With 5,000 people spilling out of Ottawa’s baseball stadium and lining up on adjacent Coventry Road on its inaugural opening night in May 2010, representatives from the Ottawa Fat Cats said the community is ready to support a ball team – if the city can offer support as well.
The Ottawa Fat Cats play in their inaugural 2010 season. (Provided)
The team’s average attendance of 2,328 fans a game last season "smashed" Intercounty Baseball League records, said general manager Duncan MacDonald.
But he’s also keeping his eye on the 7,500 seats that typically go unfilled each game, to come up with ways to draw even more.
"We have announcements coming that will address that, and certainly we feel that it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to have creative and innovate marketing opportunities," said this year’s Intercounty League’s executive of the year, declining to elaborate.
Pro baseball has been troubled in Ottawa pretty much since the Ottawa Lynx came to town in 1993. Although that team initially broke AAA league records with average attendance approaching 10,000 people a game, support dwindled in the 2000s until the Lynx relocated during the 2007 season.
The Can Am League then installed a team of its own, the Ottawa Rapidz, which played one season in 2008 before declaring bankruptcy in 2009 as attendance continued to flicker.
There’s a lot of work to do to become a sustainable franchise, Mr. MacDonald acknowledged. But he says the current situation is untenable, with the team forking out more than $200,000 annually in operating costs and $108,000 rent for a stadium it can lease for only one year at a time.
"We cover 100 per cent of the operating costs, plus rent, plus the (initial) expenses to get it open because it had a large quantity of plumbing problems. We had plumbers in for three weeks patching holes every day," he said.
Meanwhile, the city’s director of real estate partnerships and development, Gordon MacNair, said it will not consider longer leases for the stadium pending a staff report in April 2011 on a long-term strategy, which will likely include a pedestrian bridge from Tremblay Road.
In 2009, the city solicited “best offers to lease” the stadium, he wrote, which included conditions such as a one-year term, paying the rent, operating and maintenance expenses, and providing a letter of credit.
"An offer was received from the Ottawa Stadium Group and resulted in a lease dated February 24, 2010, for a one-year term with one renewal option for a one-year extension," Mr. MacNair wrote in an e-mail to OBJ.
"The city has been working with OSG to move forward with the one-year extension subject to the direction that council approved at that time. The city has sent three letters since the fall to OSG requesting the necessary documentation to move forward with the one-year extension."
Besides operating expenses, Mr. MacDonald said he’s investing in community support with initiatives like busing families to the stadium cheaply. He said he also wants to “remove the stigma” that there isn’t enough parking at the stadium.
Mr. MacDonald added it wasn’t fair that the 21-year-old Ottawa Senators receive subsidized bus service to their games at Scotiabank Place, service that was expanded in early January with more buses departing from Bayshore Station on game nights.
"We’re just not big enough in this town to have our own transit system that goes to Scotiabank (Place), which is heavily subsidized. Why would one sports team have a subsidized transit solution and not others?"
Jeff Kyle, the Senators’ vice-president of marketing, said the bus is actually part of the city’s mandate to get people to the shared stadium, and is not solely tied into Senators games as there are also concerts and other events on site.
"In terms of the bus service that’s run, it’s part of a major community facility. The city is responsible to provide bus service to it."
He pointed out the Senators – which faced their own attendance woes and high stadium expenses about a decade ago, then threatening the team’s future – have spent years giving back to the community.
This includes helping to bring other sports events to town, like the World Juniors and Bell Capital Cup, offering subsidized $15 seats in the Coca-Cola Zone to make games affordable for families, and doing charity events through the Ottawa Senators Foundation.
"It doesn’t come easy. You build a fan base over time, and you have to try to continue to nurture the relationship with people. You can’t take them for granted as fans and customers."