Ottawa Champions hit 100,000-fan mark in first season

With the regular season coming to a close and the team in the thick of a playoff race, the Ottawa Champions drew their 100,000th fan to Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park over the weekend.

 

For team president David Gourlay, that constitutes a hit – maybe not a home run, but at least a solid double.

 

“We were hoping for the range that we’re in right now,” he told OBJ in a recent interview. “I’m hoping to end the season around the 110,000 mark in terms of tickets sold. We’re very happy with that as a first-year base.”

Mr. Gourlay said he is seeing great crowds with great passion for baseball.

“It’s kind of too bad it’s the end of the summer,” he said.

Mr. Gourlay said he couldn’t speak to whether the team will make money this year, since he has yet to “crunch the numbers” with majority owner and Can-Am League commissioner Miles Wolff.

“What you want to know is that you’ve got that solid foundation,” he said.

Given the city’s past experiences with the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, the Ottawa Rapidz and the Ottawa Fat Cats, Mr. Gourlay said he knows there were plenty of skeptics to start the season, and he expects some still remain.

“There will be people out there that will say 100,000 is not enough,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a number we’re very comfortable with in year one. The first three years are really your make-or-break years in a situation like this.”

The “situation” to which Mr. Gourlay refers is the task of creating what he calls “the renaissance of baseball” in the capital.

He readily conceded that it’s a long-term project.

“That’s based on the 10-year lease, that’s based on the pedestrian bridge (from the train station to the stadium) and light rail in 2018. The fact that we’ve got an ownership group that has committed to putting money in the ballpark,” he said. “Define long term? I don’t know. We’ve got a 10-year lease. I’m in my mid-40s. I’d love to be watching baseball when I’m retired.”

Mr. Gourlay said when it comes down to it, the Champions are a small business in the form of a community team.

To that end, the most important thing is for the team to develop strong relationships with its core fans, the city which also serves as its landlord and its corporate sponsors.

Mr. Gourlay said those relationships are strong as the inaugural year draws to a close. The fans are engaged, the city has been supportive with the mayor and councillors attending several games and local corporate sponsors such as Kichesippi Beer Company and Gabriel Pizza already confirmed for next year.

Talks with the Clocktower Brew Pub are underway. Mr. Gourlay said the local chain may return as a sponsor, but right now it is focused on its Elgin Street expansion.

Mr. Gourlay said one key partner could have been a little more helpful, but he has no control over it.

“Mother Nature has not been all that co-operative,” he said. “I think we would probably see another 10,000 on our number if we had a Canada Day game, if we had the Japanese all-stars.”

The Canada Day game and the game with the touring Japanese team were two of “five or six” rainouts for the Champions this year, Mr. Gourlay said. The team got just two innings of play in before the skies opened on July 1.

“It was a monsoon that day. Holy moly. The heavens opened up,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of we lose money. It’s an opportunity lost for us to have a full game of concessions.”

Concessions and merchandise sales have been strong otherwise, Mr. Gourlay said, adding the team is getting more swag ready for the Christmas rush.

Season tickets for next year are already on sale, and Mr. Gourlay said the club is doing brisk business. But the task at hand is filling the stadium for the last home stand and perhaps a playoff run. That would get the Champions at least another two games’ worth of revenue.

Mr. Gourlay said he knows by mid-September many fans start looking toward fall and winter sports, but he hopes the buzz created by the resurgent Toronto Blue Jays carries over to Ottawa.

Mr. Gourlay said the Blue Jays have been another good partner for his club.

“They donated $210,000 to the Miracle Field, which is our official charity of choice,” he said. “I’m always in touch with them. They are watching what we’re doing because to them, this is a new baseball market.”

Mr. Gourlay expects a busy offseason which will include signing on more corporate sponsors, continuing to connect with the fan base and learning from other franchises in the league.

He will also have discussions with the city on ways to improve the ballpark and attract more fans, and will draw up a community board to help him start planning the 2017 Can-Am All-Star Game, which Ottawa is hosting.

And to the skeptics who remain, Mr. Gourlay has a simple message.

“If you don’t come to the ballpark and watch a game, then you have nothing to say,” he declared. “I know that’s a little crass, but the point is you have to come to the ballpark, buy a ticket, have some food, have a beer, enjoy the game and then I’d love to hear your feedback. We get lots of feedback. Our fans are not shy and we love to hear it all.”