RE: “Time to wake up and sell field of dreams” (Guest post by Andrew Denny)

[This piece is a reply to this editorial from Elizabeth Payne in the Ottawa Citizen this morning, written by Andrew Denny. I may put something similar out. ]

Before I dive in to this article, I want to tell you a little bit about who I am and what I do (let’s face it…. no one likes to waste time reading irrelevant opinions). My name is Andrew Denny, I’m a lifelong resident of Ottawa and I’m a writer for a US sports network covering Major League Baseball (more specifically the Chicago Cubs). Of course, my career choice makes me a baseball fan and I’m a strong fighter for the continuation of baseball in Ottawa at any level.

After reading the article that Ms. Payne wrote – which is in itself was a reasonable and on point article – I feel as though she missed the mark on a few issues.

The City of Ottawa did “build it”, but on the contrary to what Ms. Payne stated, they did come. They came in hoards and they stayed.

There is no doubt that baseball in Ottawa is broken. We can argue until we’re blue in the face trying to say otherwise, but there is no doubt about this simple fact. After the Lynx’s failure, the Rapidz failure and what will soon be the eventual demise of the Fat Cats (more on this later), it’s becoming quite apparent that sustainability is a serious issue in this entire affair.

No team means no revenue from the stadium. Even a simpleton could understand this concept.

I agree with Ms. Payne that if the stadium is bleeding public funds, then why must all residents of this city bear the burden of dead weight? Not every resident is a baseball fan and in a city that is covered with snow for arguably 6 months of the year, it would seem a silly concept to even dream of having a local pro or semi-pro baseball team. Besides, Ottawa Stadium couldn’t support the one million plus residents that Ottawa now boasts at every game anyway…

But while she leaps to the conclusion that the only recourse is to tear the stadium down and lay waste to the dream of baseball in Ottawa, she misconstrues a couple of facts that have significant impact on the implications of bringing sustainable baseball to Ottawa.

Firstly, the statement that “the city is talking about a $5.7 million renovation to the stadium” is only half correct. These renovations were only to take place should the Beacon Group be successful in its purchase of a AA squad. They have yet to do this, and so the renovations will not be taking place as of yet as stated by Mayor Jim Watson some time ago. The crafty diction leads the reader to believe that these renovations will be taking place regardless of circumstance; and believe me, I know a few literary tricks to persuade readers to side with your opinions, and this one is clear as day.

I know for a fact that Beacon Group is still pursuing teams for sale while Champions for Ottawa Baseball, a local group founded by David Gourlay, is working hard to motivate the community as a whole to rally behind professional baseball.

Gourlay started a campaign many months ago asking the residents of Ottawa to put down a cash deposit for ticket packages and season tickets for the “to be AA team”. This campaign was met with much success, collecting well over 3100 deposits from baseball fans in Ottawa. This was a complete and total success in the eyes of the MiLB, Beacon Group, and the City of Ottawa alike.

But the desire for baseball in Ottawa did not stop there.

Even further, back in the early to mid 90s, the Ottawa Lynx were selling games out without issue. You couldn’t get a ticket for love or money at one point. The average attendance ten years later (2004 is the sample I use) is well over 2000 fans per game – a very sustainable fan base that many teams can work off of.

Even today, the Fat Cats draw large crowds of 2000+ to their Saturday night games. While these numbers are not published, as a season ticket holder I can see the evidence first hand.

This raises another point, if the Fat Cats can draw such a healthy crowd, why is the team losing money?  (and yes…. they’re losing money. I can guarantee this.)

The answer is very simple: overhead operating costs.

If you need any more details on that, I encourage one of your reporters to contact both the Ottawa 67’s and the Ottawa Fat Cats and compare the rent of both facilities, assuming we can agree that they make a relatively level comparison. You may find the answer quite shocking.

The rent that ANY baseball team must pay the play at Ottawa Stadium is obscenely expensive and does not make the challenge of keeping a baseball team in a hockey loving city any easier.

Take into consideration that the team is semi-pro, does not pay their players an outlandish amount of money to play, and considering they have shattered all IBL attendance records, should be able to sustain a team rather comfortably.

