In more than two decades as a sports entrepreneur, Jeff Hunt has shown a wealth of ambition and a talent for resuscitating moribund sports franchises.
Now, he’s about to put that passion and marketing acumen to the ultimate test.
After playing a vital role in the revival of junior hockey and CFL football in Ottawa, the 56-year-old Newfoundland native is tackling what might be his biggest challenge yet: turning the nation’s capital into a pro soccer town.
Hunt said this week he’s selling his interest in the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group – which owns the CFL’s Redblacks and Ontario Hockey League’s 67’s – to partners Roger Greenberg, John Ruddy, Bill Shenkman and John Pugh so he can focus on his new role as president and minority owner of Ottawa Atletico, a Canadian Soccer League expansion franchise that’s set to debut in 2021.
In 23 years as a sports owner in Ottawa, Hunt was front and centre when the 67’s captured a Memorial Cup title in 1999 and earned a Grey Cup ring as part of the Redblacks’ ownership group in 2016. Along the way, the man who made his name in business with a carpet-cleaning enterprise became known as something of a marketing guru, boosting junior hockey’s profile and giving the Redblacks a cool factor the CFL hadn’t enjoyed in Ottawa for at least a generation.
But now, he says, it’s time to move on.
“It’s always great if you can leave on a high note,” Hunt told OBJ on Thursday.
“I just spoke to Henry Burris this morning, and I told him he was a bit of an inspiration to me,” he added, referring to the former all-star quarterback who retired on the top of his profession after leading the Redblacks to a Grey Cup championship four years ago.
“Usually in sports, you’re told when to leave – you don’t get the option. So when you can choose your timing and the way you want to go and when, that is a privilege. So I took advantage of that.”
Hunt said the decision to step away from OSEG had been on his mind “for some time,” adding the coronavirus pandemic had nothing to do with the move. He said he simply felt he had accomplished everything he could in hockey and football, and he’s ready to embrace his new role as pro soccer’s chief salesman in Ottawa.
If Thursday’s interview was any indication, he’s already in mid-season form.
“To achieve the kind of results I would like to see, it’s going to take an enormous amount of effort to get to that point,” he said. “Soccer is still new to Canada really as a professional sport. It’s the No. 1 sport in the world – nobody denies that – and I think it’s only time before it will get to rival the No. 1 sports in Canada.
“I can imagine a day where you would see a virtually full stadium at TD Place for an Athletico game. I think the potential exists for that to happen. As I said when we launched, if we don’t achieve that, I’ll die trying.”
The new Ottawa franchise’s majority owner, Atletico Madrid, is a powerhouse in Spain’s top soccer league and one of the world’s most valuable sports brands. Hunt said he’s hoping the partnership will help accelerate the game’s growth in a city where hockey is still king.
“Ottawa doesn’t have an iconic soccer brand in its history, so why not transport one from Europe which people recognize?” he said. “Hopefully what we’re going to deliver is a product as close to replicating what I have seen in Europe here. We just have to get in that mindset.”
Hunt said he fervently believes that once fans get a taste of the atmosphere in a stadium packed to the rafters with rabid soccer fans, the experience will practically sell itself.
“It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if you can get that many people, the ambience would be so amazing that it would continue to (draw) that many people because it would be such a spectacle,” he said. “That’s the dream.”
Creating that experience is the key to turning pro soccer into a viable business, he added.
The city’s most recent franchise, the OSEG-backed Fury, never caught on the way the ownership team hoped it would after a promising start. The team, which dissolved in late 2019 after six years in existence, attracted an average of about 4,500 fans to 24,000-seat TD Place in its last couple of seasons.
Hunt said he’s confident that once soccer has proven it can capture the attention of ticket-buyers, sponsors will inevitably follow.
“Everything in sports revolves around bums in seats – everything,” he said. “If you fill the building, you’ll sell your sponsorships. Sponsors want eyeballs, and they want to be a part of something that the community embraces. That’s why the Redblacks have done so well with the corporate community, because it’s the place to be.”
Atletico Ottawa was originally slated to debut this spring, but the COVID-19 crisis derailed those plans. Hunt said he’s planning to make the most of the forced hiatus.
“It’s unfortunate we’re going to have to wait a year to fully execute (the business plan), but hopefully we’ll take advantage of this additional time we have to really get it right,” he said.
“People are going to have this pent-up energy and demand to go to mass gatherings. There might be a slow progression, but there’s no doubt that we will return to normal. The future is very exciting.”