Arena deal pushes Rush out of town

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**This isn’t about hockey. It isn’t about lacrosse. It is about a bad decision by the city.**

The Edmonton Rush won the Champions Cup on June 5th, and I knew then it would be the final time the Rush played at Rexall Place. The writing was on the wall well before Chris Corbeil hoisted the Cup.

When city council negotiated the existing deal with the Oilers Entertainment Group for a new downtown arena, it was the unofficial end of the Rush in Edmonton.

The deal allowed OEG to run the building. They decided who could play in the facility and they had no interest in having the Rush play there. Former mayor Stephen Mandel, the city councilors and city administration did not think about the lacrosse community during negotiations. They were so focused on making a deal with the OEG they didn’t bother ensuring the Rush had a home to play their games.

You will hear a lot of white noise during the next few days about why the Rush left, but none of it will focus on the real reason. They had no place to play long term.

Some will blame owner Bruce Urban. Urban, like Daryl Katz, can be hard to deal with at times, but he always paid his bills. I have openly disagreed with how he marketed the team for years. He and I discussed it on my show many times, but he never begged the city for money. He never made a dollar on the Rush during the past ten seasons, and even though the city treated him differently than the Oilers and Oil Kings, he kept paying his bills.

The city has refused to answer why the Rush never received the same deal regarding money from the ticket tax as the Oilers and Oil Kings. Think about that for a second. Why would the city offer a better deal to one private company, but not another?

If Urban was willing to lose money, that was his prerogative, but the Rush aren’t leaving because of money. They are leaving because the city didn’t think about a home for the Rush and OEG was unwilling to let them play in “their” rink.

If OEG tries to say they wouldn’t have signed the existing deal, because it wouldn’t be cost effective for them if it meant giving up a maximum of 12 dates to the Rush, they are simply not telling the truth, or even worse, plain greedy.

The Calgary Flames have managed the Saddledome for years, similar to the deal OEG has with the new arena. While the Flames managed it, the Rougnecks were a tenant up until before the 2012 season when the Flames purchased the Roughnecks. Before owing the NLL team, the Flames managed the building and thrived doing so, even though lacrosse played there. I don’t buy the theory the same couldn’t have happened here.

When City council and OEG signed their agreement they boasted the new rink would benefit all Edmontonians, but if that was the case they would have welcomed the Rush with open arms. That never happened.

The simple truth is many people can’t afford to go to an Oilers game, or even a music concert, but they could have afforded to go to one or two Rush games. Not to mention not every Edmontonian is a fan of hockey. Vibrant cities offer variety, and losing the option to go watch lacrosse disappoints me as an Edmontonian.

From day one the Oilers have had an adversarial relationship with the Rush. Even though they didn’t “own” Rexall the Oilers never let the Rush use the suites during NLL games. It was simply bully tactics.

The Oilers had zero reason to be worried the Rush would impact their bottom line. It was never going to happen. The Oilers are the big dog in town, and they always will be, but from the moment Urban announced the Rush was coming to Edmonton the Oilers didn’t play nice.

Keep in mind, this occurred before Katz was the owner, so I don’t blame the existing ownership for the first few years, but the relationship between both teams never improved. Both parties are to blame.

The Rush is not free from criticism. I did not agree with their marketing plans. I’d rather have seen them spend money on ad campaigns within the city to generate excitement than bring in the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or other “popular” acts.

But, again, it was Urban’s right to market the team how he saw fit. He was paying the bills and he was the one who was losing money. If the Rush was averaging 10,000 fans last year, would the deal suddenly have changed? No chance.

Urban’s best decision was hiring GM and coach Derek Keenan in 2009. Since Keenan came on board their on field product improved. He and Urban have built the best team in the NLL. The Rush are the champs and they are built to be dominant for at least five more seasons.

Edmonton sports fans could have had the pleasure of watching the best young offensive player in the NLL, Mark Matthews, and potentially the best young player in the NHL, Connor McDavid, for years to come.

The Rush is a great team, and the Oilers might become one. It would have made for many exciting evenings in Edmonton watching both teams. It would have provided different options at different price points for fans.

IMPACT IN THE CITY…

I would have liked to see the Rush do more in the city. It was a bad decision to cancel their lacrosse school program. That hurt their connection within the lacrosse community. I would have marketed Matthews, Kyle Rubisch (best defender in the NLL) and their other top stars much more. The Rush needed to do more in the community, but I don’t believe their actions warranted the city pushing them out of town.

I didn’t know much about lacrosse before the Rush came to town. I had watched a few games on TV, but was far from a fan of the game. During the past ten years, I’ve come to love lacrosse. It is a great game, and it inspired many young lacrosse players.

