The long game: How to rescue baseball in Ottawa

NORMAN PROVENCHER Updated: August 1, 2019

If the Ottawa Champions had about 500 more fans like Kiersten Vuorimaki, there wouldn’t be any question about whether the independent ball club had a future in Ottawa.

Since opening day in 2015, the 34-year-old Carleton University grad student — known to many Champs’ administration types as Super Fan — has pretty much been a fixture in the stands behind the home team dugout on the west side of RCGT Park, often with her best friend, Gabrielle.

She’s made a lot of friends in the section, a good number of them Day Oners like her, and she’s leveraged her love of the Champs into a regular blogging gig at Ottawa community events site Apt613.

“Sincerely, I just love it, I love everything about the park and the team,” Vuorimaki says. “I love the atmosphere, I love that it’s a local product. It’s fantastic in summer watching pro-level ball at affordable prices.”

OK, it’s not so great on a May night when the city and ballpark are still trying to shrug off winter, but “if they can play, I can watch.”

Vuorimaki doesn’t understand why there aren’t more people like her.

“It’s a real challenge to get people out,” she says. “I can’t believe people don’t know about it. Baseball fans realize it’s not (Major League Baseball) but it’s really good baseball.”

Kiersten Vuorimaki (R), attending a recent Ottawa Champions game at RCGT Park, is a devoted baseball fan. July 15, 2019. ERROL MCGIHON / POSTMEDIA

Five years after bringing pro baseball back to Ottawa, the Champions should realistically be expected to have worked out the kinks in operating a ball team in the nation’s capital. And, on the field, they’ve been true to their word, offering entertaining baseball at affordable prices.

But away from the field, there’s a long list of questions about the ownership, finances and poor attendance.

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The tension spiked earlier this year with a pair of revelations. First, this newspaper reported in March that the taxpayer-owned stadium on Coventry Road had been named in a city staff report as one of 20 possible locations for badly needed affordable housing. The report set a possible timeline of seven to 15 years for the potential conversion, but insiders now stress there’d be no demolition as long as there is a team performing well on the site.

The other shoe dropped in June when the city announced it had torn up the Champions’ stadium lease because of the team’s financial difficulties. The city’s real estate office said the move was made at the request of the club, which was $418,942 in arrears at that point.

The lease, which had five years to go, with two more five-year extensions possible, called for annual rent of $108,000, plus $250,000 a year for recovering stadium operating costs.

To cover the Champs’ debt, the city called a $108,000 letter of credit that the team posted as a deposit when they signed the lease, as well as an instalment payment of $200,000 due Sept. 30. The rest is due in instalments between 2020 and Sept. 30, 2023.

In the meantime, the Champs will pay regular city rental fees of $128.25 per hour, plus $48.35 per hour for use of stadium lights for night games. The team will also pay $760 per game as a “recovery fee” for additional city support costs.

Team owner Miles Wolff says the club was satisfied with the deal and planned to operate under the new terms for several more years.

Wolff says one thing that might have hurt the team this year was the affordable housing announcement. “We were the site that everyone focused on,” Wolff says, explaining that fans were approaching him asking about the future of the stadium property. “In some people’s minds, that was a fait accompli, that we’re done.”

“But we’re still here.”

Fans at an Ottawa Champions game against the Rockland Boulders at RCGT Park on July 15, 2019. ERROL MCGIHON / POSTMEDIA

The recent news was troubling to fans and the community at large, prompting the ultimate shock question in some quarters: Is Ottawa even a baseball town? Can baseball ever hope to compete with the drama-prone Senators, the Redblacks football team or the aggressively marketed Fury soccer team?

Well, it depends on what you mean by baseball town. And who you ask. Interviews by this newspaper with about 10 sources indicated a strong support for pro baseball in general, but not likely strong enough to support expensive upper-level pro teams, unless there was an affiliation with a popular big-league team, such as the lamented Lynx enjoyed with the former Montreal Expos.

