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What does it take for all of Ottawa’s sports teams to thrive? | CBC News

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The number of professional sports teams in Ottawa is growing, and each one is vying for the hearts —and disposable income— of fans. 

Ottawa’s Professional Women’s Hockey League franchise is a fresh new team in the market, boasting the fledgling league’s second highest average attendance.

The recently announced Ottawa Black Bears will also mark the return of National Lacrosse League action to Ottawa, after a short-lived stint in the early 2000s.

I don’t see other teams as my competition. We’re competing more with Netflix and the couch.– Ottawa sports entrepreneur Jeff Hunt

It has some fans wondering whether this is a mini boom for pro sports here, or is it a delicate balance of potential bankruptcies? 

Ottawa’s sports history is littered with failed franchises. Remember the Ottawa Rough Riders and Renegades of the Canadian Football League? Baseball’s Ottawa Lynx and Ottawa Champions, soccer’s Ottawa Fury, and lacrosse’s Ottawa Rebel? And of course the original Ottawa Senators, who made their expansion return to the National Hockey League back in 1992.

While there are more than enough defunct sports teams to legitimize those worries, people in positions of influence on Ottawa’s current teams, say times have changed.

If a rising tide lifts all boats, two more sports franchises in the city shouldn’t be cause for concern, according to Jeff Hunt, former partner in the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, owners of the Ottawa 67’s and Ottawa Redblacks, and current strategic partner with the Canadian Premier League’s Atletico Ottawa franchise.

From left: Partner Jeff Hunt, Atlético de Madrid CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín and Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan unveil Atlético Ottawa’s logo Feb. 11, 2020. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

“I don’t see other teams as my competition,” adds Hunt, “we’re competing more with Netflix and the couch.”

So, can the new teams succeed where others failed? Of course, says Hunt.

Excitement, value and hope keys to success

“I’ve said this for years, it’s not that much different than saying to me, ‘Do restaurants work in Ottawa?’ I’d say this, good restaurants work in Ottawa.”

Restaurants that succeed have great food, great surroundings and great service, he says. And the price has to be in line with what’s on the plate. 

It’s similar for sports teams, says Hunt: the fan experience and playing facilities have to be exciting. The ticket prices and concessions have to be reasonable and good value. The teams need to deliver more wins than losses. And if that isn’t happening, fans need to know a plan for winning is in place. That requires hope. 

That’s something that was for years in short supply for fans of the Ottawa Senators, the preeminent sports franchise in the city and the only one belonging to one of North America’s “big four” men’s pro sports leagues. During the last few years under late owner Eugene Melnyk attendance slumped as the team struggled, but the arrival of new owner Michael Andlauer has provided a surge of optimism.

“Fans want to back a winner. They want to be proud of their team,” says Hunt. For new owners like Andlauer, “there’s an initial bump or honeymoon period with new franchises and an element of excitement and novelty but after that you have to start delivering.”

A hockey team owner gives a news conference.
Ottawa Senators owner Michael Andlauer’s arrival has given hope to the city’s beleaguered hockey fan base. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Atletico Ottawa president and CEO Fernando Lopez says he knows the city can handle more sports teams. He just needs fans here to embrace his team in this non-traditional soccer market.

Community connection part of soccer strategy

“Just last year we grew in attendance 41 per cent compared with 2022. So we’re very happy with the evolution that we have seen, the support that we have seen from the city. I think it’s great that two more sports teams are coming to Ottawa,” says Lopez.

The team sits second in CPL attendance. And with a city population of about one million, Lopez predicts steady growth as the team builds more community awareness. It’s an approach he’s borrowing from the Spanish parent club Atletico de Madrid, where he worked before launching Atletico Ottawa.

Atletico Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez hopes to model his team after Spanish parent club, Atletico de Madrid.
Atletico Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez is banking on quality soccer and community engagement to build a successful franchise in the city. (Radio-Canada)

“Atletico de Madrid is a community based club. It’s a social club really focused on developing young players and rooting ties with the community. That’s what …  we wanted to replicate here. And I’m very grateful to see the response that we’re having right now.”  

Sellout crowds for soccer aren’t in the cards yet for Atletico Ottawa. The same holds true for the Ottawa Titans of baseball’s Frontier League.

Smaller teams search for niche

Regan Katz, Titans vice president and COO, maintains he doesn’t need sellout crowds to be successful. The team’s costs are not comparable to those of other professional baseball teams. Moreover, he’s had success at it in Winnipeg where he helps run the Goldeyes. 

“We picked a format, a calibre of ball that is family friendly and affordable. And we decided to make that our niche for the Ottawa market and it’s kind of the same niche we hold in Winnipeg,” Katz says.   

Another differentiator for the Titans, according to Katz, is their commitment to a “love local” approach.

“Instead of going with the large beer partners we picked all local products,” says Katz. The same held true for food partners as well, he says.

The Titans ranked 12th in overall attendance in the Frontier League last season. 

Katz would like to see attendance rise from last year’s average of 1,500, but not necessarily to sell out all 10,000 seats.

People watch a minor league baseball game in a stadium as the sun sets. There are hot air balloons in the sky in the background.
The Ottawa Titans play their final home game of 2023 at RCGT Park Aug. 31, 2023. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

“Ottawa is one of the larger markets in the league so we hope to continue to grow on that … It’s a giant facility. It was overbuilt when it was built for the Lynx. It’s still oversized for what we’re doing.” 

Katz is also confident the entertainment factor is something that will keep people coming back for more.

“It’s an addictive outing … There’s nothing quite like a cold beer and a hot hot dog on a summer day,” says Katz. “These guys play to win, they play to get noticed. These are athletes following a dream.” 

Women’s hockey a draw

Fans have noticed Ottawa’s PWHL team since its inception this autumn. According to recent figures from the league, Ottawa’s attendance sits second overall and first among Canada’s three teams, which include Toronto and Montreal. 

The numbers for women’s hockey here, and overall have been better than expected, according to Ottawa assistant coach Hayley Irwin.

Hayley Irwin is an assistant coach with Ottawa's PWHL team. They're currently the second biggest draw in league attendance.
Olympic gold medalist Hayley Irwin, an assistant coach with Ottawa’s PWHL team, says the team has been motivated by the strong crowds this season. (Harry How/Getty Images)

“Night one was exciting, it was sold out, during warm up everyone was in their seats. And then you’re waiting for the next game hoping it’s going to be the same and it has been. So night after night our fans show up. They’re loud. They’re into it. It fuels our girls and our team.”

She believes many sports fans in Ottawa aren’t differentiating between men’s and women’s sports. 

“Every single night any team can win and that’s going to keep people coming back.”

For now, it’s a honeymoon period for the PWHL that Hunt has experienced with several of the teams he has owned over the years. 

He urges anyone running a new franchise to take the goodwill of the Ottawa marketplace and prove you’re committed to the community and to winning. Attendance, then, should take care of itself.

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