The Edmonton Oilers’ Bathroom Dilemma Isn’t a Sexist Problem. It’s an Elitist One.

As a female sports fan, the last thing I want to be writing about is the bathroom issue many of us face when we attend games in person. Waiting in bathroom (or washroom, if you’re reading this in Canada) lines at arenas and stadiums is part and parcel with being a woman at a sporting event. Well, a woman of my generation who remembers the charm of the “old grey lady” venues of yesteryear. Part of the promise of new, modern facilities was that there wouldn’t be lines of people snaking through concourses waiting to address the call of nature. Alas, even in the newest of the modern facilities, Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, that call still has to be put on hold.

I’ve been following the bathroom/washroom issue in Edmonton since late April, when I happened across an article from Canada’s top conservative national newspaper, the National Post. It seems not many people are paying much attention to the story that appeared online on April 19. The dilemma, it turns out, is not a shortage of facilities designated for women, it is an issue about access.

Every sports fan whose teams have built modern colosseums and cathedrals as monuments to their respective games knows that these state-of-the-art monstrosities must accomplish much more than house the teams that play in them. The facilities themselves must provide an attraction that, for many people, supersedes the actual game. The food, the seats, the atmosphere, the ancillary comforts that many of us used to eschew in favor of intently watching the warriors on the field of battle have become the main attraction. We gladly pay more for better food, better booze and better sight lines, but unfortunately, in some venues, that access comes at a price for fans who aren’t paying top dollar for all the perks. There are still plenty of fans who just want access to the building, and don’t obsess over things like cushioned leather seats, artisanal cocktails and premium snacks. Some of us still care more about the game.

This is exactly the dilemma the Edmonton Oilers are grappling with in their new home. The team has priced the average fan, both male and female, out of reasonable access to facilities. According to the National Post, the Oilers became acutely aware of the untenable sea of humanity that obfuscated concourses in the old Northlands Coliseum (Rexall Place or whatever it was called) back in 2007. The city of Edmonton eventually came up with $600 million in municipal funds that went toward the building of Rogers Place. Along with that, ticket prices to Oilers games at the new venue increased 60 percent. The increase in ticket prices aside, “premium” levels at Rogers Place – the ones that cater to “event” crowds sitting in luxury boxes and other elite areas – offer exclusive access to facilities that the average fans are barred from.

(Photo by Codie McLachlan)

Rogers Place has 485 total toilets, a number that far exceeds the minimum 172 required by Edmonton’s local building code. Interestingly, there were approximately 380 toilets accessible to everyone in the old venue, but only 322 in the new one. The old building held 16,839 people for hockey while the new one holds 18,347. That number rises to almost 21,000 for concerts. Turns out, Rogers Place is not very welcoming to anyone battling stress urinary incontinence.

The Oilers organization managed to exacerbate their potty dilemma during the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, by designating two women’s bathrooms for men during the conference semifinal games against the Anaheim Ducks. Women took to social media to voice their displeasure and local news agencies reported the organization claimed it was a necessary move in order to accommodate attendance that “skews towards a male crowd”.

Okay, I get it… that was not a wise decision on the part of management. But it was especially patronizing of team spokesperson Tim Shipton to say, “plus you make friends in the women’s bathroom lineup.” Trust me, Tim, women are not keen on striking up new friendships when their back teeth are floating. Shipton also felt the need to point out that men’s facilities were designated for women when musical acts The Dixie Chicks, John Mayer, Dolly Parton and the Lumineers were in town.

Although Oilers management’s decisions and comments reek of discrimination towards women, I honestly believe that isn’t what this is about. As a long suffering sports fan who spent countless hours of my life in venues like Shea Stadium and Nassau Coliseum, I’ve waited in many bathroom lines. It was a fact of life, and quite honestly, part of the experience. I could tell tales for hours of watching fights break out because women attempted to cut long lines (at a Rangers game in Madison Square Garden back in the late 80s), and being accosted by an extremely drunk woman in a bathroom line at Texas Stadium during a N.Y. Jets-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day 2007. That’s not what matters.

What really matters is not “potty parity” as the Guardian reported, but the disparity between sports fans that mimics what is going on in today’s society. The richest one percent of the population we keep bitching about is also the segment of society that has the greatest access to the cushiest experiences at sporting events. The more you splash out to attend a game, the more you get, including easier access to bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman; what matters is how much you spend to get in the door.

The development of new stadiums and arenas over the past quarter century has been breathtaking to watch. Cities embark on these projects with the intent to outdo one another in an effort to capture the dollars of sports fans from coast-to-coast. Moreover, these facilities desperately need the backing of corporate sponsorship to make them worthwhile financially, because, let’s face it – the average family of four cannot afford to drop about a grand to attend sporting events on a regular basis. That saddens me and it should sadden everyone.

Going to a sporting event has become an elitist activity that has priced out the majority of the population. Rogers Place and the Edmonton Oilers may have alerted the world to “Potty-gate”, but the real problem lies in the exclusion of the average fan from basic services they have every right to expect. If stadiums, arenas and the teams that play in them continue to prevent fans of every gender from accessing basic comforts when they make the decision to go to games, many of them will start showing up dressed as empty seats.

Now is certainly not the time to further politicize bathroom access in places where we choose to spend our disposable income. Sports teams more than any other entities should never take the average consumer for granted. Without the fans, they are nothing. The monuments to their games will eventually be dust in the wind if this brand of elitism is exacerbated in each new facility that opens.

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