Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Ottawa soccer question

I am exploring the Ottawa MLS in detail today here and at The 24th Minute.

Part 1: Can it work?

Ottawa. It still causes Canadian soccer fans to wonder. Where did its MLS bid come from? How is it possible, however remotely, that Ottawa – Ottawa? – could find itself in MLS prior to Montreal or Vancouver, two established soccer markets.

American fans are left to wonder where Ottawa is. The whys don’t concern them because they don’t rate Ottawa as having any chance whatsoever in the expansion race. We’ll touch on that question in another post, but for now let’s evaluate the bid from a Canadian perspective.

If you are familiar with the long standing Canadian tradition of (crapping) on anyone that tries to get ahead in the world, you won’t be surprised that there are Canadians that look at the Ottawa bid with scorn. There is a “how dare you” feel to much of the criticism. Vancouver fans feel that they represent the “soul” of Canadian soccer culture, Montreal fans are frustrated by the MLS snubbing the Impact’s bid (in their mind it was the MLS that snubbed it, not Impact snubbing MLS) and see an Ottawa MLS team as the likely death of their dream.

But when you get past the irrational stuff, there is a deeper felt feeling that causes Canadian soccer fans to dismiss Ottawa’s bid. Fear. Many in Canada are terrified that Ottawa would be granted a team and it would be a disaster, drawing flies for a couple of years before slinking off to St. Louis never to be spoke of again.

Those fears are based on Ottawa’s history as a pro sports market and, likely, long-standing soccer inferiority complex. We simply can’t believe that it’s possible that the sport has turned the corner and is heading straight ahead towards the mainstream. In Toronto, we can buy it (what with all those flags on cars during the World Cup), but in Ottawa? It's just a tad bit maple syrup.

Since the bid was announced, I’ve tried to speak to as many Ottawa friends as I can. I too had a hard time believing that the interest was there. Although many of those that I speak to are a bit iffy on the possibilities , they don’t discount the possibility of it working. If it’s marketed positively and run professionally, the city will likely buy in. Ottawa isn’t beyond showing a little civic pride, they argue.

The thing is, when Toronto came into the league many of the same fears were expressed. Although no one doubted that there was enough soccer fans in T.O. it was suggested that those fans wouldn’t come out to support “second rate” soccer. Hell, I called Toronto’s Fan 590 one spring day in 2006 to talk about those fears. I told the host that I worried that this would be the last chance for the domestic game to succeed. In moments of weakness I’ll admit I wasn’t hopeful.

Then, seemingly out of the blue for those that had followed Canadian soccer for years, came the Red Patch Boys. Made up for the most part by guys and gals that fell in love with the game in College Street pubs during the World Cup, the RPB was that missing something that older supporters had dreamed of finding for years. For long-standing U-Sector/Voyageur types it was like when Galileo and Scaramouche discovered the Bohemians in We Will Rock You.

Oh my God there are others like us. They do exist!

The key for Ottawa is to find its Red Patch Boys – or maybe for Ottawa’s RPBs to find each other. And that can’t happen until there is a team.

If that happens it can mean nothing but good things for Canadian soccer.

Next up – why MLS should want Ottawa.


Duane Rollins said...

This comment was left under my post at the 24th Minute. It was so thoughtful that I wanted to share it here as well:

Start -
I'm an Ottawan and a big football fan. Soccer, frankly, doesn't do it for me.

I don't think, however, that the CFL and MLS in Ottawa have to be mutually exclusive. I know that the CFL will work, and I think under the right circumstances, so would an MLS team. Those circumstances are these: That Frank Clair Stadium be renovated and any notion of building something in Kanata dismissed.

The U20 World Cup and the soccer portion of the Jeux de Francophonie are often cited as reasons why soccer will work in Ottawa. Fair enough. Both were well-attended and successful. Both took place at Frank Clair. Basically in the downtown, not unlike BMO Field, with any number of pubs and restaurants nearby.

I know you're a big TFC supporter. Would that club be enjoying the kind of enthusiastic support it's getting if BMO Field was in Mississauga? Does the stadium's proximity to downtown make it the gameday experience anymore appealing to TFC's core demographic than a suburban stadium would?

I know it's easy for non-Ottawans to dismiss the notion of another CFL team here, but of all the problems in the past, fans weren't one of them. If we are given half a reason to think we could go to the park and not leave embarassed, the core 20K are quickly joined by several more thousand. Unfortunately, we didn't have too many of those glimmers of hope since 1980.

I'll be the first to admit that Ottawa is changing, but that doesn't mean that something has to end for something else to begin.

If a SSS is the critical piece of the puzzle, than I'll politely fight tooth and nail for FCS. If stadium location is the keystone of a successful MLS team in Ottawa, I'm all for making FCS soccer-friendly. It's worked there twice before, and I don't see why it wouldn't again.


