New ownership group confident it can reverse Ottawa's pro baseball curse

Ottawa ballpark
The owner of Ottawa's newest pro baseball franchise believes fans in the capital are ready to embrace the game once again. File photo

The owner of Ottawa’s newest pro sports franchise doesn’t seem the least bit fazed by the city’s reputation as a baseball graveyard.

Citing the capital’s hefty per-capita income and solid economy, Sam Katz told OBJ this week he believes he can succeed where a litany of other owners have failed and make the sport viable in Ottawa over the long haul.

“The bottom line is Ottawa is full of opportunities,” said Katz, the owner of the minor-league Winnipeg Goldeyes and the former mayor of the Manitoba capital. 

“We very much believe in Ottawa and the citizens and the corporate community. I think they’re going to see something very different than what they’ve seen in the past, and I hope they’re going to love it and they’re going to want to come back over and over again. It’s up to us to do the work, and that’s something we’re not afraid to do.”

Katz is partnering with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group in the new franchise, which will compete in the independent 15-team Frontier League beginning next season. The group recently signed a 10-year agreement to lease city-owned Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park on Coventry Road, which seats roughly 10,000 fans.

"It’s up to you to motivate people to come to your event and make sure that when they come to your event, they want to come back."

Katz says his track record proves he can make baseball work in a mid-sized Canadian city where the sport has had a checkered past. Many skeptics initially predicted the Goldeyes would never last when that team was launched in 1994, he noted.

“When we brought baseball back to Winnipeg, everybody said, ‘Forget about it. It’s not gonna happen,’” he said. “The bottom line is, people came.

“My background is basically sports and entertainment. I believe that the public … is always looking for quality and affordable family entertainment. It’s up to you to motivate people to come to your event and make sure that when they come to your event, they want to come back.”

The entrepreneur and former politician said OSEG, which owns the CFL’s Redblacks and the OHL’s 67’s, will offer valuable expertise on what works when it comes to building a successful sports business in Ottawa.

“They certainly have assets that they bring to the table, and we will use those assets as best we can,” he said. 

The decade-long lease at RCTG Park will start on Jan. 1, 2021. The city will receive $125,000 annually over the first three years, with inflationary increases kicking in after that. As part of the agreement, the new tenants will also pay the city more than $473,000 in outstanding debts accrued by the previous team that occupied the park, the Ottawa Champions.

Exempt from city taxes

The new group will be exempt from paying municipal taxes, provided that “business activities taking place at the stadium are related to baseball and other related events,” the city said earlier this week.

Katz said he plans to host a range of other events at the park to help generate more revenue for the club. The new lease-holders will split non-baseball-related revenues with the city.

Exactly what types of additional activities will be held at the stadium next year will depend on the success of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, he added. 

“When we started this, we had all sorts of things in mind,” Katz said, naming baseball camps, concerts, festivals, children's shows and weddings as a few examples. 

“What we’re going to have to do is wait to see what we can and can’t do come springtime when we start playing baseball.”

The city said in a memo this week it will continue to look at other ways to attract “a more diverse mix of sport uses such as lacrosse and cricket, increased college and university access and other community options” to the ballpark.

Derrick Moodie, the director of the city’s corporate real estate office, said Friday the lease also contains provisions to allow portions of the stadium’s parking lot to be used for other purposes such as affordable housing. 

Moodie said the city is confident Katz’s group can make the new franchise a winner on the field and at the box office.

“I think anytime we’ve got a facility that’s not being used to its potential and we’ve got an opportunity to use it for its potential, it helps the city in a number of ways,” he said.