Opinion: Champions owner having a ball

Some things appear to be impossible, others just highly implausible. But making baseball work in Ottawa?

That Sisyphean task now falls on the shoulders of former Durham Bulls owner Miles Wolff and his Ottawa-based partner, minority shareholder and Parliament Hill lobbyist David Gourlay. They operate the Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions, which recently began their second season in the latest effort to rekindle the capital’s love affair with America’s pastime.

Energetic and preternaturally optimistic, Mr. Wolff bought the Bulls for $2,466 at a time when minor league baseball was seemingly on its last legs. It was 1980 and he figured he’d learned everything he could from being general manager of several other clubs, so why not try to build a successful franchise that he owned himself?

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Of course, it helps if Hollywood comes knocking at your door. The hit film Bull Durham is, naturally, based on the Durham Bulls. After reading the script, Mr. Wolff never thought the film would see the light of day. But it did, and he even got to shake hands with one of the movie’s stars, Kevin Costner.

The movie was made in 1987, and Mr. Wolff sold the team in 1991 to a television executive out of Raleigh for a reported $4 million. If that number is correct, it means he got a 95.82 per cent compounded rate of return on his investment during the 11 years he owned that team. That probably beats your mutual funds (and mine) by quite a margin.

But back in the 1970s and ’80s, minor league GMs were doing everything they could do to keep the grand old game alive: “hot pants nights” and “free gasoline for a year” were just a few of the hundreds of schemes they used to fill their parks. Of course, it helps if gasoline is $1 a gallon instead of $3, but still you can see the lengths to which they had to go to bring people out.

“Baseball is a passion and a calling, not a real job,” says Mr. Wolff, who holds a master’s degree in southern history from the University of Virginia and an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University.

He put his education to good use when he wrote a book, Lunch at the five and ten: the Greensboro sit-ins, a contemporary history, about the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., that helped ignite the civil rights movement in the United States.

Mr. Wolff sees baseball, too, as a force for social change – whether it’s Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in 1947 or ballparks being desegregated.

His love for baseball extends beyond the park. Mr. Wolff was once the publisher of Baseball America, a tabloid magazine that came out every two weeks. He picked it up in 1981 for the cost of its debts – less than $50,000 – and built it into a powerhouse that eventually supplanted Sporting News as the bible of the industry.

The publication was started by Alan Simpson, a Canadian from British Columbia who used to cross the border rom White Rock to get access to cheaper postal rates. Mr. Simpson sold Baseball America to Miles so he could get a green card, eventually moving to Durham to work on their joint project. They then sold it to a group out of Atlanta in 2000 for another seven-figure payout.

But Mr. Wolff just couldn’t stay retired.

One of the knocks against minor league ball is that all teams are now affiliated with major-league clubs, meaning their objective is not to win championships but to develop players for The Show. This drives fans in those cities – who faithfully support their hometown teams with their cash and adoration – crazy. Just as their team appears poised to win it all, top players are off to the big leagues.

It wasn’t always that way. In the early days of organized baseball, all minor league clubs were independent – they made most of their money selling players they’d developed to the major leagues. By the 1920s, they could sell a player for $75,000 or even $100,000.

Eventually, Major League Baseball decided it could develop players less expensively by stocking its own affiliated minor league teams, and by the 1950s, independent baseball was all but dead.

So Mr. Wolff decided to go back to the future.

He is now the commissioner of not one but two independent leagues. The Champions play in the six-team Can-Am league; the other is the 13-team American Association.

“All teams are independent, and they’ve been successful beyond my wildest dreams,” he says proudly. “The (American Association’s) St. Paul Saints are sold out every game. They get 5,000 fans, sometimes outdrawing the (American League’s Minnesota) Twins just six miles down the road.”

After the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx folded in 2007 and a previous effort at establishing a Can-Am team in the capital failed, who would have thought that the Champions could draw a total of 115,000 fans to 55 home games in their first season?

Even though he initially did not really want to own a team in Ottawa, Mr. Wolff says, “Look, the reason I invested is that here’s a town of 1.3 million people, they’ve got a decent park that the city is willing to fix up and David (Gourlay) had 3,000 pledges for season tickets. It just plain makes sense.”

It didn’t hurt that the owners sold the naming rights to the stadium for $150,000 over three years, and Mr. Wolff knows how to keep both player and operating costs under control.

Their best promotion is decent weather, never a certainty in a northern city like Ottawa. Their second-best? Dollar hot dog night.

“(This) year will be even better,” Mr. Wolff says. “We’ll do much more in group sales. I see us getting to 2,500, maybe even 3,000 fans a game.”

For now, he has no plans to retire. He maintains an apartment in New Edinburgh and loves Canada so much that he has given his son, Hoffman Wolff, aged 30, to the nation.

“Hoffman lives in Quebec city and speaks French like a local,” the proud papa says.

Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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