Mitchell's Ottawa threat could hurt Tiger-Cats' position

I wrote Tuesday that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had seen some good news on several fronts including their stadium plans this week, only days after the revelation of a frightening funding gap that could be as high as $54.5 million. Today looked set to be bringing more good news for the Tiger-Cats, thanks to Drew Edwards' front-page Hamilton Spectator story that a connected anonymous source pegged the actual shortfall as closer to $10 million and suggested that the province might be able to make that up. However, that positive news was quickly overshadowed by comments Tiger-Cats' president Scott Mitchell (pictured above) reportedly made at a Hamilton Rotarian luncheon. Here they are, from the Spectator's Paul Morse:

In a question-and-answer session following a speech to a Hamilton Rotarian luncheon at the Art Gallery of Hamilton today, Mitchell said the Ticats are Ottawa-bound if the stadium deal dies.

Mitchell was asked if Ticat owner Bob Young was bluffing when he said he'd pull the CFL team out of Hamilton.

"I can tell you absolutely and unequivocally no," Mitchell said. "Not only was he not bluffing about potentially moving the team to Burlington, if this stadium doesn't get built and if project wasn't going to come to fruition, I can pretty much guarantee you this team will be in Ottawa in 2013."

To me, this seems like a terrible move on Mitchell's part. I get that the Tiger-Cats want to try and maximize their leverage to get a deal done, but the point remains that they're apparently not all that far from a successful resolution in Hamilton despite all the venue changes, threats and everything else they've done so far. Hamilton city council has already proven that they're not just going to meekly bend to whatever the Tiger-Cats want, but they do appear willing to work towards a compromise that benefits both sides. Again threatening them with the departure of their team when the project's closing in on the finish line isn't exactly likely to make them more favourably disposed to the team's demands, and it also makes it a lot harder for those who do have sympathy for the team (like Mayor Bob Bratina, a legendary former Tiger-Cats broadcaster and a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame's media wing) to stand up for them.

Comments like this one from Mitchell show disrespect for the process, the negotiations and Hamilton's municipal government as a whole. The Tiger-Cats obviously aren't entirely happy with the way things have gone to date, and some of that's definitely on the councillors, but wouldn't it make more sense to try and play nice with them for the moment when things seem to be working rather than throwing out more threats?

What makes this even worse is that the threat itself isn't particularly credible. Yes, obviously Ottawa's going to get a CFL team, but it's been well-established that that team will be an expansion team given to Jeff Hunt and company. The league's even drawn up expansion draft rules, a critical part of preparing for a new team. Hunt and his group hold the rights to the CFL in Ottawa and have a conditionally-approved expansion franchise. I guess it's possible that Bob Young could sell Hunt his existing team, eliminating the need for an expansion draft, but none of Young's comments to date have suggested that he wants to get out of the CFL.

Moreover, Ottawa has its own set of stadium issues, and the entire plan around redeveloping Lansdowne Park centres on other developments by Hunt's group. Even if the CFL somehow found a way to ditch Hunt and let Young move in, they'd have to start over on stadium negotiations, and the Tiger-Cats haven't exactly proved great at those so far. The proposed relocations to Moncton, Burlington and Milton all had plenty of issues, but all seemed more logical than this. A threatened relocation to Ottawa doesn't seem likely to scare councillors into cooperating thanks to its implausibility; if anything, it's probably just going to upset people.

Of course, this might not turn into a huge deal. Mitchell apparently "hastened to clarify his remarks" quickly thereafter, saying that no discussions have taken place on the Ottawa front and he was attempting to illustrate that the team can't play in Hamilton without a new (or renovated) stadium. Mitchell also mentioned that Young doesn't bluff, though, and he later told Mark Masters of The National Post that "If this fell apart & there was no future for the Ticats in Hamilton, obviously [Ottawa is] a logical place." Neither of those comments particularly sounds like a recantation. However, Hamilton council just finished meeting to discuss the stadium yet again (you can read Edwards' live blog recap here ), and Mitchell's comments didn't seem to be heavily considered; council basically voted to move forward with the project at 44 per cent of the total costs rather than the specific $45 million they'd agreed on earlier, dump the idea of giving the Tiger-Cats transition costs and receive a $3 million guaranteed capital contribution from the Tiger-Cats (related to naming rights revenues). There's still a ways to go, though, and the council motion is dependent on further negotiations with the province and the team about a funding gap. We'll see if Mitchell's comments wind up affecting those, or if this will be remembered as just an awkward misstep.

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