Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When it comes to soccer in the capital ya just gotta believe!

When you’re the underdog you have to try harder. In the case of Ottawa’s MLS bid, when everyone thinks you’re on crack, you had better pull something out of your hind side to make the critics take note.

Eugene Melnyk reached in deep and pulled out plans for a 30,000 seat arena, which, if built, would become the crown jewel of Canadian soccer stadiums (and a leading contender for the final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but that’s a different topic).

The stadium plan is impressive, although it would be better placed at Lansdowne Park. If the TFC experience has taught us anything it’s that MLS needs downtown stadiums (besides one of my favourite Thai restaurants in the country is across the street). As previously stated, a solid bid can make up for perceived shortcomings. Actually, an argument can be made that Ottawa has now put itself as the frontrunner among the Canadian cities. It has a solid stadium plan and the type of rich investor that MLS loves.

Cities have to Oct 15 to submit bids. Commissioner Don Garber has indicated that the league will cap at 20 teams, but few take him at his word. Considering that 10 of 13 teams lost money in 2007, most MLS owners would be hard pressed to ignore a few $40 million cheques. Think 24 teams, perhaps divided into two leagues with some type of promotion/relegation system.

So far five have submitted bids, three in Canada. They, in addition to Ottawa, are Portland, St. Louis, Montreal and Vancouver. Two more are expected. Backed by European power Barcelona, it’s expected that the city of Miami will try for a place and the New York Mets ownership group is looking to be part of a second New York bid (possibly to be branded the Cosmos).

St. Louis has long been rumoured to be next in line for a team. However, the city has never quite pulled it together. Although it calls itself Soccer City USA (who knew?), it has never been able to attract the type of investors that MLS is looking for.

Portland has a wonderful history in the USL and a passionate fanbase. They are the sentimental choice among many American fans. They also are in a small market, play in an old AAA baseball park and are located very close to two markets that have a far greater international reputation and image.

Vancouver has the history and would make a great playmate for Seattle. They also seem to have a strong fanbase and interested investors. What they don’t have is a stadium—the plan currently is to play out of BC Place until Vancouver politicians get their head out of their ass make a decision about the long planed oceanfront stadium.

Montreal has a (too small) stadium and an investor, but said investor only kinda, sorta seems interested in MLS (and only on his terms).

On the surface affiliation with a club like Barcelona seems like a great thing, but some argue that it would just make the league look even more minor league than many already think it is. MLS also contracted a team from Miami less than a decade ago.

And New York barely supports one team (but that market is awfully appealing).

So, there is no real slam-dunk. Ottawa’s biggest drawback (other than the nagging doubt that anyone in the city will actually care) is its market size and that whole it's-in-Canada thing. TFC's success has made the Canada factor somewhat irrelevant. And, I suspect that MLS will view Ottawa as part of an overall Canadian market, rather than something specific to its metro area.

Much speculation has been made that MLS will look to bring in one western team and one eastern team in the next round of expansion. Based on some recent comments made by Garber where he has ranted and raved about the Toronto gameday experience (he was particularly glowing about the atmosphere at July’s Impact/TFC game), I would suggest that you adjust your geography a bit when considering expansion. Perhaps the divide will be more along a north-south axis.

If Ottawa is competing against Montreal and Vancouver for a single Canadian spot in the next expansion then suddenly things look a little different (and it makes more sense that Melnyk is pushing ahead so aggressively). In that case it would still be Montreal’s to lose, but the Saputo’s had better firm up those stadium expansion plans awfully quick.

Vancouver’s time will come in the expansion to 19 and 20 teams.

Ottawa and St. Louis in 2011. It’s not as crazy as it seems.

Update: Here's a fairly germane nugget from The Globe & Mail:
There were no municipal representatives — or anyone from the provincial or federal governments — at the news conference and (Senators COO Cyril) Leeder conceded that only preliminary contact has been made and no assurances have been provided.


sager said...

I'm feeling it more than I feel Ottawa CFL team version 3.0, although the people backing Jeff Hunt are more Ottawa-based.

Now, the one flaw in Melnyk's plan is that Kanata's demographics do not reflect the multiethnic stew that goes into making a soccer crowd in Canada. Unless this is tied to something like an east-west rail line, it could be hard to make it work.

Another thing is the politics of the situation. Jim Durrell, Ottawa's mayor in the '90s who was a big mover with the Senators, could get things done. There are some who wouldn't trust Mayor Lare with a 3-car funeral (two, maybe).

(Oh, and Frank Borghi, the U.S. 'keeper in their 1950 World Cup upset of England, was from St. Louis, along with many of his teammates.

The city had a big Italian-American population, many of whom were the first or second generation of their family born in the U.S., so the game was relatively popular in the city, along with the more American games.

(Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up in the same St. Louis neighbourhood, although Garagiola never, ever mentioned this in a book or on a TV show -- meant soccer was relatively popular there when it was a curiosity elsewhere in North America.

Don't ask how someone as white-bread as me knows this.)

sager said...

That last sentence could read, "No more crazy than Ottawa and Tampa Bay in the NHL seemed in 1988."

Merely a suggestion.

eyebleaf said...

where is this ottawa place you guys keep talking about?

DR said...

Not to be Debbie Downer, but I've been getting the sense this summer that the bloom is starting to come off the TFC rose. First of all, the team stinks out loud. Second, kind of like hockey in many American cities, I think the only people who really, really care about the team are in the stadium. Third, I can't imagine that there are many people left who really want to partake in the TFC experience who haven't already been.

Now. Ottawa has had trouble filling a hockey arena in the past. God love Melnyk if he thinks he can fill a 30,000 seat stadium for MLS, but it's bananas.

Did you say that 10 of the 13 teams lost money last year? And now the league wants to expand. Even Gary Bettman probably thinks that's crazy.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

I will be among the many Vancouver fans who would be horribly disappointed if Ottawa was somehow chosen ahead of us. We will have a tremendously workable stadium in 2011 with the retractable roof BC Place, and there's a lot of support for the eventual waterfront plan. Plus, we have a fantastic ownership group with Steve Nash and Greg Kerfoot. Does MLS really want to take a risk on an owner like Melynk who's been in such a public fight with the SEC?

Ottawa barely supports the teams it has/has had, so I'm not sure that they'll be able to find 30,000 fans for every game (and several sports-minded friends of mine from Ottawa have also questioned that part of the plan). That task gets harder when the games are way out in the suburbs, miles from the downtown pubs and transit that make TFC and the Whitecaps a great fan experience. Neate pointed out that the Kanata demographics also don't favour a pro soccer franchise.

I like the idea of pro soccer in Ottawa eventually, and I can even see it in 2011 if MLS decides to expand the ridiculous two-team limit, but Ottawa does not have a better case in my mind for a MLS franchise than either Montreal or Vancouver, let alone both. Also, both of those Canadian markets and Portland have a stronger case than St. Louis: they have established USL teams and fanbases that would help a lot, as well as the necessary financial backing.

Duane Rollins said...

@ Dr

You'd be right to suggest that there has been some grumbling among the TFC tribe as of late, but it's hard to imagine it won't sell out again next year with about a 95% renewal rate on the season tickets and a 6,000 person waiting list. That said, it's probably fair to suggest that there are only 30,000 TFC fans in T.O.

Remember, however, that MLSE has one trick left to pull out if/when it feels a slip in interest--a big name Italian/Portuguese DP.


Money and stadiums talk in MLS. There are questions with Montreal's commitment to expanding that rinky-dink stadium of theirs and the BC Place plan is not the blueprint MLS is looking for. It let Seattle in without a SSS, but that was Seattle

I have a feeling MLS is going to tell Vancouver to build it then come back.

Montreal is still the likely choice--the geography and natural rivalry with Toronto just fits. But, they need to work for it.

Overall, my main point is this: Don't discount this bid out of hand. Anyone that is prepared to put $140 million down is going to be taken seriously.

sager said...

Anyone that is prepared to put $140 million down is going to be taken seriously.

Good point, but is that any way to run a league? I come back to DR's Gary Bettman analogy.

Anonymous said...

As far as hockey goes, Ottawa does quite well thank you very much.
Check the attendance figures for both the Senators and the 67's and one will see both teams are among the top echelon in the NHL and CHL respectively.
Having said that, soccer is an unknown quantity.
There simply hasn't been any pro team of any significance in Ottawa before.
Also....is the MLS all its cracked up to be?
Last year, with the new Toronto franchise and Becks boosting overall attendance, the MLS drew 16,770 fans per game.
That is still below the all-time best mark of 17,406 set in the inaugural 1996 season.
This might seem like comparing apples and oranges but...
In 2007-08 the NHL's San Jose Sharks drew 17,411 per game, good enough for 14th place in NHL attendance.
Compare that figure for a team playing in an INDOOR arena compared to the high water mark for the MLS, which plays its games in larger OUTDOOR venues.
In the 12 years this league has existed, it is obvious the MLS has yet to make significant gains in popularity.
Instead of expansion, which would weken an already dubious talent pool, the MLS should consider relocating its weaker franchises, of which there are plenty, to other markets, including Canada.
Even the dismal Ottawa Renegades, run into the ground by those Gleibermans, drew better than many of US based MLS teams do currently.

sager said...

You have a point there -- bearing in mind that it's not the total attendance, it's revenues. The Senators' ticket prices aren't that high, and everyone knows the 67's live off their half-price tickets and group sales. (They haven't been selling out playoff games the past couple years, don't forget.)

