Local group strikes conditional agreement to buy Ottawa Champions baseball club

RCGT
RCGT Park, home of the Ottawa Champions. File photo

A group of local businessmen said Wednesday it’s reached an agreement in principle to buy the struggling Ottawa Champions baseball club.

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, told OBJ they are closing in on a deal to purchase the beleaguered pro franchise from owner Miles Wolff.

Terms of the deal were not released, but the agreement is contingent on the buyers reaching a new long-term lease at city-owned Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park. The city cancelled the team’s 10-year lease agreement to play at the 10,000-seat ballpark midway through last season and switched to a game-by-game payment structure after the club fell more than $400,000 behind on rent. 

The Champions joined the independent pro Can-Am League in 2015 and captured the league title the following season. But the team has failed to catch on at the box office, drawing fewer than 1,800 fans per game in 2019. 

Abboud told OBJ Wednesday afternoon he believes the club can be a winner on the field and off with the right marketing approach.

“I’m confident that it would be a profitable franchise,” said the longtime baseball fan. “We’re looking forward to working with the city to attain the lease.”

Wolff, who’s owned the Champions since their inception, had also been in talks to sell the team to a group backed by the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club that included the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, owners of the CFL’s Redblacks. But he said that consortium felt it couldn’t secure a new lease at RCGT Park in time to field a team next season, and he felt a one-year layoff could deal a critical blow to the Champions’ hopes for long-term survival.

“We want to keep baseball in Ottawa for 2020 and beyond, and I think (Abboud’s group) has the best shot at doing it,” Wolff said. “He’s a numbers guy and sees how it can work.

“We worked hard to keep baseball in Ottawa. That would be the worst thing if there wasn’t a team next year.”

City officials said they could not provide an update on lease negotiations on Wednesday, but Wolff said the city needs to “move quickly” to ensure the sale goes through in time for the club to secure its place in a league for next season.

New merged league excludes Champions

Which league that will be remains to be seen, however. 

The independent Frontier League announced Wednesday that it is merging with five of the Can-Am League's former members to form a single 14-team loop starting next spring, but the new-look league’s roster does not include the Champions.

Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee told OBJ the circuit was not willing to admit a franchise that had no guaranteed long-term home, adding he’s confident Ottawa can be brought back into the fold down the road.

“We needed to get going. We needed to get schedules out. We needed to do those kind of things, and there was no valid lease at the time,” he said. “We hope that someone comes in and can get a valid lease ready and it would be ready to go for 2021. I am very confident that can happen.”

But Abboud said later Wednesday his group is pursuing other options for next season and beyond, adding he hoped to make an announcement soon on which circuit the Champions will be joining.

“We plan on still bringing baseball to Ottawa in 2020,” he said. “It just won’t be in the Frontier League.”

Asked if he and his partners would consider shifting to the Frontier League after next season, he said: “That’s not what we foresee happening,” adding fans “will be happy” with the Champions’ new choice of leagues.

Ottawa’s stadium was previously home to a franchise called the Fat Cats, which was part of the semi-pro Intercounty Baseball League from 2010-12 under a different ownership group. The city also had another Can-Am franchise known as the Rapidz, but that club lasted just one season before folding in early 2009.