by Brad Gillies
The city of Ottawa has a tumultuous history with the Canadian Football League. What was once a charter city in the formation of the league has turned into a laughingstock. It has tried (and failed) to run a successful franchise on two separate occasions, yet here we are—looking at a third attempt.
The original Ottawa Rough Riders began operations in 1876, joined the CFL in 1958 and ceased operations in 1996 due to ruined finances. Then, after a five year hiatus, the city was again granted a franchise and the Ottawa Renegades played to mediocre crowds from 2002 until their demise in 2006—a downfall that was once again financially induced.
The city of Ottawa, and specifically owner Jeff Hunt, has been granted an “expansion” franchise due to begin play in 2014, assuming they can have an appropriate venue operational by then. Meeting this requirement will ultimately require a large-scale, expensive renovation of the existing Frank Clair Stadium or a fresh start with a brand new ground. Either way, this will be wasted money.
The CFL will not work in Ottawa, and here’s why:
The CFL is hugely dependant on local fan bases to support its clubs. Every geographic region has its team within proximity, and chances are good that if you grow up in that area then you’re a local fan for life.
With only 8 teams (soon to be 9), there isn’t enough of a draw for cross-geographic fan bases. There aren’t enough marquee stars to draw young fans to this team or that. New fans simply become a fan of the team that is most accessible. For example, if you were born in Manitoba you’re automatically a Blue Bomber fan, and anything else is blasphemous. Same goes for Saskatchewan and the Roughriders; same goes for British Columbia and the Lions, and so on.
The problem with Ottawa’s geographic region is that Ottawa is a politics city, and nobody who lives in Ottawa is actually from Ottawa! Ok, that’s exaggeration, but the point remains.
Being the capital city of this great country means Ottawa is the center of all politics and the headquarters for everything related to the federal government. This means representatives from every part of the country are stationed in Ottawa either on a permanent or temporary basis. These people, if they are even CFL fans in the first place, already have well established relationships with their team of choice.
A Manitoban who moves to Ottawa is still a Blue Bomber fan, and doesn’t automatically change his or her allegiance. This means that these people are most excited about seeing their own team when they come to town. They won’t buy tickets for Ottawa vs. Montreal.
This is why Ottawa’s CFL franchises fail at the turnstiles. Nobody cares about the home team; tickets are being sold because of the visiting team, and anyone will tell you that financial reliance on this method is ill-advised.
The city of Ottawa, and the new franchise owner, will argue Ottawa has had relatively little trouble in running NHL or NLL teams of late, and therefore the future is bright for the CFL. This train of thought is flat out wrong.
When it comes to Canada, the NHL is as close to a godly sport as it comes. It doesn’t matter who the home team is or who the visiting team is or who your own geographic allegiance is to. Canadians will line up in droves for a chance to see professional hockey at its finest. As for the NLL, it’s a relatively new league and there are relatively few franchises in Canada for people to obtain any sort of geographic allegiance. The novelty of the league itself is the draw here.
As for the CFL, league brass are hoping 20,000 to 30,000 new fans will fill the stadium in Ottawa week after week and finally keep the team afloat. The problem is that nobody in Ottawa is a NEW fan.
Once again, the league will fail in Ottawa. This being the third attempt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the league and owners prolonged admitting their failures for as long as financially and humanly possible, but they will eventually admit it. This incarnation will likely last longer than the most recent Renegades, but it will be based on stubbornness and unwillingness to admit failure.
The CFL routinely and repetitively says it is attempting to continually grow the league and increase its popularity throughout the country, but then they follow up by awarding a franchise to a city that is a perennial failure; and what’s worse, they continue to explore the option of a third franchise in southern Ontario—a geographic region which is already overcrowded with other CFL, AHL, OHL, NHL, NFL, NLL, MLB, MLS ticket-sales competition.
If the CFL truly wants to grow its league it should be looking at regions of the country that aren’t already saturated. Many have suggested the CFL expand in to the Maritimes, and I whole-heartedly support this idea. Canada’s east coast has little in the way of professional sports, and no geographic allegiance to anyone in this instance. They are starving for professional sports.
As proven in recent experiments—matches the CFL has hosted in New Brunswick—this area can draw a crowd. The CFL, however, sees the lack of acceptable stadiums in the region as a drawback to expansion, but if they’re willing to promise Ottawa a franchise without a serviceable stadium, why not the Maritimes?
Hopefully, after the CFL has failed in Ottawa for a third time, they will understand why this league will not work in that city. And hopefully we will never hear the words “Ottawa”, “CFL”, and “franchise” in the same sentence ever again.