Another franchise within the IBL, the aptly named Toronto Maple Leafs, play at Dominico Field – a rather minimalist set up with basic outdoor bleachers and a grassy hill for fans to sit and enjoy the game from. There is little to no room for more than 300 fans, which the team draws consistently to each home game.

By the same assumptions we make for the Fat Cats, the Toronto Maple Leafs should be bankrupt several times over by now. Yet they continue to be a force to be reckoned with within the IBL standings year after year. Revenue is clearly not an issue for this team.

The bottom line is that the stadium, being the second largest in Canada (not counting old Stade Olympique) is too expensive for any other team but a high end professional team to operate in.

The Fat Cats are essentially doomed to be victims of circumstance in this regard, forcing them to take on events such as the Escapade Music Festival, to cover their inherent sky high rent payments – another point brought up my Ms. Payne for the destruction of the stadium. While this can seem askew, even MLB teams will rent their stadiums to concerts and promoters, as Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs did in June 2012 to help recoup some funds while the Cubs played a road trip. Ms. Payne’s argument that it is “a somewhat awkward fit with baseball” is invalid as this is practiced within the most elite circles of baseball operations.

Ms Payne also stated that the stadium goes largely unused. This is not the truth. (she also goes on to later contradict herself in the article, but I digress)

The National Capital Baseball League will often use the field to play their league games. Community events, most famously the “Jose Canseco Home Run Derby” are hosted at the stadium.

If you want to make baseball work in this city, which is appears that the City is doing everything in its power to do; you need to create a reasonable business environment for a team. A low end semi pro team cannot support the rent of Ottawa Stadium, and kudos to the Beacon Group and Champions for Ottawa Baseball for pursuing a AA team that can support the operating costs in Ottawa.

Lowering the rent on the stadium is clearly the answer, but this is not a reasonable or a realistic one, knowing that the City will want maximum return for the property.

The key issue in getting a AA (or low A, or A, or short A, or AAA) team is waiting for a team to go up for sale.

Until then? We’ll have to wait, but the destruction of Ottawa Stadium seems brash and uncivil. The stadium is one of a kind in a country that does very little to support its baseball talents. It also adds some flair in Ottawa, which is already rather dry and quite boring for residents. Ditching the stadium will only feed that reputation further.

Baseball in Ottawa has a celebrated history, and it can continue to be this way under the proper circumstances, but these will not come easily with the backlash of those like Ms. Payne.

The destruction of the stadium is indeed the easy way out. But like a good marriage, you have to fight for something to make it last rather than give up and divorce.

    • Pierre
    • July 12th, 2012

    Good stuff Andrew.

    As a baseball fan, I don’t want the stadium to be torn down. We have a jewel here. Also, it would be a shame for a city this size to not have a baseball stadium. The thing is paid for! All is needed is normal, regular maintenance just as it is needed for any kind of building. But that means using it and not let it rot like it was doing in 2009. The Fat Cats are simply a bridge at the moment until a better solution in the form of a pro team is found.

    I can understand Ms Payne not being a baseball fan. That’s fine. But doesn’t mean she should say to tear down the stadium. I’m not a hockey or football fan. I don’t go around saying that we should tear down the hockey rinks (not that there’s a need to in most cases) or Landsdowne park. OK, maybe a bad example on Landsdowne but you know what I mean.

    I don’t think baseball is dying in Ottawa as she puts it. The facts.

    Yes, lots of people showed up the first few years of the Lynx. It was new. Whenever something is new, people show up.

    The problem is that the Lynx thought people would continue showing up no matter what. First owner Howard Darwin did minimal marketing. Things improved somewhat for a few years after he sold the team but not enough in the long run to support a AAA team. The league itself did not help matters much by saying it didn’t want to be in Canada anymore. If you tell people you don’t want them, they’re not going to come. Lots of people in 2006-07 thought the Lynx had already left!

    What happened with the Rapidz was unfortunate. That team should still be here today. They just were victims of a couple of unfortunate circumstances that has nothing to do with the fans. I believe the number of fans they got was exactly what one should expect in this city.

