what they are building in Winnipeg.  The community would look bad.  The team would likely be barely competitive for at least the first three years, futher hurting attendance. 

In this scenario, there is a pretty good chance Halifax would build a stadium by 2017 or so and the CFL owner would move their Moncton team to the CFL's preferred market in the Maritimes, Halifax.  This would have left behind a mostly useless (especially in football terms) 25,000 seat stadium in Moncton.

With no CFL team actually based in Moncton, it is possible the outrage among Haligonian football fans over the loss of the TD Atlantic games might be manageable. (Frankly the outrage may not exist at all as Haligonians may have given up hope long ago on their city getting it's act together to even build a 20,000 seat stadium.) 

If Halifax officials decide they can take the political heat and as such refuse to build a 20-25,000 seat stadium, Moncton would likely continue to own the TD Atlantic series of games, which once again reflects well on Moncton's leadership. 

That leadership has to be given the benefit of the doubt on a wide variety of stadium questions.  If Halifax does not build a stadium, one would have to credit Mayor Mitton for accurately guaging how much heat Halifax's officials can endure --- that being losing a CFL game or two a year. 

Perhaps the heat would be unbearably hotter if Moncton had its own CFL team playing nine home games a year in Moncton.  Maybe that would have lead to a loss of that CFL team and all future CFL games in Moncton.

As it stands Moncton is the only home for CFL games in the Maritimes.  That is huge publicity.  They stand clearly at the top of New Brunswick cities as well as all Maritimes cities in the highest profile pro sport that the Maritimes could legitimately woo.  That is all about maximizing your promotional dollars.

On top of that, they have a very flexible multi-purpose stadium.

That is a great investment of less than $30 Million dollars (only about $5M of which actually was provided by the city).

Moncton's government showed excellent leadership and insight and is one of the few examples of a city in North America that built a stadium within a reasonable budget and got what they wanted out of it.

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