New beginning or eve of destruction?

Brian Bethune January 10 2000

New beginning or eve of destruction?

Brian Bethune January 10 2000

Who cares if they go?


Charles Gordon

In case you had hopes to the contrary, it is necessary to inform you that the old realities are going to carry over into the new millennium. All those things you hated about the 1900s—cilantro, Postmodernism, Pachelbel’s Canon, SUVs, the JumboTron—are still with us, and will be for some time. So will the so-called new realities, always unpleasant ones, that we were so often urged to accept, like cod liver oil, back at the end of the last century.

It is the new realities, usually capitalized as New Realities, from which we have the most to fear. One of them, Living Within Our Means, wasn’t much fun, back in the ’90s. Neither was Globalization, which has survived into the new century. We have learned more than we wanted to know about Globalization already, and there is a terrible suspicion that we are going to learn even more.

Among other New Realities not to look forward to are those concerning professional sports teams in Canada. Some time in this century, perhaps even in the first year of it, we are going to lose a professional hockey team. It could be the Ottawa Senators, whose owner doesn’t like the tax climate. Or it could be the Vancouver Canucks, whose owners have announced, after seeing how it was going in Ottawa, that they think pretty much the same way. Or it could be the Edmonton Oilers, who have seemed shaky for some time to people who know about shakiness. Even the Montreal Canadiens franchise, the closest thing professional sports has to a church, has been said to be in trouble.

Then there are baseballs Montreal Expos, who have fallen on hard times (not to mention their sword) and whose owners have a small window of opportunity in which to improve the team and construct a new stadium that will bring fans to see it. Oh, and did we mention the Vancouver Grizzlies, a National Basketball Association team that has done OK at the box office, but has had the misfortune to be purchased by Americans—and you know where teams purchased by Americans sometimes go.

The New Realities have been cited in most incidences. The cities in which these teams play have been declared “small market.” That doesn’t only mean that they can’t fill their arenas or stadiums, although it can sometimes mean that. It means that they play in areas lacking sports-minded billionaires to own them. Most crucially, it means that they play in areas with not enough viewers to satisfy the TV networks that throw the big dollars at professional sports teams. When the big dollars are not thrown, the big salaries— which are now almost as big as the New Reality—cannot be

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

paid. When the big salaries cannot be paid, the big players leave, the small-market teams lose too many games, fan and network interest drops off and they ride the New Reality Express to some well-populated and rather wealthy area on the other side of the border.

If this is New Reality, there’s not much we can do about it. A tax concession or two may forestall the inevitable for a year or two. But if the big-market dollar is really calling the shots, we will be without big-time sports in small-market Canadian cities before the new century has gone on for long.

What are our choices after that?

(1) We can all cheer for Toronto.

(2) We can take our pick of teams in Virginia, Pordand or several points in Florida, all owned by TV networks or multinational conglomerates that also own TV networks.

(3) We can find something else to do.

Many people, pioneers of sorts, adopted the third option long ago. They watch birds, play the fiddle, read, walk or some such thing. They have no idea who’s winning. The question is whether the rest of us can follow suit.

Technology provides new options, which are as yet unproven. Will the Internet really change our lives, occupy our minds and spare time and make up for the loss of spectator sports? Or, in terms of our daily lives, will it just be like more cable channels, amusing enough for a few runs up and down the dial, but not so exciting after that? And does the lure of new and fascinating, even useful interaction with home computers run head on into a more primal need, the need to go out and do something?

That particular need has been fighting a battle, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, against another primal need, the need to root for the home team, follow its games on television or radio, and in the sports pages. Will we give that up, rather than sublimate by adopting one multinational conglomerate instead of another as our “home team,” and if we do, will our lives be better?

There’s always that chance. We could support the arts, which are always grateful when we do. We could go to the symphony (if it gets a better tax climate) or to the gallery. We could write a symphony. A lot of energy goes into rooting for the home team. Freed up, it could accomplish powerful things.

We could walk in the woods or learn to paint, read a book or write one, imagine something great or build it.

It’s a daunting prospect, life without the home team. There will be terror at first, followed by withdrawal. And then what? Somehow, with each passing day, each new owner’s threat, the prospect becomes less frightening, more inviting.