    Same with the Fat Cats. Best marketing of a baseball team ever in this city in my opinion. And it’s semi-pro! It too gets about what is expected in this city and once in a while, they surprise many such as over 7000 for a playoff game last year. Is this an indication that baseball is dying?

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to keep the stadium for the few thousand fans who enjoy coming to a game. It doesn’t cost that much, at least in my view not as much as she makes it out to be. As long as there’s a viable, long-term tennant and that is the problem at the moment.

    • You hit the nail on the head Pierre. I hope you make your voice heard in the grand scheme.

    • Nik
    • July 12th, 2012

    While I am a baseball fan, I admit that I would be lying if I said that I was as big a fan of baseball as I am of hockey or football. That being said, I moved to Ottawa in September of 2007, and there were only two Lynx games that I could have possibly gone to. I made a point of making it to one of them in the midst of all the madness that was my first week of university, scrounging together what little money I had at the time to buy a ticket and a hat.

    Five years later, I’m incredibly proud to say that my wife and I are noteworthy denizens of Le Vieux Bob as Gatineau Olympiques season ticket holders. Spending our winters so deeply immersed in such a wild fan atmosphere as the Bob, we felt somewhat lost when our team was swept in the first round of the playoffs. The respectable, but still quite tame, 67’s games offered us something of a respite from our lack of crowds, and as we found our way closer and closer to the rowdies, we felt more at home. Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a team we can call our own. I am a 67’s fan as far as the OHL is concerned, but I don’t follow the team terribly closely, and have a hard time getting as emotionally invested as I do in our own team across the river. Nevertheless, we were soon left without that either.

    A couple of months later, in early June, we went down to Toronto to see the Blue Jays and Phillies. It reminded us of how much we missed being at games, even without the fiery passion of the Bob. One day, my wife asked me what I wanted to do that evening, and I suggested that we go see a Fat Cats game. This was the first Fat Cats game for either of us, and my first time back at Lynx Stadium since the second last Lynx game ever played. The game last Saturday against London.

    While the game was far from a sellout, there was about as big of a crowd as I was expecting, given that the IBL isn’t the highest level of baseball around. We got to have our pick of where to sit, and we ended up sitting right in the front row, over by London’s dugout. The crowd was your fairly typical conservative Ottawa crowd, but you could really feel that everyone was watching the game intensely. The nature of baseball is such that you don’t have quite as many… eruptions (for lack of a better word) as you do in hockey or football (for example, I didn’t find myself scolding the umpire or making opposing team players cry as I so often do at hockey games), but I was pleasantly surprised by the crowd nonetheless. When Dietrich hit his home run, the crowd let out a roar that I wouldn’t have expected from an Ottawa crowd, especially at an non-hockey, non-football event.

    We are going to be away next weekend, and consequently will not be at either of the games against Brantford, however we will certainly be at playoff games. Furthermore, we are now strongly considering buying season tickets next season.

    I’m looking forward to the day that the CFL returns to Ottawa, and will strongly consider buying season tickets for the Rough Riders/Renegades/whatever the team is called, however I have no intention of abandoning my team. I’ll cheer for the Ottawan team whenever Winnipeg isn’t in town, however the blue and gold will be coming out when they are.

    In short, we had a great time at the Fat Cats game, and will certainly be back. The Fat Cats or some hypothetical AA team will be great, as they will be a local summer sport team that I can throw my full unquestioned support behind. If nothing else, the price is certainly right! If the Fat Cats have that deal where you get 4 season tickets for $99 again, you’ll surely see the three of us and another noteworthy denizen of the Bob there throughout the next many summer to come.

    Tearing down Lynx Stadium would be a tragedy. It, kind of like the Bob, is certainly one of the National Capital Region’s best kept secrets. Let’s all do a little more to help not keep that secret.

  1. Great story Nik. You should share it with others…

    Im glad you came out and supported Ottawa Baseball – we need more fans like yourself in the stands (though with a 10,000 seat capacity stadium, it sure is hard to sell the place out!)

    Hope to see you in the stands!

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