I had been out of the city for a while, preparing for an upcoming show and recording session; when I arrived back in Ottawa, something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on it at first... I had my keys, my guitars, what was missing? Oh yes, our baseball team was gone...
In a move no one saw coming, Ottawa Rapidz Owner, Rob Hall, informed Can-Am League Officials last Monday that he was ceasing operations of the franchise and filing for bankruptcy, with $1.4 million in debts. With the worst record in the eight team league at 31-63, the Rapidz needed to average 3000 fans per game to break even. They battled the bad weather this summer, to average slightly more than 2100 fans per game, and losses were expected, but the bankruptcy was not.
Team Owner Rob Hall told Canada.Com, "Part of the reason losses were deemed acceptable in the first year was in the expectation that increased revenues over time would make it an acceptable business opportunity. Those losses were in excess of what we expected, but done looking towards the long term."
What changed that would force Hall to walk away? His lease agreement with the City of Ottawa was over in 2009, they currently pay $108,000 per year. Going into preliminary meetings with city staff, Hall was informed that because of the value of the land that the city owned stadium is on, a new lease may be in the $1 million per year range. An impossible amount for a Can-Am team. In observing the situation, I believe we just witnessed a game of "chicken", and we all lose. The city wanted to either sell the stadium to the Rapidz, or raise the rent substantially and allow the team to hold other events, such as concerts. There is limited parking in the area, and in its history, few concerts have been held at the stadium - investment would be needed to draw bands and their fans. Unfortunately for baseball fans, Hall walked away from the negotiating table, and the League. The city needs to understand, what is your stadium worth with no tenants at all? Certainly not the $20 million value placed on it.
He told Canada.Com, "At the meeting (with City of Ottawa officials), it quickly became clear that the rent would be upped to more than $1 million a year, and well, that became pretty hard evidence this was not going to happen."
In an interesting twist, the League and Commissioner Miles Wolff holds the lease rights for 2009, and he has not ruled out a team remaining in Ottawa. Once again from Canada.Com, "This came on very quickly, and I have found the city good to deal with in the past. Last week was my first indication things were not going as they should." Commissioner Wolff went on to say, "The potential of Ottawa remains huge, if we can get the proper situation." It remains a possibility that a League owned team could take the field in Ottawa in 2009 while new owners and lease agreements are worked out. Expansion into Montreal was very high on the list of the Can-Am League, it remains to be seen if this will alter those plans. I expect I will be speaking with Commissioner Wolff in the next few weeks on this situation.
Meanwhile, it's all good news coming out of Nashua, New Hampshire. While Ottawa was going under, the Pride were being sold to Businessmen Buddy Lewis and Jerry O'Conner, former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, and retired U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Terry Allvord - becoming official October 15th. Next season, the team takes the field as the American Defenders of New Hampshire. It is the complete opposite of the Ottawa situation, as city officials and the new ownership group are working together for the success of the team. A lease is already in place until 2011, but Lewis would already like to renegotiate, telling the Nashua Telegraph's Tom King, "Hopefully, if this is successful the first year out, I think we should start talking about negotiations going further than three years. Three years goes pretty fast..."
It's refreshing to see strong support from the Nashua Mayor and the New Hampshire baseball fans. Ottawa's reputation as a bland city doesn't improve when you look at some of the teams that have come and gone; here's a few - The Ottawa Rapidz - 2008 - 1 season(?), Renegades - CFL folded in 2006 after 4 seasons, the Wizard pro-soccer team - 2001 - 2 seasons, the Rebel - National Lacrosse League (our National sport) lasted 3 seasons in the Nation's Capital - folded in 2001, and the Loggers - pro-roller hockey - folded in 1995 after 1 season. The NHL's Senators were bankrupt a few years ago, if not for Commissioner Gary Bettman, that team would have been gone too.
While some of these leagues were a little obscure, the sad fact remains that Ottawa sports fans don't support their teams, or the City drags its feet - as is the case with the Rapidz and the possible return of the CFL. It's time for Ottawa baseball fans to let the city know we want them to negotiate a reasonable lease with the Rapidz, and it's time for us, the fans, to put up or shut up - and start putting our butts in the seats. Have a great sports day everyone.