Grassroots support fuels resurgence of city’s big clubs, but can Fat Cats, CFL, NASL & Capital City co-exist?
By Dan Plouffe
With the Ottawa Fat Cats and Capital City FC taking their hold in the local sports scene in recent years, and pro soccer and football set to make a return soon enough, Ottawa is suddenly a thriving, and crowded, summertime sports hotbed.
It’s a valid question whether all these entertainment franchises will be able to co-exist, but the owners of those teams believe their connections to the grassroots sports community is a major reason why they’ll be able to survive.
“It’s interesting,” says Jeff Hunt, the front man for the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group that will own the 67’s, the CFL and NASL clubs. “I’ve been following the return of the Winnipeg Jets very closely because I was very curious as to how it would affect the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“The perception would be that with all this hysteria and excitement, all the new jerseys being sold, that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would suffer. But the opposite is true.”
Hunt made some phone calls to the Jets and the Blue Bombers and found out that Blue Bombers merchandise and ticket revenue is up since the NHL’s return.
“They believe that the community’s self-esteem has grown. The excitement of a community around its sports teams is infectious. I think it just creates in the city’s DNA a certain desire to go to live sporting events,” Hunt explains. “When you think about it, it might be a very good comparable for what we have in store as we go forward.”
Further proof that Ottawa sports fans can sustain multiple franchises comes from his own 67’s club, which many thought would die off with the arrival of the Senators. But establishing strong ties with minor hockey and schools through programs of all kinds helped the junior hockey club create their own loyal following.
“It’s happened before and it will happen again where a Friday night the Senators are playing, the 67’s are playing and the Gatineau Olympiques are playing and all three buildings are full,” Hunt notes. “That’s a great statement about Ottawa as a sports community, and Ottawa should be proud of the support it gives to its sports teams.”
CONNECTION TO MINOR SPORTS KEY
There’s no doubt Ottawa gets behind its hockey teams well, but even though football and soccer support might not have quite the same history in the capital, Hunt takes confidence that those franchises will be successful from the strong local grassroots communities present in those sports.
“While it’s not an absolute prerequisite that people play a sport to be fans of a sport, it certainly is a major asset,” adds Hunt, highlighting that the National Capital Amateur Football Association is one of the country’s most successful leagues. “There’s no question that growth at the grassroots level has had an effect on people’s interest at the professional level. And the reverse will be true as well.
“We’re looking forward to encouraging kids to play sports period, and in particular the sports we’re involved with – hockey, football and soccer.”
Nowhere is grassroots growth more evident than in soccer. With over 90,000 participants registered with the Eastern Ontario District Soccer Association, Capital City FC owner Neil Malhotra had little trouble building a following for his first-year Canadian Soccer League franchise.
“There’s just been gaping holes in Ottawa,” Malholtra says of the reason so many teams are coming to life around the same time.
“The city is growing, so there’s more of an appetite for it. And from the business community standpoint, maybe some of us have a little more time to take on some new stuff.”
With an average attendance around 800-900 at the moment, Malholtra believes Capital City will be able to maintain a similar following even after Ottawa gains its North American Soccer League team.
“If we do it the way we have it planned out, it shouldn’t really make a difference to us,” Malholtra says. “We have a little more local flavour with our players, and a little younger approach. We have good corporate support, and the local part appeals to people.”
The Ottawa Fat Cats employed a very similar recipe to success. With a crew of local ball players, the Fat Cats built their own strong following, filling Ottawa Stadium during their post-season run to the Intercounty Baseball League championship series for the first time since the Ottawa Lynx’s heydays.
Although Ottawa may never be able to kick its image of a sleepy government town, the return/birth of many bigger sports teams will only help fuel pride and energy in the city, says Hunt.
“I really believe it’ll have a positive effect on the Ottawa Senators, it’ll have a positive effect on the Ottawa Fat Cats and I think it’s just going to create a mood and excitement in the community to go to live sporting events and be a part of it because there’ll be a buzz.”