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Conference Board says Canada ripe for major league sports expansion

Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty (R) scores on Toronto Maple Leafs' goalie James Reimer in the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto February 11, 2012.

Reuters

Canada appears ripe for major league sports expansion over the next two decades, says a new report from the Conference Board of Canada.

Economic and demographic trends suggest the country could support three new NHL teams, the return of major league baseball to Montreal and the NBA to Vancouver, and as many as three, new Major League Soccer teams.

The study, released Thursday, also suggests that by the year 2035, another seven cities could support Canadian Football League franchises.

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"The professional sports scene in Canada will continue to expand over the next 25 years," write Glen Hodgson and Mario Lefebvre.

"The conditions for growth are right — the Canadian dollar will likely remain strong and the taxation gap with the U.S. is expected to continue to narrow. This will allow existing franchises to prosper and offer a better chance for new franchises to succeed."

The study looked at population growth trends in specific markets, the effects of an aging population, the strength of the Canadian dollar, the movement of corporate head offices, and income growth to predict which cities will be able to support big-league sports.

The study found that all Canada's existing major league sports teams are on a sound market footing, and suggests that Toronto could support a second National Hockey League team, along with Quebec City and Hamilton — bringing the Canadian total to 10.

Quebec City is set to begin construction of an NHL-sized arena, while various Hamilton proposals have been jilted by the NHL over the last 15 years.

The report suggests that while Toronto could support a rival team to the Maple Leafs, the front-end cost of the new franchise could approach $1 billion, including franchise rights, a new rink and paying off the Leafs' territorial exemption. Moreover, with Bell and Rogers now owning the Leafs, muscling into the Toronto media market would require any new team to find an accommodation with the media giants, the authors write.

Montreal lost its beloved Expos in 2004 but the authors say the city "already possesses the basic market conditions required to support a MLB franchise and will strengthen its position over our forecast horizon."

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Vancouver, which saw its NBA Grizzlies relocate to Memphis, Tenn., in 2001, could also support another pro basketball team one day, says the report.

"With a population of 3.5 million in 2035, the Vancouver market will be large enough to sustain franchises in the NHL, CFL, Major League Soccer and the NBA — but not (Major League Baseball)," states the study.

The report's authors are also bullish on pro soccer, suggesting Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa will all be able to support Major League Soccer teams by 2035, in addition to the existing teams in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

As for the venerable CFL, new football franchises could stretch from Moncton and Halifax to Saskatoon, based on population and market trends. The wild card, say the authors, is the potential for a National Football League team in Toronto which would have "direct ramifications for the CFL's Argonauts and for the entire CFL" — not to mention impacting any proposed second NHL team for the city.

"The professional sports scene could, and likely will, change significantly over the next 23 years," says the report.

It notes that mixed martial arts didn't exist a quarter century ago and soccer was barely on North America's radar, while boxing and horse racing were big mainstream draws.

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Predicting the future of sports development is problematic, but certain economic pillars can be established that allow projections for current sports trends.

"In short, the future is bright for pro sports in Canada," the report concludes.

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