‘Bursting point’: Booming Halifax courted by multiple sports leagues

HALIFAX — When Halifax Mooseheads players laced up their skates for the first time, the team was a gamble.

It was the first Quebec Major Junior Hockey League club in the Maritimes, and the city had just lost its American Hockey League franchise.

But the Mooseheads were an instant hit and now, 25 years and a professional basketball team later, Halifax is being courted all at once not just by the CFL but also by major soccer and lacrosse teams.

It’s a heady time for sports fans hankering for more athletic entertainment in Atlantic Canada’s biggest city — a place awash with cranes with a thriving construction sector, healthy employment gains, strong population growth and a booming housing market.

But the sports buzz is dampened by doubts about whether a city of 400,000 people — even one that functions as a regional capital — can sustain so many teams.

“There’s only so much disposable income to go around,” says Concordia University sports economist Moshe Lander.

“The more teams that you have with overlapping seasons, the more likely they will start cannibalizing each other.”

It’s a concern shared by even the most enthusiastic of sport boosters.

“As a sports fan, I hope it all works,” says Bruce Rainnie, president and CEO of the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.

“But with all the options available for your sport-entertainment dollar, you just have to wonder if there’s a bursting point.”

The teams won’t just be competing for fans and their wallets, but for corporate sponsorship as well.

The city’s sports roster already includes the Mooseheads and the Halifax Hurricanes basketball team, and will soon add professional soccer, lacrosse and potentially CFL football — not to mention several prominent university teams.

The HFX Wanderers Football Club is expected to compete in the Canadian Premier League in its inaugural 2019 season, and a new National Lacrosse League franchise — a relocation of New York State’s Rochester Knighthawks — will play at the Scotiabank Centre under a new team name, potentially the Halifax Privateers, starting next December.

Maritime Football — the group behind the newly named Atlantic Schooners — is trying to land a Canadian Football League franchise for Halifax, a proposal that hinges on the construction of a new 24,000-seat stadium.

The teams will be hustling for the backing of deep-pocketed brands and businesses for revenue to help pay for everything from team uniforms to player salaries.

But the sudden proliferation of sports teams in the region could mean fierce competition for corporate dollars.

“You kind of scratch your head and wonder if there will be room for all of them,” says Mark Raymond, associate academic dean at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“When we think of the Maritimes in general or Nova Scotia, there’s only really a few major corporations.”

He says companies will be interested in reaching new markets through sports sponsorships, as well as “staying top of mind” among existing customers.

“There’s also a sense of corporate responsibility, of giving back to the community,” Raymond says.

Still, the finite number of companies — from telecoms and banks to car dealerships and grocery chains — willing to sponsor sports in the city means teams could face a battle for sponsors.

“The big concern is on the corporate side,” says Don Mills, chairman and CEO of Corporate Research Associates and a key player behind efforts to bring a new National Basketball League of Canada team — the Halifax Hurricanes — to the city after the Halifax Rainmen folded in 2015.

“There are only so many dollars to go around.”

Unlike some teams, however, he says a CFL team would attract a larger pool of corporate sponsors.

“I’m anticipating there will be large national advertisers that will want to be part of a CFL team that would not be part of the Hurricanes, for example,” he says.

Corporate sponsors — and to some extent, the number of fans in the stands — could also potentially hinge on how well a team does and if they make the playoffs.

“Nobody wants to be associated with a loser,” Lander says, adding that as “hardcore” as lacrosse and soccer fans are, the startup leagues tend to be riskier than well-established leagues like the CFL.

Mills says it can take several seasons to develop a loyal, committed fan base and attract sponsors.

The Hurricanes — now in their fourth season — are continuing to grow but have still not reached the break-even point, Mills says.

“We had to overcome a lot of negativity toward the Rainmen,” he says, adding that it took time to convince both sponsors and fans that the team was legitimate and stable.

While the Mooseheads hockey team has never had “anything but a honeymoon period,” the Hurricanes are struggling to get more than 2,000 fans to attend games, says Rainnie.

“So far the only thing that has ever really worked here — off the charts worked — is the Halifax Mooseheads.”

But Rainnie says a soccer team will likely thrive in Halifax — a city with a growing immigrant population that tends to rally behind soccer — and that lacrosse is quickly gaining in popularity among youth.

“I have tremendous optimism about soccer working,” Rainnie says, adding that “lacrosse is a deep-rooted Canadian sport that has a physicality and a watchability to it.”

He adds that a team’s success is increasingly dependent on community engagement, and the willingness of players to “contribute to kids at the grassroots level of sports.”

Football, on the other hand, is “truly a time-will-tell sort of thing,” Rainnie says.

“At its best the CFL is a very exciting product,” he says. “But I don’t think the league right now is at its best.”

Rainnie says in order to survive, the football team will have to attract fans from across the region — Moncton, Charlottetown, Truro and beyond — who are willing to drive to Halifax to watch the games.

A season ticket drive for the Atlantic Schooners has already received more than 5,000 deposits, but Raymond says the question is how ticket sales will fare once the excitement wears off.

“There’s a newness factor right now,” he says. “But it remains to be seen if it can be maintained and built upon.”

Despite the unknowns, Mills says the influx of pro sports teams solidifies Halifax’s status on the national stage.

“This is the rising of a great new city,” he says.

“We are being noticed as having something very special from our quality-of-life perspective … we’re going to be the coolest city in the country in 10 or 20 years.”

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