Saturday, January 25, 2014

Final Nail in the Coffin for AA ball in Ottawa

      The City Council of Ottawa, demonstrating a lack of an appetite for a more than modest tax increase in an election year, approved a deal with the independent Can-Am League to bring baseball back to the National Capital Region for the 2015 season.  Council had voted last fall against a stadium renovation plan that would have attracted a possible relocated AA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
   The Eastern League, which the team is a member of, had asked for upwards of $40 million in renovations to Ottawa Stadium, which has sat mostly vacant since the departure of the AAA Lynx in 2007, except for brief interludes by a previous ill-fated Can-Am team, and the Fat Cats of the Intercounty Baseball League, which drew well, but didn't have their lease renewed after 2012, as the city (briefly) pursued the affliation dream.   Some have suggested that the price tag to bring the stadium up to "full game experience" would have been less; Ottawa Mayor Jim Wilson, in an exchange with us on Twitter, put it in the $25 million range (which would add an extra 1% to a 1.9% increase on the city's 2014 budget).
Having spent well in excess of the originally budgeted $300 million to renovate Lansdowne Park, the city likely wanted no part of this project at any price, and no private groups stepped forward to help pay the bill.
Only about $5 million in upgrades will be necessary at this point.
   So, Ottawa is left with the Can-Am League, a loop that is on life support, and after the loss of the poorly-drawing Newark Bears, is now down to 4 teams, and has been forced to partner with the fellow independent American Association for at least the 2014 season.
   In our eyes, an AA team for Ottawa would have been beneficial for many reasons.  As a member of the Eastern League, with teams spread throughout the northeastern U.S., travel would not have been a huge issue. And an affiliation with Toronto would have further grown the Blue Jays brand - perhaps not to the extent that the partnership with AAA Buffalo has, but there likely would have been regular carvans of fans driving up the 401/416 from the GTA (and points across Southern Ontario) to watch the team play, bringing added economic benefit to Ottawa's hotels and restaurants. We would've been among them.  The Blue Jays have developed a following among 20 and 30 young professionals who have the mobility and dollars to follow their team's prospects across nearby minor league stops like Lansing, MI, and New Hampshire.  It would be easy to see that becoming the case with Ottawa.
     Ottawa city council figures that 50 Can-Am dates and 60-70 other events in the stadium will make it a viable venture.  If the Can-Am is still part of the American Association in 2015, the travel budget will be huge - while there are two teams in Quebec and a pair in the northeastern U.S., the teams in the AA loop are based in the American Midwest.
   And there are some in the nation's capital who hope that Ottawa will become the Winnipeg of the east, emulating one of independent ball's most successful teams.  That's highly unlikely, given that Winnipeg's location makes it unattractive to affiliated ball, and the team plays in a beautiful Shaw Park, part of the legacy from the 1999 Pan-Am Games.
   We admit to not knowing a great deal about the city's finances.  American cities, with broader tax bases and a lesser overall tax burden for most of their residents, have the ability to levy taxes that can finance stadium construction or renovation that Canadian cities can't reasonably compete with. And with a dropping Canadian dollar forecast by the Royal Bank to drop to 87.5 cents/US$ by the end of 2015, the chances of any city north of the border hosting an MiLB team in the next few years has slid to just about nil.
   Just the same, we have trouble seeing the Can-Am League being a viable entity in our Nation's Capital.
This is indeed the golden age of independent ball, but everything about this says it's a makeshift measure. It's hard not to view this venture as a back-up, second-best plan.
   Ottawa city council was all for pursuing an Eastern League team, be it New Hampshire or even Binghamton, until they found out about the price tag.  About the only way we could ever see this happening now in the next few decades is if the city pursues some large-scale competition like the Commonwealth or Pan-Am Games, which would leave some legacy facilities.  And the likelihood of that seems slim.
   All in all, it's a missed opportunity.  And minor league baseball in Ottawa is dead, likely for several generations.

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