A little late: Ottawa lands pro soccer team

So, I’m a little late on this one, but Ottawa has officially landed a North American Soccer League franchise, as announced June 18th. This is great news for the city. I have a particular interest in this, and not only because I’m an avid sports fan currently living in Ottawa.

This past year, I did my analytical feature at Carleton University on whether or not Ottawa can support a pro soccer franchise. I spoke to several people about this, including John Pugh, who spearheaded this endeavor. Anyways, for those who are interested, here’s my feature. Note that this was written in November of last year (2010), so it’s likely that some things have changed since then. Just a heads up. Enjoy (or not).

Over eight years ago, John Pugh said he acquired the Ottawa Fury with two goals in mind: to aid the development of local soccer players, and to bring the highest level of spectator soccer to the city.

With the Fury’s youth program, that has helped over 60 players receive athletic scholarships in the U.S., he’s achieved his first goal.

Now he’s onto the second.

After officially joining forces with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) last month, Pugh said he is trying to bring a professional soccer franchise to the nation’s capital.

Graeme Ivory, the Fury’s director of communications and marketing who works alongside Pugh, said the OSEG is working towards bringing a North American Soccer League (NASL) pro franchise to the city by 2013.

After seeing its teams merge with teams from the United Soccer Leagues (USL) First Division last season, Ivory said he expects the NASL will be sanctioned as its own league within the next few weeks.

At that point, Ivory said the OSEG will submit its formal franchise bid.

But the question remains, does Ottawa — not a traditional soccer market — have the fan support and facilities to feasibly house a professional soccer team?

Pugh said the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, held partially in Ottawa, was all the confirmation he needed that the city was ready for a pro franchise.

“People really began to understand what it meant to go to a soccer game, that a soccer game was actually an event,” said Pugh.

And FIFA’s response to the games in Ottawa was second to none, according to the 2007 U-20 World Cup Ottawa site general manger Marci Morris.

“They were really impressed with Ottawa, they were really impressed with the venues, and they were really impressed with the crowds,” said Morris.

In Ottawa’s eight games, the total attendance was more than 95 per cent of the stadium’s 26,500 capacity, according to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 Economic Impact Assessment.

Just fewer than 41,000 individuals attended the Ottawa portion of the event, though more than 11,000 were out of town spectators, the report estimated.

Though his league doesn’t appear to be the OSEG’s focus, USL president Tim Holt said he certainly believes Ottawa would have the fan support, based on what he’s seen from the Fury’s existing teams.

The Fury currently has two semi-professional teams, who compete in the USL’s Premier Development League (PDL) and women’s league respectively.

“[Pugh’s] been a great USL owner and the Fury have been a great representative,” said Holt, who has had discussions with several serious groups in Ottawa about the potential of a USL pro franchise. “We think it’s a market that would support a professional soccer team, certainly at the USL pro level.”

Over the last five years, the Fury’s men’s team has seen their attendance rise each season, according to figures provided by Ivory. This past season, the Fury saw more than 2,600 fans come through the gates at their Algonquin College facility in eight regular season games, according to numbers provided by the USL.

This was an average of 337 fans per game, which is just above the league’s Eastern Conference overall attendance average, the figures illustrated.

“I think if there was a professional team, we’d see that level of support jump considerably,” said Holt.

This was certainly the case for the Vancouver Whitecaps, whose PDL team only averaged an attendance of 75 spectators per game this season, compared to their professional team, which averaged more than 4,700 per game, according to the figures.

Ottawa 67’s vice president Randy Burgess, who is also working alongside the OSEG in this project, said he thinks a pro team in Ottawa could garner the same type of increase.

Certain members of the OSEG, including Pugh, 67’s owner Jeff Hunt, and others, have traveled around different USL pro cities, which aren’t necessarily considered traditional soccer markets, to get an idea of the fan response there, Burgess said.

Along with Hunt and 67’s president and CEO Pat Whalen, Burgess said he visited Rochester, N.Y. to watch the Rhinos in July of last year. The Rhinos are expected to be a member of the USL pro league next season.

