Two groups looking to buy Ottawa Champions, renegotiate stadium lease

Champions
RCGT Park. Photo by Craig Lord

Two groups have come forward looking to take over the struggling Ottawa Champions’ stadium lease, city council learned Wednesday, as some councillors questioned whether baseball can really work in the capital.

The baseball club’s financial woes were made public earlier this summer when the city cancelled the team’s 10-year lease agreement to play at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park and switched to a game-by-game payment structure after the club fell more than $400,000 behind on rent.

After the ball club missed its September payment, the city now considers the team in default on its arrears and has cashed a $108,000 credit line from owner Miles Wolff. With that credit, the team is now $463,000 in arrears.

The City of Ottawa is pursuing new ownership for the team and a new lease for the stadium, but a suitor for the Champions will also be responsible for paying back the outstanding rent.

OSEG among interested parties

Two groups have written to city manager Steve Kanellakos about taking over the lease at RCGT Park. One group, backed by the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club, includes support from Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the CFL’s Redblacks, the OHL’s 67’s and the Ottawa Fury soccer club and manages Lansdowne Park.

Regan Katz, vice-president and chief operating officer of the Goldeyes, told OBJ he believes the Ottawa market is fit for a baseball revival. He’s seen it done before: The Winnipeg Goldeyes brought baseball back to the Manitoba capital 25 years ago, and the team has since moved into a new stadium and developed a loyal fan base.

“I've been working with this team here for 20 years, and I’ve certainly learned a thing or two that I believe we can help bring into Ottawa and share some of the similar successes,” Katz said.

OSEG confirmed it was in talks with Katz and the Winnipeg ball club about taking over the Ottawa stadium lease, but declined to go into specifics about the prospect of adding baseball to the organization’s sporting portfolio.

“We like baseball. We had a discussion with Mr. Katz and we look forward to other discussions,” said OSEG vice-president of communications and special projects Randy Burgess in an email statement.

Katz told OBJ that OSEG’s involvement is critical to the success of any bid he puts together.

“Certainly, without them, we wouldn’t even give it a second thought,” he said.

If his group is successful in negotiating a new lease for the stadium, Katz said he would put the focus on the stadium experience. While it’s important to field a competitive team to keep the interest of local sports fans, he said it doesn’t matter if you know the score when you leave the stadium at the end of the game.

“The big trick, at least in independent baseball, is that it's very much family entertainment – whether you're two or 92 – that happens to have a baseball game in the background. That's what makes it different. And that's where the focus needs to lie.”

Hometown boys

In the other dugout is a group of three local baseball fans seeking to keep the Champions in Ottawa. 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, have banded together in their bid.

Abboud told OBJ he was enjoying the atmosphere in the stands at an Ottawa Champions game earlier this summer when he decided to dig into the team’s long-term plans in the city. When he found out the team was up for sale, he reached out to Saghbini and Lavoie to see if they’d support him on a bid.

“We decided to put together a bid to see if we could keep the team alive and in Ottawa – and locally owned for a change,” Abboud said.

Knowing now that his group is facing down the Winnipeg Goldeyes with OSEG in their corner, Abboud acknowledged that the negotiations are shaping up to be a “David and Goliath” scenario. Still, he believes his group has a shot – and he’s not afraid to play up his home-field advantage.

"We all grew up in Ottawa. We're all from the east end. And this is the east end’s gem. So it would be a wonderful thing to keep that local."

“We all grew up in Ottawa. We're all from the east end. And this is the east end’s gem. So it would be a wonderful thing to keep that local.”

The group has been doing its due diligence on the Champions’ current financials, and while there’s still work to be done, Abboud said that a bit more attendance and increased support from corporate partners could be enough to make baseball viable in Ottawa.

LRT could be a game changer

Meanwhile, city council has directed staff to not just look at the viability of baseball at RCGT Park, but of other sports and uses for the city field.

Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan said Wednesday that she’s not sure whether the city should be looking at keeping a business afloat if there doesn’t appear to be enough market demand.

“We love baseball, but there’s something that prevents the fan base from going out there and support these teams so they can pay their bills,” she said to council. “I’m just worried we’re going to see the same thing happen again.”

In response to Meehan’s concerns, city treasurer Marian Simulik noted that the Ottawa Champions’ previous lease agreement was “stacked against them,” and that any new owner negotiating terms with the city would opt for a different structure.

Kanellakos added that the new light-rail transit line will significantly change the stadium’s business model. While the Champions had expected trains to boost attendance at games the past two seasons, a new owner would come in with LRT already up and running.