By Jason Unrau
Some wonder if the new franchises will be competing for fans and corporate sponsors in a market that already boasts successful professional and junior hockey.
Jeff Hunt, owner of the Ottawa 67’s and one of the men behind the return of CFL to the capital, doesn’t think so. He describes a scenario in which all five teams play to sold-out crowds on the same day.
“That’s not even 10 per cent of the population – this is a big market and sports teams aren’t going to fail at the expense of another succeeding,” says Mr. Hunt, who speaks with some experience.
In 1998 he bought the 67’s Ontario Hockey League team – whose decent on-ice performance failed to translate at the gate – and turned the franchise’s fortunes around, all in the shadow of a pro hockey team in the same market.
“I don’t compete with the Senators and I won’t compete with a new baseball or soccer team. I compete with the couch and apathy.”
While Mr. Hunt admits the Sens “took a lot of oxygen out of the room” in terms of media attention, “the niche we discovered was kids and families and that’s who we market to, then deliver an experience that the whole family can enjoy.”
This in turn attracted partners from the corporate community, says Mr. Hunt, “who want to be where the action is – in front of people who are having a good time.”
In terms of a CFL marketing strategy, a completely refurbished Lansdowne Park is key. Mr. Hunt calls it a “a total sports and entertainment destination” that, in addition to a new football stadium the soccer team will share, includes 400,000 square feet of bar, restaurant and merchant space.
Marketing plank number two is the fan experience.
“The difficult thing isn’t getting people to try it once. The marketing comes from what you do at the event itself,” Mr. Hunt says. “People are very (engaged) when it comes to live sports; hopefully their time at the football game is positive, win or lose, and they’re going to share that.”
Like Mr. Hunt, University of Ottawa professor and marketing expert Michael Mulvey says the challenge for new baseball, soccer and football franchises won’t be competing with hockey, or each other, but creating memories fans will communicate to others.
“You need to empower consumers to become co-creators of what’s going on. The best part of the NFL game is the tailgate party, and the same goes for (American) college football,” says Mr. Mulvey, recalling massive group cheers during games at Penn State, where he completed his PhD. “You don’t want to try and control fans – you want to give them an opportunity to be part of the script.”
Mr. Hunt hopes a name-the-team contest for the new CFL franchise will help create that dynamic.
“It will activate our fans and make people feel like they’re part of the process,” he says. He adds that in 2014, when Ottawa’s footballers hit the gridiron, it will likely be hard to rely on the Rough Riders’ glory days nearly four decades ago to put “bums in seats.”
In the case of professional soccer, which lacks a legacy in Ottawa, building fans’ expectations for the future and exploiting the sport’s rich history is a great tack, as the Toronto Football Club did when staging an exhibition game against the legendary Liverpool FC from England’s storied Premier League.
“That was a wonderful strategy,” says Mr. Mulvey. “It speaks to the aspirations of the club and the fans. Ritual aspects of soccer are already so vital in England and you can’t just manufacture it here. You have to cultivate it.”