Burgess said he saw 6,000 fans in the stands that day, and those are about the numbers he would expect in Ottawa for any given regular season game.

An initial forecast Ivory has been working on, based on last season’s NASL attendance figures, suggests this potential pro team in Ottawa could project an average attendance of 7,000 fans per game, said Ivory.

The league’s average regular season attendance last season was 3,858 fans per game, though both the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps saw an average beyond that mark, according to numbers presented to Ivory by the league.

There are a number of reasons why both Ivory and Burgess believe these numbers would be achievable.

Burgess suggested a big element of the marketing strategy would be to connect with the community.

Along these lines, attaching the “pro tag” to a soccer team in Ottawa would make in a difference in itself, said Ivory.

“The main issue right now is that because the Fury also has our youth program, some of the community clubs see us as a competitor so they don’t necessarily welcome us with as open arms as some of the other clubs,” said Ivory.

Carl Valentine, former Vancouver Whitecaps head coach and player and current Fury PDL head coach, said the Whitecaps made it a point to engage the community back when he was a player, and now the team is reaping the benefits as they prepare for Major League Soccer.

While Valentine admits that Ottawa doesn’t have the soccer culture or history that Vancouver does, he believes the foundation is in place for a pro franchise to succeed in the nation’s capital.

Burgess and Ivory also cited Ottawa’s overall soccer participation numbers as a reason why they expect a pro franchise in the city to be well received.

There were over 50,000 registered outdoor soccer players in Ottawa during the 2010 season, according to figures provided by the Eastern Ontario District Soccer Association.

This is the second largest district in the province, said the association’s administrative assistant Joe Scheier.

While the general consensus appears to suggest the people of Ottawa would support a pro soccer team, the question of venue isn’t as clear-cut.

If all goes to plan, the proposed team would play at the new Lansdowne Stadium, along with the expected Canadian Football League franchise.

City councilor Clive Doucet said he “loves soccer” and recognizes it’s the growing sport in Canada, but he doesn’t believe the team would be well supported at Lansdowne Park, due to its location.

“It’s a venue that made sense 50 years ago, but now it’s on a tiny, two-lane road and you can’t get to it very easily,” said Doucet. “Putting $150 million of stadium in a place where people have great difficulty getting to is crazy.”

Ottawa’s newly elected mayor Jim Watson, however, disagreed. Watson said “the more use you get out of the stadium, the better.”

“I think it would be a great addition to the city,” he added.

While Carleton Ravens men’s soccer head coach Sandy Mackie was adamant that having a professional soccer franchise in Ottawa is exactly what the city needs to help improve the quality of the sport, he said he questions whether Lansdowne Park would be the right venue because of its size.

The proposed stadium would have 24,000 seats, according to the Lansdowne Partnership Plan, which Mackie said is simply to big for a team that would get no more than 6,000 fans on any given night.

“You wouldn’t get the atmosphere and that’s not healthy for the game,” said Mackie.

Valentine concurred, suggesting Lansdowne Stadium isn’t an “ideal size” for this potential franchise.

However, discussions have already taken place about how to create a more intimate atmosphere in such a large stadium, said Ivory. Both Ivory and Burgess referred to a curtaining/tarp type system, which would block off the open seating — likely the upper bowl — to ensure spectators are as close to the field as possible.

“That size stadium, and that situation, we think would be workable,” said Holt.

After eight years as owner of the Fury, in addition to decades of playing and watching soccer, Pugh said he has what it takes to bring a professional soccer franchise to Ottawa.

“I’ve had a lot of experience watching other clubs to see what they’ve done,” he said. “I’ve been the CEO of a company, so I have some business acumen, and you definitely need that if you’re going to have success with any kind of professional sports franchise.”

But instead of looking at this potential franchise as some major development, Pugh said it was all part of the master plan.

“It’s just a natural extension of what we set out to do seven or eight years ago.”

Farhan Devji
Farhan Devji is an author, journalist, and communications professional based in Ottawa. His work has appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, and the Montreal Gazette. Contact him directly at fdevji@gmail.com.

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