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Edmonton’s Downtown Arena and the Social Utility of Sports

After years of debate, clashing public relations campaigns, and enough specious reasoning to fill, well, several sports stadia, Edmonton ‘s city council approved the massive, long-brewing $450 million deal to construct a new multi-purpose (but, really, hockey) arena in the city. Truly or falsely (and the latter is suspected, largely perpetrated by the relocation scaremongering of the Katz Group and the rest of the pro faction), the future of the Oilers franchise in Edmonton was tied to this deal, but not just that. The back-and-forth over the project has encompassed the city’s inherent anxieties about itself and about its self-worth, anxieties that are always mediated through the successes or failures of their copper-and-blue gladiators, about which more was said around these parts months ago.

Working Together to Turn Downtown into Coruscant

My interest is not in the civic self-esteem of a mid-level Canadian metropolis, but what this deal’s approval and a nearly concurrent denial of improvement funds tells us about the social priorities of government, business, and even the public at large. On the very same day that the arena project was approved by council, contingent on a further $100 million of funding from (likely) provincial and (less likely) federal levels of government that may or may not be forthcoming in these times of dubious fiscal belt-tightening, word leaked out that the Harper Government (as they’ve made it clear they prefer to be officially called) was withdrawing $92 million in funding for a potential new Royal Alberta Museum, also to be located along the north region of the downtown that is to be magically “revitalized” by another large building that is to be empty most of every day.

In the mathematical alignment of these figures lies a cold symmetry. The obvious corollary, and one fated to be immediately seized upon by liberal defenders of a culture-first variant of civic prestige, is that hockey (and sport) matters more to the people, to the government, and to the money men than museums (and cultural institutions) do. Putting aside both the liberal self-pity and utter forehead-slapping obviousness of such an observation (this is Canada, after all), it is both entirely true and entirely irrelevant.

I got this, bitches.

From the point of view of capital (and is there another one?), a new sports and events venue with maximized profit potential is entirely preferable to a historical and cultural institution. The prestige generated in highbrow circles by a world-class museum (which the current RAM is not quite and a new RAM is not guaranteed to be) is positively swamped by the pride and enthusiasm generated in both monied and proletarian circles by a successful sports team (although live sports attendance has by now passed well beyond the budgetary limits of the working class). Enthusiasm is much more easily converted to profit margins than prestige is, and it doesn’t take an economist to tell you that. The cultured may lament as they will, but capitalism leaves no space for distinctions of taste or aesthetics beyond the drive to profit. As a system, it is given little reason to do so.

Sports and culture need not be placed in opposition so often in this way, and indeed the new downtown arena will fulfill a cultural function as well (if a Nickelback concert can, in any way, be construed as “culture”). But what, if any, is the social function of Katz’s and the city’s new pleasure palace? There is some appeal to the concept of big-time pro sports, with its overt displays of athletic masculinity, as a release valve for the sublimated aggressions of an essentially non-martial society. But $450 million is a very large amount to spend on a simple release valve (no matter its capacity of flow), and that’s a drop in the bucket when the billions spent on professional sports across North America, Europe, and the wider world is taken into account. What’s the overall social function of this? I specialize in the big questions around here, but that one may be bigger than I’m willing to fathom.

  1. karen h
    October 30, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    In all fairness to the feds – no one promised 92 million – it was supposedly a “verbal agreement” and we all know what that means.

  2. October 31, 2011 at 3:01 am

    1. No, a Nickelback concert cannot be construed as “culture.”

    2. Edmonton better watch out re: sports as a release valve. Look at what happened in Vancouver after their hockey loss … the sports release valve jammed, and the rioting release valve was opened.

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