Anonymous said...

According to a not so secret NHL report Ottawa and Edmonton both generated an average of 1.2 million per game in 07-08, which put them at the bottom of the six Canadian franchises in terms of revenue.
Toronto is # 1 obviously, at just under 2 million per game with Montreal following not too far behind with its league leading capacity.
However, eight US based franchises, including St. Louis, Chicago, and the Islanders, made less than HALF of the revenue Ottawa made last season.
So yes, the average ticket price in Ottawa is a lot lower than Toronto or the Rangers, but hey, 19,000 plus per game is still 19,000 freaking plus per game!
Compared to many starving US franchises the Sens are filthy stinking rich.

Duane Rollins said...

RE: MLS attendance numbers.

I'll find a link for you in the morning--I'm heading off the bed, it's been a long writing day--but I think it's important to realize that MLS actually draws much better than people give it credit. It ranks in the top 10 in attendance when ranking all of the world's domestic leagues--it's comparable to Serie A, actually.

In terms of the "it's crap soccer argument." (not that you made it, I'm just anticipating it from someone)...

It's OK soccer and the best soccer you can hope to find in Canada and the US (as we all know USL teams can compete with MLS teams, but not consistently over a 30 game schedule). The biggest critics of the league tend to be born and raised Canadian/Americans that can't get past the fact that it isn't as good as the EPL. Actual Brits tend to get the idea that it's OK to support your local team while also cheering for a major club playing in one of the big four leagues.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Fair enough, Duane... I wasn't trying to discount Ottawa's chances or bid, but I still think Montreal and Vancouver are both better choices right away. The B.C. Place situation isn't ideal, but it's certainly viable, especially considering that Seattle's doing pretty much the same thing.

sager said...

@ Anon.: Good on ya for doing the due diligence (I'm busy tonight with some paid writing gigs, so I didn't have time, but yes, I'm aware any Canadian team is sitting prettier than Chief Wiggum after a breakfast of engine-block eggs).

Hockey in Ottawa and any other sports operation is very apples-and-oranges. This whole stadium notion seems very strange ... what is Melynk's motive to build $140-million stadium for 16, 17 home dates a year in a league whose casual-fan penetration is dubious.

More concerts, maybe, but for the 3 months of the year you could have a major act play outdoors -- and now you've got competition against a very good venue, SBP.

I don't see the Toronto-Ottawa dynamic being replicated in another sport.

Anonymous said...

The deadline for proposals for the current round of new MSL franchises is Oct 15. I wonder how many of the bids being talked about actually materialize by then?
Melnyk may be upping the ante with his 100 million 30,000 seater.
Perhaps he is even trying to discourage other bidders who now have less than a month to firm up their bid.
From the first comments, it seems that there is a possibility that the City will provide the needed land, but that is as far as they will go. Melnyk will need to come up with the most of the money himself or perhaps with private partners. The city may go for it to take the pressure off making a decision soon about Frank Clair stadium.
Clever idea to have the five adjoining fields. The soccer playing crowd would get used to going out to Kanata to play there and feel like part of the FC Ottawa family.

I understood that the MLS demanded a sovcer specific stadium. Reading today , it seems that soccer specific does not exclude the possibilty Canadian football. Already Melnyk's people are talking about how it could be done, including football field markings that wash off easily between games.

I wonder if the Jeff Hunt group is feeling sabotaged today? The Melnyk proposal will take the edge off their LP proposals. Perhaps Melnyk hopes that they will just let their conditional CFL franchise expire, and then Melnyk could pick it up. I beleive the franchise fee for the CFL is currently in the 5 to 6 million dollar range. A bargain compared to the 40 mil for the MSL.

Owning Scotiabank Place and the 30,000 seat soccer stadium, and no Frank Clair stadium, would give Melnyk a lock on any large concerts and shows coming to Ottawa, indoor and outdoor. The proposed stadium includes a moveable stage at one end, with the seats forming a bowl around the rest.

About 3 or 4 years ago Melnyk put out feelers about acquiring control of FCS. He was quicky rebuffed. With FCS now crumbling, he sees the opportunity to put the place out of business, and gain control of the pro sport and major concert scene in Ottawa. A smart business man for sure. Good on him.


Anonymous said...

Duane--you may have to talk the Siam Kitchen into opening a Kanata branch so you can take in soccer and fotball out there.


Anonymous said...

The calibre of play in the MLS is OK, although not a lot better than the league Montreal and Vancouver are in.
However the calibre of officiating is a different story.
If you ever watched a Toronto FC game on TV, just listen to former national team keeper and English League veteran Craig Forrest give his opinion on the reffing.
Forrest can barely disguise his contempt for some of the incompetent referees employed by the MSL.
And I have to say, Forrest is more often then not right.