City prefers rival bidder over upstart Ottawa group to take over baseball in the capital

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Raymond Chabot Grant Thronton Park.

A month after a group of local investors struck a conditional agreement to buy Ottawa’s beleaguered pro baseball club, the deal appears to be all but dead.

Rob Abboud, portfolio manager with Wealth Strategies, Fred Saghbini, a project management consultant, and Rob Lavoie, the regional operations manager of Play it Again Sports franchises across the city, said in mid-October they’d agreed to purchase the Ottawa Champions from owner Miles Wolff, provided the group could reach an agreement on a new lease with the city.

But late last week, city staff endorsed a competing bid led by the owners of the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks and OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. OSEG also ran soccer club Fury FC, which recently suspended its operations.

A staff report released Friday recommends the city’s finance and economic development committee approve a 10-year lease at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park for a franchise owned by the Goldeyes-OSEG partnership that would begin play in 2021. If negotiations with that group fail, the city would then enter into talks with the local consortium.

On Monday, Abboud told OBJ that without a lease, he and his partners are effectively out of the running for a team.

“The fat lady hasn’t sung yet, but she’s certainly all dressed up and ready to sing.”

“The fat lady hasn’t sung yet, but she’s certainly all dressed up and ready to sing,” he said. 

“I told (Wolff), ‘Let’s keep our fingers crossed just in case,’ but it seems like the decisions have been made, unfortunately. It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to give it a go.”

The city and the Goldeyes-OSEG partnership, known as Field of Dream Enterprises, have signed a memorandum of understanding that would see the new owners pay a base annual rent of $125,000 at RCGT Park for the first three years. After that, annual payments would rise at the rate of inflation.

The new owners will also be required to pay the city more than $473,000 in outstanding debts accrued by the Champions.

Goldeyes vice-president and chief operating officer Regan Katz said there’s still work to be done before the lease is official. 

“From our perspective, it’s just another step in the process,” he said on Monday. “As much as we’d like to get excited, let’s just keep moving forward, and when the time comes, we’ll celebrate.”

Katz wouldn’t elaborate on details such as whether the franchise would retain the Champions name or which league it would play in. 

According to the city report, two independent pro circuits ​– the eight-team Atlantic League and the 14-team, short-season Frontier League ​– have expressed interest in granting the Ottawa group an expansion franchise that would debut in 2021. Katz said both leagues have their strengths but added it’s still too early to make those kinds of decisions.

“Let’s see if we can get the lease written,” he said. “There are still many steps. We’re just going to continue through the process.”

The city staff report said Field of Dream’s proposal scored higher than the local consortium’s due mainly to its financial resources, its previous experience with running pro sports teams and its willingness to settle the Champions’ debts. 

The report noted the potential new owners have proposed an “initial $500,000 capital injection into the franchise,” but Katz would not offer any further details on Monday.

Abboud disagreed with the city’s assessment, saying his group has the financial backing to make the sport a success and was ready to bring seasoned baseball personnel on board.

“Perhaps (it was the) comfort the city already has dealing with OSEG,” he said. “That’s all I can think.”

Abboud noted he and his partners had planned to stage a variety of other activities at the ballpark when the Champions weren’t playing, including concerts, festivals and even “physical fitness events” similar to Spartan races where participants could run through the stadium.

“We really pictured it as an entertainment hub for the east end,” he said. “We put a lot of time and effort and thought into it. What really disappointed us is we had a league ready for 2020 ​– and we still do ​– and we had a team ready for 2020. So it’s a shame that there will be no baseball in 2020.”

Katz said his group has the know-how and resources to put baseball back on solid footing in Ottawa.

“OSEG’s proven to know what they’re doing when it comes to sports and is obviously in the marketplace and has plenty to bring to the table as far as the partnership goes,” he said. “We believe we know baseball, and specifically independent baseball, and together I think we can make something that’s really great.”

The finance and economic development committee is expected to consider the report at its next meeting on Dec. 3.