March 25, 2008
Hunt faces challenges in bringing CFL back to Ottawa
Bruce Firestone couldn't make it work. Nor could Horn Chen, Bernie and Lonie Glieberman or Brad Watters, which is why it's now Jeff Hunt's turn to transform Ottawa into a CFL success.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon will announce today what The Globe and Mail reported last week - that a conditional expansion franchise will be awarded to a group of local investors headed by Hunt, the owner of the OHL's Ottawa 67's.
The Ottawa team would begin play in 2010 to allow Hunt and his partners (businessmen Roger Greenberg, John Ruddy and William Shenkman) time to secure an agreement to use Frank Clair Stadium at Lansdowne Park, which has been earmarked for development after the southside stands were condemned last fall.
Hunt had been in negotiations with the CFL for months and has said several times that much of what went wrong with Ottawa football in the past had to do with the stadium. He and his partners would like to see an upgraded stadium, one with luxury suites and state-of-the-art amenities, but may not be the ones doing the upgrading.
While Hunt is backed by civic goodwill and legitimate money men - two necessary ingredients - he is about to venture into new territory. As a major-junior hockey operator, Hunt inherited a legendary coach in Brian Kilrea, who has made the 67's consistent winners. Ticket sales are not only limited by the number of seats at the Ottawa Civic Centre (roughly 10,000), but game-day tickets cost just $15 for adults.
As a CFL operator, Hunt will have in excess of 25,000 seats to sell for 10 home games with average ticket prices likely to cost $50 to $60. He'll also have to hire the right general manager, extract more money from the corporate community and work within the confines of the CFL, and that's not an easy task.
First, there's the $4.25-million salary cap for each team's players. Some CFL insiders say it's being strictly enforced; others insist it's a policy without teeth.
Then there are the always-fractious CFL club owners and presidents, who have never been anxious to surrender quality talent through an expansion draft.
"I'm not sure going back to Ottawa again is a good idea," a source said. "But I know this: You've got to put a good product on the field and they're going to be an expansion team and that means they're going to be terrible."
The CFL has an expansion-draft procedure in its new collective labour agreement with the players. It is not known whether Hunt has been able to negotiate a better expansion-draft format for his team. What he has garnered is high praise from commissioner Cohon, who pointed to the 67's as proof of Hunt's abilities as a sports owner.
"[When] you have both owners with financial means coupled with a great operator, I think that's potentially a winning combination," Cohon said last fall.
Ottawa first lost its CFL team in 1996 when the Rough Riders folded because of bad management and horrible teams. The Renegades were born in 2002 and, for a time, appeared headed in the right direction before they fell victim to ownership issues and were suspended by the CFL in 2006.