Dennis Prouse said...

To me, it looks like the MLS is following a milder version of the roller coaster the NASL was on. They had a couple of promising looking years, buffed up by the appearance of a superstar, but now it is sliding back, with attendance and TV ratings both falling in the US. (And yes, it was Montreal that walked away from its MLS bid, not the other way around. The Saputo family figured out that they could never get their investment back in Montreal. If they can't do it in Montreal, it stretches credulity to believe Ottawa could.

The only place MLS could potentially work is downtown, at Frank Clair. In Kanata? Forget it. A good chunk of Toronto FC's fans come from Toronto's multicultural community. That's cool - you fish where the fish are, and those who grew up with the culture of the game are far more likely to buy a ticket. Where do those folks live in Ottawa? Hint - it ain't in Kanata. Kanata is full of WASPs whose kids may be in youth soccer, but who don't follow the game at all.

I have heard it said that the reason why Toronto FC can draw 20,000 fans is because there are 23,000 rabid soccer fans in the GTA. It's a little like hockey in the States - if you asked at the Mall in Atlanta, few would know about hockey, but there are about 15,000 ex-pat Canadians, Michigan/Minnesota transplants, and occasional southern diehards in a metro area of two million who are willing to buy tickets. Are there REALLY 20,000 people in Ottawa willing to dig into their pockets to pay for an MLS ticket, at a stadium in Kanata no less? I am skeptical.

Keep in mind also that when the Ottawa Renegades were drawing 18,400 on average in their final year, this number was considered poor. MLS average attendance last year, even with the Beckham spike in LA, was 16,310.

Duane Rollins said...

Denis - The MLS is not slipping back in attendance. Last year was the second highest mean attendance in league history and the third largest ever. TV numbers are about the same.

Although only three teams made money (it will likely be five when the next rankings come out), no team is bleeding money like in the NASL days. The biggest loss in 2007 (the last year there was data) was $4 million (Columbus), but those figures are just soccer related. They have nothing to do with stadium revenue (and the league is moving more and more towards a situation where every team controls its stadium).

The so-called Beckham spike is less than 1,000 BTW. And the league is going to make as much money selling him as it did having him around.

Last point - the CFL cap is 2X more than MLS' So, 14,000 seats sold goes a long way.

No doubt there are challenges to MLS in Canada. But the league is in absolutely no danger of folding. When people suggest otherwise they aren't basing it on facts, but rather perceptions of what they think MLS soccer is.

Anonymous said...

Link to the front page of todays Ottawa Sun which shows an artist sketch of Melnyk's stadium.

The reason. The MLS commish has said that it is "inconceivable" that Ottawa would not get an MLS franchise if the stadium plans were firmed up. Story on page three of the SUN.

I am still pulling for Lansdowne as my first choice ,but we do need a stadium in Ottawa ,so I am hoping that we can one somewhere.
If the Melnyk stadium wins the stadium battle and the team MLS folds in Ottawa in a couple of years, well then we will still have a nice modern stadium to convert to CFL ball and for outdoor concerts and shows.
Let the best plan win! But let us not miss the opportunity to get a fine stadium in Ottawa.

To repeat, I still favour the Lansdowne Live proposal over the Kanata one.


Anonymous said...

Half the problem I have with the plans for a stadium in Kanata is that what would then happen to the Ottawa 67s and the Ottawa GeeGees' football team.

Under the Lansdowne Live proposal there is consideration for both teams with the Civic Centre being redone as well. Under the Soccer only plans it is safe to say both teams will have to find another venue. This in turn will end up costing tax payers even more as I am sure both parties will look for government funding for a new arena for the 67s and a new Stadium for the GeeGees.

I know uOttawa has talked about a new on campus facility, however with the economy the way it is I would gather those plans are dead.

The Lansdowne Live proposal will kill 3 birds with one stone, while Kanata will give birth to two more birds with no food to feed them.

Anonymous said...

The probleam is would there be room for 2 massive stadiums at landsdown.

Dave Harrison said...

I can't comment on whether MLS would draw 20,000 fans in Kanata, but what I do know is:

1. I will buy season tickets for MLS in Kanata.
2. Kanata is way easier to drive to from most of Ottawa than having to queue down the nightmare that is Bank Street.

Larry said...

Sorry I have to disagree with the last comment about it being easier to drive to/from Kanata than FCS. It's just not true for the majority of people.

When leaving a game at SBP in Kanata, 90% of the fans need to get onto the 417 and head east. I was at last Saturday's Sens game and it took 27 minutes for me to get from the parking lot to the 417!

In a central location like FCS fans would head out in all directions. The lack of large parking lots actually helps because it spreads the cars out over a wider area and provides more routes to/from the stadium.

I live in the Glebe and I never remember anything like a 27 minute traffic jam when people left a football game.