I remember a conversation I once had with the late Howard Darwin, the man who brought Triple-A baseball back to Ottawa in 1993, while he was sipping on a Labatt 50 at his favourite haunt, the Ottawa Nepean Canadians Sports Club. I asked him if he had to do it all over again, would he still own the Lynx?
His answer was a sombre no. He said the revenue-sharing model under which the city received points from parking, concessions, signage, suites, ticket surcharges, naming rights and more made baseball a tough proposition in Ottawa.
The decline of the Lynx after the club’s inaugural 1993 championship season was extremely difficult to watch. Season after season, attendance totals dropped, leading to the franchise’s eventual departure from the capital in 2007.
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So why did the Lynx fail? I believe it came down to four major factors: the lease, the weather, the entertainment value and the sheer number of home games.
The team’s lease at Ottawa Stadium (now Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park) was extremely intrusive, but the stadium had to be paid for. The weather in Ottawa is NOT suitable for baseball night games in April and May. And the 7,000-plus season ticket-holders learned quickly that attending six games in seven nights on a typical homestand would be tough on any household – which is why they began to give their tickets away and subsequently opted to buy half- or quarter-season ticket packs or decided not to renew at all.
The Can-Am League’s Ottawa Rapidz arrived in 2008. The team did not do a great job at providing a value proposition beyond the game itself and lasted just one season.
The Ottawa Fat Cats made it work for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, thanks to a marketing strategy that focused on putting “bums in seats” with creativity and the bizarre. The Fat Cats knew they had about 6,000 empty seats every night – so they bundled up more value and increased the value proposition for corporate groups and the core target audiences. And they delivered fun. The game was secondary.
No lack of fan support
Now, after five seasons, the Ottawa Champions are out of the Can-Am League for 2020. An expensive lease with the city didn’t help, while outdated promotions reduced the value proposition for casual fans – the biggest target customer.
If baseball doesn’t happen to succeed in Ottawa in the future, it won’t be because of a lack of fan support. Rather, its failure will be due in large part to the weight of the operating lease and ineffective marketing. Forget about games in April and May. A team in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, which has just 38 home games from mid-June to Labour Day weekend, would be the ideal tenant.
But rather than dwell on the failures of the past, let’s look forward and applaud city management for being open to negotiating a more workable lease arrangement for the Champions in the future. Perhaps the city will offer a lease that is comparable to the less punitive terms it negotiates with junior hockey teams that use city-owned sports complexes (facilities that all lose money). Let’s hope.
What’s the best-case scenario for the future of baseball in Ottawa?
The current stadium is outdated and too large for minor professional teams. A solution is to repurpose the current facility’s assets and build a new, smaller stadium at LeBreton Flats. I’m sure many developers would be interested in buying the current ballpark site on Coventry Road, which is prime territory for a business park with residential towers. The city would increase the commercial and residential tax base as well as get more use out of the pedestrian bridge to LRT and the train station.
Meanwhile, the NCC and visitors to LeBreton Flats would benefit from a new multi-use stadium with artificial turf that could host concerts and a multitude of sporting events. If NHL hockey is ultimately expected to be a main attraction for fans in the winter, then baseball could fill the same role at other times, luring tourists and residents looking for something to do on a hot summer night.
With professional baseball’s future in Ottawa up in the air, now is the time to consider a new home for the sport. LeBreton Flats would be ideal.
Duncan MacDonald is the former co-owner of the Ottawa Fat Cats of the Intercounty Baseball League and a former amateur scout with the Toronto Blue Jays.