In a somewhat stunning development yesterday, the City of Ottawa's finance and economic development committee supported a staff recommendation in accepting a bid for stadium renovations from the independent Can-Am League over a more costly proposal from Manadalay Baseball Properties.
Sources say that the city was prepared to finance up to $30 million in stadium improvements. Mandalay submitted a bid for $40 million to bring the stadium up to state-of-the-art standards. Mandalay operates 4 highly successful minor league teams (and a not-so-successful 5th). They are well known in the industry for operating parks that offer the "full game" minor league experience - luxury suites, outfield picnic areas, family playgrounds, and the like. The Can-Am league, by contrast, put up a bid of only $750 000.
Obviously, the Mandalay bid was too rich for Ottawa's tastes, especially in light of the Landsdowne Park renovations. Why Mandalay put in such a high bid is puzzling. Did they think their bid was a shoo-in ?
Ottawa's choice, while understandable from a fiscal perspective, is equally bafffling. The Can-Am league has failed in the city before, and the league is barely alive itself, down to 5 franchises, only 2 or 3 of which can be thought of as self-sustaining. And the league would propose to operate the team while the search was made for a local owner.
Josh Leventhal of Baseball America wrote:
The announcement was truly a stunner, to both the victor and loser. The city seemed geared toward bringing in the Eastern League, evidenced by a group in support of Double-A baseball that had lined up over 3,000 good-faith commitments for season tickets. From Mandalay’s perspective, Ottawa appeared on board with its vision for a new ballpark—full of the amenities for fans and players found at modern ballparks around the minors—before the company responded to Ottawa’s request for offers (RFO) in August
Mandalay CEO Art Matin was understandably perplexed at the decision. He told BA:
We’re a little confused as to what went wrong. Obviously we had a vision of what it would take for affiliated minor league baseball to be successful in Ottawa. We worked hard to lay out what the vision would be for city leadership and offered a very detailed response to the RFO.
Matin admitted that Mandalay had gone above the City's preferred cost limit, but he was hopeful of working that out. "There obviously was some room to move (the price) if we needed to. We never got that opportunity," he said.
Did Manadalay overplay their hand ? Perhaps. At the same time, it's no secret that Mandalay likes to build high-end parks with public money. So why did Ottawa flush two years of negotiations and a chance to get an Eastern League team down the drain?
The losers in all of this, of course, are baseball fans of Ontario and Quebec. With the Blue Jays PDC with AA New Hampshire expiring after next season, it was logical to think that the club would place its Eastern League affiliate there. Choosing the Can-Am league bid kills that. So, instead of being able to watch the likes of maybe future big leaguers Daniel Norris, Frankie Barreto, Miguel Castro, and Rowdy Tellez in 2015, Ottawa fans can now take in games of A-ball caliber, featuring a bunch of org guys likely going nowhere.
The Can-Am league is not the healthiest at the moment. It does feature stable teams in Quebec City and Rockland (who averaged 3 000 fans per game each), but does not draw well in its three other cities. The team has shrunk from 8 teams in 2008 to 5 last year. The Ottawa park did host the Intercounty Fat Cats for several years, and apparently drew well, but were unable to secure a lease agreement with the city, and had to cease operations for the 2013 season.
The Blue Jays, to a lesser extent, are losers in this vote as well. Even though they are quite happy with their current agreement with the Fisher Cats, a AA team in Ottawa would be a chance to grow the brand some more.