Posted by: Peter Houston | January 25, 2010

A Rough Ride: Will the CFL work on its third try in Ottawa?

By Peter Houston

In 2006, Ottawa football fans hadn’t seen a winning season in 26 years.

It’s hard to say exactly when things started going downhill. Maybe it was when the Rough Riders signed former all-pro defensive back Dexter Manley, who was banished from the NFL for failing four drug tests. Maybe it was when they drafted defensive end Derrell Robertson, five months after he died. Or maybe it was when the best idea the Rough Riders’ hapless successors, the Renegades, had to attract fans was a mardi gras promotion, where women were given beads to show their breasts.

Whatever it was, the fans weren’t impressed. Attendance had dropped off. Attracting new fans, the ones who weren’t around for the glory days of the Rough Riders, became a big problem.

“I used to walk up the south side stands at Renegades games and think, ‘These are the same people that went to the Rough Riders games in the ’80s,’ ” says Dave Naylor, the Globe and Mail’s veteran CFL reporter.

Since the 1970s, professional football in Ottawa, whether it was the once proud Rough Riders or the short-lived Renegades who folded in 2006, hasn’t exactly been a success story. In fact, it’s been closer to a model for failure. But that didn’t stop Ottawa city council from approving Lansdowne Live, a plan to revamp Lansdowne Park and bring Ottawa its third CFL team.

Four local businessmen, Jeff Hunt, John Ruddy, William Shenkman and Roger Greenberg, who together formed the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), proposed the plan when they were awarded a conditional franchise by the CFL. The condition was to secure a stadium agreement with the city, so the Lansdowne Live plan is to reconstruct Frank Clair stadium and build a commercial complex alongside it.

Dennis Prouse, an executive member of the National Capital Amateur Football Association, said the team will succeed because of the impressive local ownership group.

“You couldn’t come up with a better dream team to own the team than this group,” he says. “They’ve got their investment on the line both in terms of their business and their personal reputations here in Ottawa.

“They won’t let this thing die; they can’t.”

Council approved the proposal by a vote of 15-9 on Nov. 16. It still has to undergo a series of studies before final approval, but Kanata North councillor Marianne Wilkinson described the chances of the plan being scrapped as “unlikely.”

The public is a bit more divided than city council. A public opinion poll by Nik Nanos found that slightly more people were opposed to the plan (22 per cent) than supported it (18 per cent), but 53 per cent were undecided.

Among those opposed to the plan, you’d be hard pressed to find two people who fought it for the same reason. There are those who don’t like the big box stores, some who don’t approve of council paying the full $116 million bill to renovate Frank Clair stadium and some who don’t want the city to give up such a valuable piece of public land, just to name a few.

But if there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s that if anybody’s going to run a CFL team successfully, it’s these guys.

Bruce Firestone, who brought the Senators to Ottawa in 1989 as president of Terrace Investments, says he believes Hunt can translate his success as owner of the Ottawa 67’s to the CFL.

“I think that if anybody can make CFL football work in Ottawa it’s Jeff Hunt,” said Firestone. “I served on Jeff’s marketing and advisory board for the first year of his ownership of the Ottawa 67’s and what I saw of Jeff in that year really impressed me.”

Between 1987 and 1989, when Firestone was searching for a location to build an arena for the Senators, Lansdowne Park was an option. But, as Firestone details on his blog, it was never seriously considered for two reasons.

For one, people in the Glebe are notoriously unfriendly to increased traffic in their neighbourhood. Firestone says that the disproportionate number of lawyers living in the Glebe would delay the planning for a new arena for too long.

Secondly, there simply wasn’t enough public transportation to and from Lansdowne Park. The only way for buses to get in and out is to use Bank Street, which at the time could only move about 2,500 to 3,000 people per hour. If 50 per cent of the 20,000 people at the game wanted to take the bus home, it would take four hours to leave.

Ian Lee, the MBA Director at Carleton University who presented his opposition of Lansdowne Live to city council, used those figures as evidence that a CFL team cannot work at Lansdowne Park.

“It cannot deliver 90 per cent of the people needed to make the franchise viable,” he says. “It’s not that it’s a little bit deficient, it’s profoundly, radically deficient.”

However, the lack of transportation would only create problems for a hockey franchise, or any other sport that plays a substantial number of games per year, Firestone says. Since the CFL plays a much shorter season, and much of it in the summer, the transportation issues shouldn’t be as big a problem.

“People will park and walk a long distance because most of the games are played in good weather months in Ottawa,” he says. “It’s one thing to walk a mile or a mile and a half if you have to in August or September, it’s a different thing to walk a mile or a mile and a half in February or January.”

Naylor also says that he doesn’t think transportation will be a big problem.

“The most recent big crowds they’ve had for an event there is the under-20 World Cup (in 2007) and I don’t remember people bitchin’ about that. Knowing Jeff Hunt and his awareness of customer-unfriendly issues around sports teams, I would be shocked if this is something he doesn’t have a plan for.”

Firestone decided against brining the Senators to Lansdowne Park in part because he thought the lack of transportation would alienate the fan base. Unfortunately for Jeff Hunt and the OSEG, the CFL fan base in Ottawa might be alienated already because of the embarrassment that was the post-1970s Rough Riders and then Renegades.

Because of that prolonged period of losing, it will be hard to get fans back, let alone make new ones, Naylor says.

“When you get to a certain point there’s almost scorched earth. I think the (Renegades) needed to show people first that they were deserving of their entertainment dollars, and they really didn’t.

“They’re going to have to win people over, as opposed to be given their good faith and then have the chance to keep it.”

Another factor is that the demographics of Ottawa have changed significantly since the days when the Rough Riders were popular, Lee says.

“The people who were the die hard football fans in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re getting old and they’re not all going to football games anymore.”

To attract a new generation of fans, the rebuilt stadium has to become an attraction, Naylor says. Anything that reminds people of the old teams – the stadium, the mismanagement, the failed promotions – needs to be tossed out the window.

However, he says if anybody’s able to do it, it’s Jeff Hunt, because he faced a similar situation when he bought the 67’s in 1998.

“You can’t play the nostalgia card here,” Naylor says. “In the past, the team has been viewed a little bit as a kind of charity. You should go to a CFL game because the owners are trying hard, write your cheque to the United Way and go to a CFL game.

“I know that kind of identity was around the 67’s in the ’90s and when Jeff took over and he set out to destroy it. And he did.”

Attracting new fans should be easier for OSEG than its predecessors. According to TSN, the CFL’s television ratings were up six per cent from 2008 to 2009.  Even more importantly for the Ottawa owners who are hoping to attract a new generation of fans, ratings in the 18-34 age group grew by 31 per cent.

The fact that Jeff Hunt is in charge should bring back some of the disgruntled fans and could ultimately lead to the success of Ottawa’s third CFL team, Naylor says.

“I think you’ve got all the elements in place,” said Naylor. “There’s nothing that this group isn’t doing that you can say ‘This can’t be successful because they haven’t done this.’

“There will be a lot of people who will say ‘Well this is Jeff Hunt in charge of this, I believe in it.’ ”

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