When the Rush arrived in Edmonton, fewer than five lacrosse players had NCAA scholarships. This past season, 43 kids had a lacrosse scholarship. The Rush can’t take all the credit, but when kids see a pro team live, it adds fuel to their dreams of playing pro or going to college. 

Minor lacrosse registration has increased dramatically since the Rush arrived. My nephew plays and he loves it. He asked to play after going to a few Rush games. It is a fun game and it really helps young players improve their hand-eye coordination. It also helps kids learn how to spin off of hits, which helps them when they play hockey.

PARTING SHOTS…

  • It is disappointing for the city. Whether you like lacrosse or not isn’t he point.  (Save us from reading pointless comments about how you couldn’t care less about the team.) I don’t go to the Citadel or the museum or many of the other art and musical options in our city, but I realize their importance. Maybe my son will be into arts and theatre, or my neighbour’s child or one of your children. I want to live in a city with different options, and to lose a championship caliber team over the unwillingness to ensure they have 12 home dates in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility makes my stomach churn.
  • I fully expect the NLL to return to Edmonton for the 2017 or 2018. The OEG will want an expansion team, because, (and here is a shocker) they will need to fill dates in the new facility. Ticket prices for the expansion team will be similar to a Rush game, but the quality of play will be significantly lower. So lacrosse fans will lose again. It takes time to build a winner, and as Oilers fans have witnessed it can take a long, long time.
  • I’ve heard many suggest Urban should have sold the team to OEG. 

    First off, he would have needed to receive a fair offer, which never happened. I know the OEG tried to reach out in the last few weeks, but Urban did not return their calls. He had made his mind up, plus their previous talks had never led to anything constructive in terms of a deal.

    Secondly, why did he have to sell? It was his company. He paid all the bills for the past decade and he incurred the losses. The city and OEG didn’t go out of their way to help him, so I don’t see why he needed to sell the team. The sad reality is two years ago, if the Oilers had made him a fair offer, he would have sold. He was beaten down from the losing, but they never submitted a respectable deal. There is no doubt OEG would have done a better job marketing the team, but unlike the sale of the Roughnecks to the Flames where the Roughnecks owner was in bad financial situation, Urban was not in a position where he needed the money.

  • I wish the Oilers and Rush had had a better relationship. It was disappointing to see two teams in the same market unable to work together. Both sides messed up, but the biggest error was made by the city. The never once considered an option for lacrosse in the new arena. Mayor Don Iveson showed he didn’t understand the entire situation as recently as late May, when he made a comment about the Rush’s low attendance, after Urban had unwisely complained the mayor didn’t tweet any support for the Rush.

    It was more “headline” arguing from both sides instead of focusing on the real issue. The mayor tweeting about the team wasn’t going to increase ticket sales, but the Rush leaving town wasn’t about fan support; it was about a lack of support from the city to ensure they had a place to play.

I enjoyed watching the NLL, and I’ve had a great time calling games on radio and now on TSN. I will continue to call games in western Canada on TSN, but it is disappointing Edmonton fans won’t be able to enjoy watching a dominant lacrosse team. The chances are extremely low a new team will ever be as good as the lineup Keenan has built. 

Edmonton’s loss is Saskatoon’s gain.

It never should have come to this, especially with a brand new arena set to open next October.

Recently by Jason Gregor:      

    • Jason Gregor

      I’ve ripped the Rush marketing for years. I’m less involved with team than ever. This is about city losing a great team, on the field.

      As for your claim about new arena being too big. The new rink would be perfect actually. Lower bowl seats 9500. They will cover up 2nd bowl for Oil Kings games and it will be better atmosphere will everyone sitting closer. Could have easily done same with Rush. Fans have better experience being close and all together.

      And if you believe Rush needs smaller venue then you should say same about Oil Kings. They draw fewer fans on average than Rush.

  • O.C.

    Methinks the OEG criticism would be a lot louder if a golden goose from heaven had not pooped on Katz’s head this spring. Can’t have too many Edmonton teams winning especially one not owned by OEG. It’s a loss for Edmonton’s sports scene even if you don’t like lacrosse. These guys play for the love of the game even at the pro level.

  • Leduc1 OilFan

    Gregor nailed it. A combination of poor management more interested in the “Show” than creating a fundamentally solid business investment and being a 2nd tier sport. First tier fans I will add though. I loved every second of the rush being here but from season 2 foreword it was a miracle they stayed above water. I wish the rush well in Saskatoon, with no other high end sports to deal with and lower overhead they will be successful in spite of themselves.

