Why Jeff Hunt says this time is different
The reminders of Ottawa’s history with the Canadian Football League are never far from Jeff Hunt as he works away in his east-end office on Industrial Avenue.
© Cole Burston
Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group president Jeff Hunt.
Set on a table just in front of his desk are football helmets bearing the logos of the two previous incarnations of the league’s local franchise. The “R” of the Rough Riders is on one; the masked bandit that marked the brief tenure of the Renegades on the other.
But for Mr. Hunt, the failure of those two franchises within less than a decade of one another is no indication that Ottawa residents won’t embrace a new CFL team when it takes to the field for the 2014 season.
“This isn’t about why football doesn’t work in Ottawa,” said Mr. Hunt, president of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, the organization running the new CFL team.
“It’s more, on a larger scale, why poorly run businesses don’t work anywhere.”
There’s a lot riding on Mr. Hunt’s bet that he can run a better CFL franchise than those who came before him.
OSEG is counting on the still unnamed CFL team, along with a new entrant into the North American Soccer League, to draw people to a redeveloped Lansdowne Park, which will have stores and restaurants added to the north of the stadium.
Mr. Hunt believes there are a lot of reasons why the new team will be different.
The most important, he said, is the stadium.The old Frank Clair Stadium had the worst fan experience in the CFL, Mr. Hunt said, with its bench seating and limited options for corporate sponsors.
The new stadium will have better luxury seating, he said, with new sound and video technology for those sitting in cheaper seats.
The CFL is also in a much better financial position than when the Renegades left, Mr. Hunt said, bolstered in particular by a lucrative deal signed recently with sports broadcaster TSN.
Mr. Hunt said he is aware that the task in front of him is a big one. The last Ottawa-based CFL franchise failed to find traction with fans during its four seasons before playing its last game in 2005.
That means fans either aren’t familiar with the CFL or are victims of the “scorched earth” that previous teams left behind.
“We know we have to win back fan interest and in some cases we’ve got to generate fan interest from scratch,” said Mr. Hunt. “I think there’s a lost generation of fans ... (who) have, for all intents and purposes, never really seen a CFL game.”
Having to contend with a glut of new sports leagues – a new basketball team will start play later this year and minor league baseball is also rumoured to be returning to Ottawa – doesn’t worry him.
“What we compete with is not other sports teams,” said Mr. Hunt. “I always say my No. 1 competitor is the couch, followed closely by apathy.”
TIMELINE: History of CFL in Ottawa
1876: Ottawa Football Club is founded. The team becomes the Rough Riders in 1898, adopting the red and black colours of the Canadian Regiment in the Spanish-American War. The team changes its name to the Senators between 1925-27.
Nov. 28, 1976: The Rough Riders’ last Grey Cup championship win. They defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders 23-20 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.
Nov. 22, 1981: The last time an Ottawa CFL franchise appeared in a Grey Cup Championship game. The Edmonton Eskimos beat the Rough Riders 26-23 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
Oct. 26, 1996: Amidst uncertainty over whether the team would live to play another season, the Ottawa Rough Riders play what would end up being their final home game.
Oct. 17, 2001: The CFL officially announces it has awarded a new franchise to Brad Waters and a group of Toronto businessmen. The team would later become known as the Renegades.
March 22, 2006: The CFL withdraws the Renegades franchise from majority owner Bernie Glieberman just before the start of the season. The Renegades players were sent to other teams for that season and the team never played another game.
Oct. 10, 2012: Ottawa city council votes 21-3 to give its final approval to a plan to redevelop Lansdowne Park. The vote clears the last hurdle for the return of the CFL to Ottawa for the 2014 season, under new owner the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.
Source: CFL.ca, media archives