The Can-Am League is an independent league, not affiliated with any Major League parent club. That means the Champs and the rest of the league must pay all expenses such as salaries, equipment and a host of other costs themselves. In affiliated minor league, most of these expenses are covered by the parent club, a huge saving for the minor league owners.

Despite headaches and some tense times, serial entrepreneur and reluctant team owner Wolff says he’s still convinced there’s a solid market for baseball in the capital.

“You can see it and feel it in the park, there’s a love for the game and the Champions,” Wolff, 75, says in his office in the bowels of the 26-year-old city-owned stadium. Wolff, who brought the team to Ottawa when he was also Can-Am League commissioner, has vowed to bring in local ownership. But five years later, he seems more determined to go back to his North Carolina home, where he owns a Single-A baseball franchise.

“I’ve said from the beginning that the long-term health of this franchise is local ownership … people with the contacts … the guys who know the business community and the guys fans can call saying, ‘Hey, we need a couple of tickets or this and that.’

“I’m not close to giving it up here, but I’d love to find somebody. There’s no timetable … I’ve got some tire-kickers right now that hopefully (could firm up) toward the end of the season. The best time to buy is in the fall so you can get into planning next season.”

The “tire-kickers” weren’t realistic about what the offer should be, Wolff says. “I had to say I’m sorry, a professional baseball franchise is worth more than that. There was one group that I just don’t think had the resources. I mean, beyond buying the club, you gotta have some semi-deep pockets to do the things that maybe should be done.”

Wolff wouldn’t give an asking price, but scuttlebutt around town is that the team would be available for less than $1 million.

Ottawa Champions celebrate their win against the Cuban National Team on Sunday, June 16, 2019. PATRICK DOYLE / OTT

Concordia University economist Moshe Lander agrees that Ottawa has shown it’s a “baseball town,” largely because of the positive early seasons of the Ottawa Lynx. But, so far, it’s not a Can-Am League or Champions town. And he says it’s time for the city and other interested parties to come up with a new plan.

“I’d have to say that the (six-team) Can-Am League itself seems to be in serious trouble. Its membership has fluctuated over the past seven years and there’s only been (a few teams) that have averaged attendance over 3,000.”

This year, the Champions should welcome their 500,000th fan since arriving for the 2015 season, but their highest per-game average, 2,454, was in 2016, when they won the league championship. So far in 2019, they have averaged about 1,600 fans per game.

“It makes more sense to have a team affiliated with a major league organization, such as the Lynx were.” Fan allegiance to the Expos was as much a factor in Lynx attendance as the team’s performance, Lander says.

“Seriously, it’s almost better at this point for everyone to cut their losses and look ahead,” Lander says.

“It would make sense for everyone to get together to make a three- or five- or 10-year plan” in anticipation of Montreal regaining a Major League Baseball franchise and establishing a farm team in Ottawa, he says.

The plan would include a smaller stadium of perhaps 3,000-4,000 seats, or a reconfigured RCGT Park, more suitable for a minor league team.

“I joke that they should just drop something into the Glebe, they need the excitement,” he says.

“That is a joke,” he repeats.

He does agree with Wolff that the key to any success would be local owners with deep pockets, both for the initial investments in a new park, or drastic modifications to RCGT Park, and promoting the team and maintaining the facility.

On the other hand, Craig Hyatt, associate professor of sports management at Brock University, contends there’s hope for the Champions. But it’ll take time and commitment.

“Any team that has a competent marketing department with a plan can make a town a baseball town,” Hyatt says. “It’s not 1957, you can’t just open your doors and let the fans in. People have entertainment choices.”

Hyatt’s a big fan of the Ottawa 67’s junior hockey team’s “exceptional” marketing efforts, particularly during the OHA playoffs earlier this year, calling them “smart and effective” programs that the Champions could emulate. Events like the hockey team’s Dunder Mifflin night, a tribute to TV show The Office, taps into pop culture hot points that attract people with little or no interest in sports.