    Heavy hearts in our house as this news came across but as soon as the new area is up it will only be a matter of timing before a new team with proper management support (well assuming the OEG learned some lessons these past years) will be filling the hole left behind. Until then folks go out and get involved in the community sport scene. Go Titans!

  • positivebrontefan

    I never went to a game, sadly, but I will say that it is too bad that another entertainment option has left.
    It’s like when the Indy left, I went to every Indy and it went from a world class event the first year with a lot of post race things to do and enjoy to being a watered down, poorly managed $hit show.
    The second last year I went we had all watched the race and there was still lots of day/night left and they had tens of thousands of people contained in one place looking for something to follow the race up with. Instead of putting a decent band back on the stage and keeping the beer gardens open they shut everything down and shuttled everybody home. Then they proceeded to complain that there was no profit in it. You sent the profit home you idiots, keep 20-30,000 people there for a concert and sell them $8 beers and $10 slices of pizza for another 6 hours a day for 3-4 days and you would turn a tidy profit.
    We always had one of the best turnouts for racing in this city over any other city on the circuit and yet somehow we couldn’t make it profitable, it boggles my mind. Northlands screwed that one up.
    Another day, another great entertainment option gone.

    Good luck in Saskatchewan Rush.

  • Lowe But Now High Expectations

    I feel the mayor is realizing the city has made a deal with the devil (oeg). Katz wants control over as much as possible with no regard to who gets trampled.

  • Jason Gregor

    Just when I thought this ownership / management group was starting to become less of a joke they go and do this. I guess I was hoping for too much. Some things never change. Oilers group, still the embarassment of the NHL. Thanks Katz. I’m never shopping at rexall again. Lol.

  • Jason Gregor

    Now that Northlands has come out and said they had repeatedly tried get a deal done with the Rush and will now possibly pursue their own NLL expansion team seems to indicate that Gregor may have been listening to Urban’s side of events and simply reporting on them. After all, why would Northlands themselves now explore NLL expansion with the intent to only have the team there for 2 years?

    Bottom line is Urban is a well-known dick, whose word is not any more trustworthy than Katz or any politician. At least he paid his bills I guess.

    While the 2 games I went to didn’t leave me with any positive impression, partly because I always seemed to be next to loud drunken rednecks and partly due to the game itself, I do feel bad for the fans of the team who will miss out on professional Lacrosse.

    • Jason Gregor

      Here are the facts. I reported the entire story, and have knowledge of all sides.

      Rexall will be renovated in two years. You can expect an announcement soon stating their plans, and I’m hearing it will be turned into six minor hockey rinks, which is great. Tim Reid said on record in my article in June that Rexall had only two years remaining and that was all they could offer Rush.

      #2…Northlands wants to raise the roof on the Agricom and expand seating to 5000. That was their alternative plan for Rush to play. The Rush were not interested in that option. It is ridiculous to think Edmonton team plays at 5000 seat facitily while teams in Buffalo, Toronto, Colorado and Calgary play in NHL rinks.

      If you have questions on the story, ask, but don’t incorrectly assume I only reported one side.

  • camdog

    Fair enough, like I said I have no personal interest in this. That being said over the last few months there have been stories about Urban’s abrasive negotiation tactics and his propensity for abruptly ending talks when his demands aren’t met and ceasing all communications, much like what was reported today in Curtis Stock’s piece with Northlands and in previously reported piece with the city and a potential sponsorship deal.

    I do acknowledge that the OEG is partially to blame too, but from a business standpoint it’s simply better for them to just let them leave and get their own franchise should they feel the need then try to negotiate dates with someone who has been pretty combative with themselves and with the EIG previously. The NLL is not that exclusive and difficult to get into should they deem a franchise worthy of investment.

    Ultimately though, you’re right. There is/was too much self-interest from all parties involved and its Lacrosse fans in this city that will suffer. However, minor pro teams come and go all the time, cause a small blip in the media for a few days then are quickly forgotten in a few days by almost all but the few hardcore fans… Until a new team returns again a few years later.

  • camdog

    Thanks for writing about this.

    I learned lots and it was a nice break from the dog days of summer/hockey/trade speculation/what ifs.

    Much of ON provide good insights and it’s great when ignoring the riffraff.

  • BobbyCanuck

    http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=10&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CE0QFjAJahUKEwiOvKbgkOPGAhWGSpIKHZkaClg&url=http%3A%2F%2Flibres.uncg.edu%2Fir%2Fasu%2Ff%2FWhitehead_John_2000_Value_of_Public_Goods.pdf&ei=eXapVc6bJ4aVyQSZtajABQ&usg=AFQjCNER-lJjADVFS-pMb2SO-vbKW9O7eA

    This article is a good starting point for anyone interested in researching the value of downtown pro sport team arenas, very statistical and using economic theory math and well referenced. A bit over my head, but it made sense.

