Casinos, Arenas, and Politics, Oh My

Could the financing of the arena lead to a future without the Blue Jackets? (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

For fans of the Blue Jackets, the team's lease on Nationwide Arena went from being a non-issue three years ago to a constant itch at the back of your mind. Sometimes easily ignored, and sometimes flaring into painful life, particular when the only news, it seems, is no news.

When the Dispatch runs public opinion polls with leading questions like "Do you think the Jackets will still be in Columbus in five years?", it's a painful day, particularly when over 55% say "No."

But there are reasons to question that stance, and if not reasons to be cheerful (this is an issue that needs solved sooner than later), there are reasons to not be constantly afraid that the sky will fall.

First off, if you haven't, I again stress that you should go read Jeff Little's exceptional Arena Chronicles articles. Some of the information is a little out of date, but it does an excellent job of capturing how this all started, where we are, and some excellent ideas on where to go.

So, let's talk about the idea that the Jackets (and the Arena District) are doomed unless they receive a share of the tax revenues from the Casino being built on the grounds of the old Delphi plant (and in theory to be annexed into the City of Columbus, by which it will receive water, sewer, etx). 

I would say that if the team (or more accurately, Nationwide Arena, as the Jackets would likely turn over the management of the building to Franklin County, who would then operate it using that revenue money), gets the revenues, it certainly makes things easier. As Mayor Coleman is quoted in the article, though, there are a lot of potential uses for that money, and the Blue Jackets are likely lower on the list than funding for Police, Fire, or Emergency Medical services (as they should be). 

But there is something to take to heart, however, in his remarks.

"I do not want to lose the Blue Jackets. I don't know much about hockey, but I do know about economic development." 

Some people will take this as a bit of a backwards slam, a statement that Coleman doesn't follow the team. What they are missing is that it doesn't matter if the Mayor doesn't know backchecking from forechecking. It's that he knows money, specifically he knows how money affects this city - and has been discussed before, the Jackets make Columbus a hell of a lot of money. Not just in Arena District revenues, but hotel taxes, tourist dollars, and a living, breathing advertisement for the city every time they appear on TV, be it nationally or in another NHL team's local broadcast. 

Ask any business owner (because running a city like Columbus is very much like owning or running a large business) how he'd react if he might lose a major revenue stream, and how far he'd go to keep it from happening? You're likely to be told that he'll do whatever is necessary. 

The reason the arena lease seems to be on hold until the Casino issues are resolved is simple: It's most likely being targeted by all sides as the simplest, most elegant solution. Why jump through overly complicated hoops (or risk putting the issue in front of the ballot, when public funding for professional sports has failed twice in this city), when you can simply grit teeth, bear the pain a little longer, then have it removed without any further trouble?

However, even if that should fall through, there are other ways to work on the issue, including potential renegotiation of the lease or another attempt at public funding. It's certainly not a death knell, not a sign that the team is likely to be gone in the near future. 

The next piece in the puzzle is that the NHL will most certainly have a say in the team's situation, and has already worked with the club in the past to identify issues with their finances that could be addressed. If there is one thing that the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes should teach us, it is that the NHL is VERY reluctant to move a team, particularly without going through their own processes. It should also indicate that the NHL is very reluctant to risk losing a US TV market. 

The Phoenix TV market is #12 in the US, a major reason why the NHL was eager to put a team into the area. But Columbus at #32 is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when combined with #34 Cincinnati, and a share of the #17 market in Cleveland, though Jackets fans in the 216 will be happy to tell you that finding that share is occasionally a chore thanks to the Cavs. 

Though it's entirely possible that the NHL might recoup some of that lost TV viewership with fans who would shift to the Pens, the Red Wings, or other clubs, there's no doubt that it's a big dip, and even a team whose TV viewership fluctuates wildly depending on their performance is going to draw more reliably than a major metro with no team at all.

The final piece is this: The team's ownership can change. 

Though I think that John P. McConnell has done an excellent job this year of stepping into the ownership of the team, and clearly has taken a more active role both in speaking to players and the fans, he doesn't act alone, and while he may be content to wait, it's entirely possible that some of the team's minority owners disagree. Another solution to help keep the team stable while the Arena issue is worked through is for the team to work with the NHL to find more interested investors - potentially even up to a total sale of the team, but at this point I would doubt that JPM is ready to walk away from something so emotionally tied to his father's legacy.

Increasing the minority ownership, on the other hand, not only brings in some new eyes to look at the franchise, and potentially help with more direction, but would provide more backers to help spread out the damage of the team's losses (mostly from the operation of Nationwide), which would make them easier to bear.

Even should we get to the crisis point, I find it hard to believe that the team will move overnight. Phoenix, Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, even at some points Tampa Bay and Buffalo have all been discussed for relocation in the past, yet they remain. Columbus is a young franchise. For a team that has only existed for ten years, the prospect of being gone again in half that time is a frightening possibility. But for every reason to fear the team's removal, there are prospects to believe that we will see their position cemented.

Edit: Just as I was finishing up my thoughts, Jeff Little beat me to the punch again. Take a look - he lays out several more reasons why this is a speedbump (if that), and not a sign that things are falling off a cliff.

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