So he focused his efforts on providing family-friendly entertainment. He put a mascot in local papers, inviting kids to come to the game. The franchise worked with local youth baseball teams to bring their players into the stands. There were contests between innings.
Attendance soared 52 per cent between seasons - a best in the Intercounty Baseball League - with more than 38,000 fans attending regular season games in 2011.
"We just said, ‘Hey we're going to have fun, we're going to have entertainment, and it's going to be affordable,'" says Mr. MacDonald, who recently left the team.
Now the city is considering adding a Double-A baseball team to Ottawa's sporting market. Two levels below the major leagues, the team would bring some of the game's hottest prospects - along with well-known veterans recovering from injuries or trying to resurrect their careers - to Ottawa.
While there is potential for more revenue, the new franchise will face the same challenges that contributed to the downfall of the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, as well as the Ottawa Rapidz of the independent Can-Am League.
These include an aging stadium and stiff competition for residents' leisure dollars from a future CFL team, a busy festival season and, many hope, a longer Senators playoff run in the coming years.
Running the team successfully will require a grasp of the economics of baseball, something several people in Ottawa are working on and thinking about already.
It was hard to keep the Fat Cats viable with few games and a big stadium, says former general manager
With attendance rising and a team entering the playoffs last year, the Ottawa Fat Cats had been performing well for a two-year-old franchise, says former general manager Duncan MacDonald.
However, the cost of upgrading, operating and maintaining the now 20-year-old facility where they played was a large drag on expenses, he says.
Rent alone was $108,000. Total expenses annually amounted to more than $300,000, he says. With the team playing only 18 games and 11 dates (since many games were double-headers) in Ottawa that year, the challenge of keeping ahead of expenses was difficult, he says.
"The expenses of running the facility and the rent didn't allow us to put a lot of money away for a rainy day," he says.
When it comes to revenue generators, most minor league teams see three roughly equal sources, Mr. MacDonald says. About one-third comes from ticket and suite sales, another third from signage and naming rights in the stadium, and the last third from merchandise, parking, food and pouring rights for beverages.
He says his deal with the city was "one-sided" because of the stadium expense, saying it was a similar situation for the Ottawa Lynx - which left town in 2007, after 15 years - and the Ottawa Rapidz, which went under in 2008 after a season of play.
Tentative terms for the Double-A baseball team split the cost of upgrading the stadium between the city and Beacon Sports Capital Partners, which is negotiating for a franchise.
Beacon will put $2 million into the stadium for "player development improvements" and will also lease a new scoreboard that would cost about $1 million. The city will spend $2.7 million for "various deferred life-cycle improvements" and another $3 million to upgrade the stadium to Minor League Baseball standards.
The city also proposes hiking the rent to $257,000 annually.
Mr. MacDonald suggests the new team could increase revenues by offering partial season ticket passes, as getting fans out to a home season that includes dozens of games is unlikely in the group's core audience of young families.
Season ticket drive
After the pledges comes the promise for community support
In March, a group called Champions for Ottawa Baseball launched with a promise to gather 2,500 season ticket pledges, for $25 each, in support of Double-A baseball.
The group anticipates a good response to that pledge as the "ambassadors" - who range from Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to Erin Kelly, executive director of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce - speak about the campaign to their respective networks.
David Gourlay, a Citibank director and past OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient who's helming the campaign, describes himself as a baseball fan riveted to every pitch.
But the target market for the season ticket holders must extend beyond aficionados, he says. To capture a broader fan base, organizers must focus on creating a fun experience, rather than a shrine to baseball.
"It's the quality of the food, the quality of the pricing of the parking, clean bathrooms, the ability for the kids to enjoy it. Because kids are not going to sit for three hours and watch nine innings of baseball," he says.
"They will be wandering around. They want to throw a pitch ... families want to sit in the picnic area."
For the team to succeed, it needs to embed itself in the community, he says. The University of Ottawa has already informally offered the Double-A team use of its athletic facilities and residences in the summer, when fewer students use it, Mr. Gourlay says.
The team itself will need to find ways to give back, he adds. But they will have plenty of help to do so.
"I am hoping the (Champions for Ottawa Baseball) will be looked upon to provide the necessary relationships and network (for the team)."
A breakdown of what the Ottawa Lynx used to pay
As of 1997, the Lynx received none of the revenue arising from the "pouring rights" of the exclusive beverage supplier ($1.5 million) or from naming rights for the stadium ($1.5 million), nor the proceeds ($6.5 million) from luxury boxes and stadium advertising, according to an Ottawa Citizen report from the time. Instead, that money went to the city.
The late Howard Darwin, owner of the team, also had to pay $4 million for part of the construction costs, $1.3 million for concession rights over 15 years and $200,000 in annual travel expenses.
He was responsible for a business tax on the stadium, keeping the facility open for 50 days a year for the community, and a five-per-cent surcharge on ticket and parking revenue.
He was quoted as saying he would never buy a Triple-A baseball team again under those circumstances.
The article also noted the division of expenses between the parent team (the Montreal Expos) and the Lynx.
The Expos had to pay:
• All salaries and benefits for players and coaching staff (about $600,000 at the time) as well as for a trainer and medical supplies;
• Spring training expenses;
• Travel, uniforms, equipment;
• Meal allowances for all players, coaches and staff while playing out of town.
The Lynx had to supply:
• Uniforms that were clean and in good repair;
• Hotel expenses and air travel costs for up to 30 people (the Expos picked up the remainder);
• A playing facility;
• A whirlpool, hydroculator (heating pads) and scale.
‘Never take your fans for granted'
Former mayor Durrell reflects on lessons learned from past franchises
Amid dwindling fan support, the Ottawa Lynx left the city in 2007 for greener pastures. When they began in Ottawa in 1993, they brought in more than 600,000 fans a season. By the time they left, they were last in league attendance.
Then came the Ottawa Rapidz, who played a single season in the Can-Am League in 2008 before going out of business. Representatives from the former team recently lost a Supreme Court appeal against the city and league concerning a $200,000 charge levied under league bylaws when the team's membership was terminated.
Especially in the case of the Lynx, fan support became an issue as the Ottawa Senators grew in popularity.
"To me, it's never take your customers for granted," says Jim Durrell, the former mayor of Ottawa, who supported the Lynx's arrival in the city.
"I think the Senators do an outstanding job of this. They continually reinvent themselves, make the product exciting and make the event exciting," he adds, citing a new high-definition scoreboard as an example.
Another factor is the cost and availability of parking, a sore point for fans over the years, especially as the number of spaces diminished.
Currently, fans who take the bus along the Transitway to get to the games must walk from the Via Rail station to the Vanier Parkway to cross the Queensway before heading down Coventry Road to the stadium.
Mr. Durrell says he hopes agreements with OC Transpo, along with a future pedestrian walkway that will be constructed between the Via Rail Transitway station and the stadium, will alleviate some of the parking pressures.
"You don't make a lot of money doing this, so every little bit has its effect."