    Understand Edmonton in my view would be considered an outlier, due to Rexall already being one of the busiest arenas in North America, and perhaps even the world. We also have one of the highest discretionary/disposable incomes in the world and an amazingly loyal fan-base. These factors will insure the profit for the owner, the area around the arena? Time will tell

    I do not know your background Serious Gord, but I am old enough to recall how giddy our municipal governance was about the revitalizing potential of Commonwealth Stadium and the Coliseum, how did that work out?

    I do not trust our politicians, and with Katz’s threats, I do not trust him either.

  • Serious Gord

    So you pulled the 80% number out of thin air.

    The economics of any large public entertainment facility are always debatable, but for the most part my experience with downtown stadia helping rejuvenate the neighbouring area has been very positive. Off the top of my head the only exeception would be copps colesieum and that was built do get a NHL tenant – downtown revitalization was secondary and not nearly as In vogue as it is today.

    As for rexall and commonwealth – they were built in the worst location possible. Barring some geographic impediment (water or mountain) all cities have the most prosperous residential areas to the south and west while the industrial core is to the north and east. Both of those facilities if they weren’t going to be put to the south west should have gone downtown. It is no wonder they have been dog entertainment properties for the standpoint of neighbourhood development. Municipal politicians often make horrific economic decisions – God knows they have made many in EDM.

  • fran huckzky

    The reason that Rexall and Commonwealth are located where the are is really a matter of convenience as the was little or no thought about rapid transit at that time, Edmonton Gardens was at the same site where the coliseum is located and Commonwealth replaced Clark Stadium at the same site. Both of these sites continue to serve the city well.

  • Serious Gord

    The 80% was pretty aggressive, but there’s lots to suggest these projects aren’t magic bullet many have made them out to be.

    I won’t get into it again and turn this thread into that discussion.

    But when a city says that they’ve built something for everyone, something for everyone should include the lacrosse fans who are being asked to help foot the bill for the arena. They should’ve put language in there that ensured they had a place to play in this publicly funded building.

    As well, I recall Stauffer droning on and on about how Edmonton has been so rotten to business men over the years. Can’t count how many times he told his story about JR Shaw’s rapid departure from the city. He said we need to support business people. I guess what he meant was we should support *some* business people and ignore the rest…

  • Serious Gord

    It was a classic case of the city having cheap, serviced land to build on that made them decide to build there. And they have underperformed as a result.

    This is hardly a unique phenomenon – rich stadium in Buffalo; the silver dome in Detroit, the tacomadome, Glendale arena, the arena where the panthers play, Corel (or whatever the hell it is called) arena in Ottawa and on and on. Location is paramount in real estate. It’s too bad so many municipalities go against that rule.

  • Serious Gord

    No way should the town insist on guaranteeing – read: provide at lower than market rate – professional for-profit lacrosse access to the building.

    The museum doesn’t have to provide an ice rink, nor should a concert hall and both of those civic-owned venues only interest a slice (and a far smaller and subsidized to boot) audience. There should be no requirement for the arena to accomadate other functions.

    Back when the discussion of the new arena first began I remember talking on air to stauffer and I expressed the hope that the new arena be a cost no (or little) object cathedral to hockey of unparalleled excellence and focus on maximizing the hockey experience far above all other uses. I felt and still feel that an arena like that would truly put the city and region rightfully as the worlds capital of hockey – rivalled only by Montreal.

    Instead we get a rink I fear we will see is full of compromises – the rake of the seating being one. – and that already is being eclipsed by the new Detroit arena and district. One of many in other words – forgettable. I was hoping for Graceland but instead got a bland house in the valley.

  • Serious Gord

    Subsidize the big guy, ignore the small guy. Gotcha!

    And if this building is indeed going to be forgettable, along with the district surrounding it, does that blame somehow sit with the people who designed the thing (OEG), the city, or the fact that they might have had to host lacrosse games one day and the remade the plans in anticipation of that?

  • Serious Gord

    We subsidize most every form of entertainment – big or small. From museums to folk festivals to hockey to concert halls. At least hockey makes money.

    I was extemporizing on the stadium/district dream. Lacrosse has nil to do with that. I do blame oeg for lack of imagination, ditto the city. I was hoping for a place on a par (relatively speaking) with Fenway or Yankee – a break from the successor disappointments in hockey – the new forum, fleet centre, ACC et al. Alas it is not to be. Maybe Calgary won’t make that mistake.