“Autograph nights or bobbleheads don’t attract these folks,” he says. “Many of them don’t even like hockey.”

Even the sainted Expos had their marketing failures, such as the back-to-school promotion where they offered “cheap-looking vinyl pencil cases with the team’s logo on it,” he says, where other MLB teams would give away quality team-logoed backpacks.

“The Expos finished dead last in MLB attendance during these years … but maybe wouldn’t have if they gave away quality promotion items like backpacks instead of pencil cases (and) avoided all the bad publicity that comes with being dead last.”

The trick, Hyatt says, is to be relentless, to find hot topics that appeal to a wide variety of people. And don’t be shy. The Buffalo Bisons have had excellent results from their annual “Princess Day” promotions, with the 16,000-seat Sahlen Stadium awash in chiffon and tiaras.

“Those little girls are having a wonderful time and they’re all dragging one or two parents behind them.”

Champions baseball stadium in Ottawa Thursday May 30, 2019. Matthew Sarault, acting facility operator at Champions Stadium works on the mound Thursday. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA

To be fair, the Champions have been improving their promotion/merchandising game this year. They’ve been especially visible on social media, with their Twitter feeds and Facebook page providing game reports, interviews and other news. Still, their most popular events, visits from international teams such as Cuba, Dominican Republic and Japan’s Shikoku Island League Plus, still skew towards the purist baseball fan and wouldn’t seem to do much to attract and retain newcomers.

Wolff and the team addressed one long-standing issue this year with a new marketing arrangement with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, operators of Lansdowne Park facilities and owners of the Redblacks, Fury and 67’s. Under the deal, OSEG drummed up partnerships and other deals, taking some pressure off Champions’ staff.

“(OSEG) has a dedicated sales staff (and) they get a piece of the action,” Wolff says. “For example, they brought Big Rig (the growing local brewery), one of their football partners. That’s been very popular.”

“They’re the big boys in town. They’re bigger than the Senators.”

Wolff also confirmed the Champs and OSEG had “brief” discussions about OSEG taking over the ballclub, but the talks didn’t go far.

Duncan MacDonald, a high-energy Ottawa real estate guy and one of the principals in the group that brought the semi-pro Fat Cats to Ottawa for a couple of years, feels Wolff’s pain.

And he feels the Champs have made improvements.

“The Champs have stepped up the (promotion level and) put a focus on family and fun,” he says.

But, he adds, the organization was hamstrung by the lease arrangement with the city. The new lease arrangement with the city certainly eased some financial pressures.

As much as he loves the sport, MacDonald, who was general manager of the ball team, knew that on-field performance was almost secondary in bringing people to the ballpark.

His mantra became “bums in seats.” The group unleashed a relentless marketing blitz, with a variety of entertainment, food deals, trip giveaways and other come-ons to get people into the park. 

“We didn’t hope for good weather, good players.”

One successful promo was free admission for a senior accompanied by a child (whose ticket cost $6).

“The target customers were children 7-12 years old, that was the secret sauce. What parent will not deliver on what their kid wants?”

The blitz had results. The Fat Cats boasted of an average attendance of 2,328 per game in their first season for a total of 25,611. The next year, they did even better, with 38,491 during the regular season plus an astounding 28,843 in only seven games in the playoffs.

MacDonald, who left the team in an ownership skirmish in 2011, says he had more tricks up his sleeve but ran out of time.

“I had (sunshade) awnings planned, a water slide coming from the upper deck to the picnic area …” he says.

“You just have to think about the bums in seats … all of the issues go away.”

MacDonald’s “perfect solution” for baseball in Ottawa would be to find buyers and move to a new 3,500-seat venue in LeBreton Flats, ideally part of the Single-A New York-Penn League, which plays 34 home game a year between June and August.

“Best spot, best time of the year,” he says.

