Column

LOONIE JOY FOR SPORTS FANS

The weakening U.S. dollar is helping Canadian franchises

DONALD COXE February 23 2004
Column

LOONIE JOY FOR SPORTS FANS

The weakening U.S. dollar is helping Canadian franchises

DONALD COXE February 23 2004

LOONIE JOY FOR SPORTS FANS

Column

The weakening U.S. dollar is helping Canadian franchises

DONALD COXE

WINTERTIME speaking schedules can produce climate shocks—and material for columns. Such was my most recent experience—a week that included Winnipeg and Phoenix, Ariz. It was a fine week for public appearances because my organization had just been featured in a Barron’s cover story on high-performing mutual funds.

I hit Winnipeg a week after the city had suffered through what several locals told me was the worst winter weather they could remember. Wind chills had reached -54°C. Knowing I was next headed for Phoenix, I used every opportunity to ask about the deci-

sion eight years ago by the Winnipeg Jets to become the Phoenix Coyotes. The city that, until Calgary’s oil boom, was numero uno on the Prairies, was so right for hockey, the game of prairie ponds.

Phoenix? It is to cry. A cab driver recalled how a reporter taped interviews with departing team members. They were unanimous in their regrets about leaving this wonderful city and great hockey town. The reporter arranged for identical interviews after they arrived in Phoenix. They were unanimous in expressions of joy and relief at getting out of that terrible climate and small town.

small town. That Phoenix bagged the Jets is not just another Sunbelt takeover story. Many Sunbelt NHL cities have climates moderated by their proximity to oceans.

Yes, it gets hot in Atlanta, Miami, and Raleigh, N.C. But Phoenix is in the desert—smack dab in the middle of the Valley of the Sun. Daytime temperatures reach the low to high 30s for many weeks hockey is played—including the playoffs. A hockey rink there is as economically sensible as growing orchids and bananas in Winnipeg.

A RINK in Phoenix, with its 30°C temperatures during hockey season, is as economically sensible as growing orchids and bananas in Winnipeg

Today’s Phoenix, beautiful as it can be in places, is a triumph of American excess. It’s been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas for years, built on serving those with a few years to live—not on a diversified, youth-driven economy. The kind of people who symbolized the region in the 1970s—Senator Barry Goldwater and current Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—loved the desert and respected the Indians who had lived there for centuries. They watched in dismay as developers drove schemes to loot unconscionable amounts of water from the Colorado River system to provide the lawns, golf courses and swimming pools for the retiree communities. Developers like Del Webb created communities for northern working-class retirees that raised tackiness to undreamed of levels. And so the politics of Arizona changed. Long one of the five most reliably Republican states in national elections, it voted for Clinton in 1996, and gave Bush a rather close victory in 2000. In the Democratic primary this month, a huge turnout gave presumptive candidate John Kerry a massive victory.

Israel made the desert bloom like a rose by conserving scarce resources to build a nation. What Arizona is doing is saying, in effect, we can do it because we’re rich. Try and stop us. We’ve got the bucks to do whatever we want. Winnipeg couldn’t compete with that.

Indeed, hockey—and professional sports generally in Canada-have had serious trouble competing with U.S. cities during the era of the almighty American dollar. Montreal’s Expos, an astonishing story of excellence on the field in the face of economic decline, are on life support in the city that prepped Jackie Robinson for the major leagues. The Toronto Blue Jays, one of baseball’s top-performing franchises during the 1990s, lost money hand over glove because of the skyrocketing costs of paying players in greenbacks while selling tickets and beer in loonies. Well, sports fans, the tide is turning. The Blue Jays announced they did far better than expected in 2003—because of the soaring loon. Baseball is now almost as frightened about its future in the rust belt city of Milwaukee as in Montreal.

The recent G7 finance ministers’ meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., confirmed what we’ve known for two years: nothing can be done to prevent reality from catching up to the overvalued U.S. dollar. It’s going lowermuch lower—against the Canadian dollar, the euro and other freely tradable currencies. That means it’s going to get continuously cheaper for Winnipeggers and others to travel to Arizona and the South to soak up sun—and see some hockey. It also means that if Canada doesn’t fall back into its slough of sentimental welfarism and interventionism, it won’t be long before many Canadian cities will be so economically strong that they will be able to financially support their own sports franchises.

I think it’s foolish and unfair for cities to spend taxpayers’ dollars building elaborate playpens for rich athletes to become even more overpaid. But I still hate to see hockey taken from Canadian rinks to cities where winter sports knowledge and enthusiasm are concentrated in basketball. Not that hockey isn’t big in parts of the United States. The Minnesota Wild is well-supported locally, and a Chicago Blackhawk scout recently told me that he tracks more than 800 teenage players in Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota.

By the way, the phoenix of mythology burned up. The loon, however, is a diving bird that can withstand both heat and cold— a far better bet. Come back, Jets. ITO

Donald Coxe is chairman of Harris Investment Management in Chicago and of Toronto-based Jones Heward Investments. dcoxe@macleans.ca