On Monday, Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz was in Seattle for one reason, and one reason only: to attend the Seattle Seahawks game against the Green Bay Packers. He got a chance to see one of the most exciting finishes to a game this season, as well as one of the most blatantly botched calls by the NFL replacement referees. I’m sure the story of him being there for that game will be a highlight of all his interviews in the near future.
Okay, he may have had an ulterior motive for visiting Seattle.
A couple weeks ago, Katz approached Edmonton city council and asked for more public funds to help pay for the construction and operating costs of a new arena. City council said no. Cue the veiled threats to relocate the franchise, the articles from the Edmonton media that freak out about the possibility of relocation, and the official Oilers twitter account retweeting one of those articles as a tacit endorsement of the threat.
It’s a bit of a gong show.
Katz’s visit conveniently comes right on the heels of Seattle city council voting to approve the building of a new NHL-suitable arena in the Sodo district. The implication is clear: heed my demands or I’ll move the Oilers to Seattle.
The problem for Katz is that it’s a completely empty threat. The difference between this situation and other times a franchise has been relocated is that the Oilers are perfectly healthy. For all their woes on the ice, the Oilers are plenty successful off the ice, with a fanbase that remains dedicated despite several seasons in the basement. The team is near the top of the league in terms of revenue from ticket sales and has sold out 277 straight home games.
It is certainly true that Edmonton needs a new arena: Rexall Place seats just 16,839 and is the second smallest arena in the league. It is also true that the lack of a suitable arena is often the impetus behind relocating franchises in any sport. The Pittsburgh Penguins threatened relocation as a negotiating tactic to locate funding for a new arena, with Mario Lemieux later claiming that relocation was never truly an option. Katz’s supporters will compare him to Lemieux, but the comparison just doesn’t hold up. Unlike the Pittsburgh situation, Katz and the Edmonton city council had an arena deal in place, with the city of Edmonton ponying up the bulk of the money.
The Oilers are not going to move to Seattle. The NHL would be insane to allow it: it would be a public relations nightmare, it would take a team that contributes to revenue sharing into an untested market for professional hockey, and it would remove an iconic brand. Katz would be insane to do it as well: one of his main concerns with the arena deal in Edmonton is that he wouldn’t own the arena, which is supposedly the impetus behind many of his demands. In Seattle, the situation would be even worse for Katz, as he would be the second tenant behind whatever NBA franchise Chris Hansen is able to acquire.
Katz’s trip to Seattle invites comparisons to the deal Hansen struck with the Seattle city council to build a new arena; the comparison is not kind to Katz. In fact, it’s laughable. In the Seattle deal, Hansen himself is providing a large chunk of the funding. The city is providing $200-million up front, but that money will be paid back by Hansen from profits made from the arena itself, with Hansen covering any shortfall personally.
Compare that to the deal in Edmonton and it makes Katz look like the type of greedy corporate buffoon that shows up in political cartoons.
In any case, it’s a transparent ploy, as was the retweeting of the relocation threat article by the Oilers twitter account. Katz wants to use as little of his money as possible to build and operate a new arena. Edmonton city council would prefer if maybe the multi-billionaire could chip in some of his own money instead. It’s in Katz’s best interest to get the public on his side, considering it’s their taxes that will be paying for the arena project. He wants Oilers fans to lean on city council to get a deal done as quickly as possible by giving in to whatever Katz wants.
The problem is that Katz is doing a piss-poor job of public relations. The trip to Seattle and threat of relocation will cause some fans to panic, but it will anger more fans and cause many of them to dig their heels in, knowing that the threat of relocation is about as empty a threat as it can get.
Combine this with the timing, coming right when NHL owners are at their least popular due to the lockout, and the public relations battle just isn’t one that Katz can win. If the threat of relocation was meant to signify that city council was being unreasonable, it’s having the opposite effect.
Just as a reminder, this is from their statement to their fans regarding the lockout:
We assure you our thoughts are mainly about you during these troubled times.