Champions baseball stadium in Ottawa Thursday May 30, 2019. Champions locker room. TONY CALDWELL /POSTMEDIA

Ottawa’s sports commissioner, Coun. Mathieu Fleury, says the Champions’ problems have provided an opportunity to open a larger conversation on the use of city sports facilities.

“There are a number of issues that are worth looking into,” says Fleury, who seconded a motion by Coun. Diane Deans to have the new lease agreement presented to council for discussion Aug. 28. The discussion has since been rescheduled for Sept. 11. Deans says the new deal should push council to question the future of the stadium on Coventry Road.

Fleury says the deal with the Champs doesn’t “get to the root” of the problem of how to best use the valuable city property.

“All sorts of things should be examined: winter uses, possible multi-sport uses” as well as possible changes including reconfiguring the stands, he says.

He notes there have been discussions with Baseball Canada with a view to a possible home base for the organization at RCGT Park. Or he mused about a possible agreement with the city’s university community.

He says the city is keeping close tabs on any possible return of the Montreal Expos, whether as a shared team with the Tampa Bay Rays or on its own.

A return of an Expos-affiliated farm team in Ottawa “would certainly be a desirable outcome,” he notes.

The councillor says he’d like to work to ensure the city isn’t stuck managing facilities, but rather forming partnerships with groups who know what they want and how to achieve their goals. The Terry Fox track, for example, is run by a private track club, owned by the National Capital Commission and leased long term by the city.

For David Gourlay, the popular former Champs president who left last year for an unsuccessful run for city council, “affiliated baseball (MLB farm teams) is a tremendous opportunity for us long-term.

“Can-Am has allowed us to prove to a lot of people in the industry that Ottawa baseball has a market and has a future,” he says.

He’s blunt about his vision: “I am confident there is a future with strong ownership, local or otherwise, committed to the long-term health of professional baseball.

“At the end of the day, local ownership would be the preferred model, (but if) somebody calls from Toronto or … the U.S. and they’re committed to baseball in the nation’s capital, (there would be) an obligation to look at that.”

While he insists his new job as the OSEG Foundation’s senior manager for charitable gifts has kept him out of the loop, he says there have been parties outside of Ottawa interested in the franchise.

“There are two in particular that have consulted over time, but I don’t know if they’re still at the table.”

Champions baseball stadium in Ottawa Thursday May 30, 2019. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA

The OSEG executive believes the future of Ottawa baseball is a Montreal-affiliated team.

“Imagine a Montreal Expos Double-A club, (with possible development) around the parking lot so we can have some restaurants. Montreal fans grab the train to have a look, getting off at the rail station and staying at the hotels (on the site). Maybe taking the light rail down to the Market for the evening. That for me is just so compelling.”

But even a Montreal-linked team wouldn’t need a 10,000-seat stadium.

“I’d rather take out 4,000 seats and animate those (free spaces) with (fan-friendly features). Maybe … a terrace (restaurant) in the outfield to have a meal or a beer. Why couldn’t we have a fun kind of green wall in left field (such as exists in Boston’s Fenway Park)? Why can’t we have a 360-degree concourse?”

Like Coun. Fleury, Gourlay says the team requires “long-term thinking, particularly with its most important partner, the City of Ottawa, on the development of the ballpark (and) area.”

“We need the conversations about development possibilities outside the ballpark. There’s all kinds of scenarios where the future of baseball can be healthy. Why can’t we have both development around the parking lot, with affordable housing in the area. It’s a lot of land.”

Gourlay feels his friend and former boss Wolff and the Champions team have done a good job with promotions and community partnerships, but there’s room to improve.

“The team has to get into our neighbourhoods and our communities and really establish themselves.”

The RCGT Park area needs “a really transformative vision to accelerate the fan experience,” especially when light rail finally begins running, he says.

“The future ownership does require the understanding that you’re going to have to spend some money to make some money.”

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