OSEG Has Revitalized the Ottawa Sports Market


There’s something so right about football. On the field, the grit, hustle, and pure physicality of the sport hold your attention, while off it, fans sway in unison with every first down, rise with every 30-yard reception, and add to the experience in a variety of ways.

That’s what this is, an experience.

It’s a beautiful night at TD Place Stadium, formerly known as Lansdowne Park, in Canada’s capital. The stands are packed, the beer is flowing, and the game is exciting, as the hometown RedBlacks play host to the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders. Cheerleaders alternate between jaw-dropping aerial routines and slick dance moves, while the inevitable one drunk Stampeders fan antagonizes the red-and-black clad masses around him.

The crowd rises and falls all night long, before Ottawa’s kicker smashes a game-winning field goal through Calgary’s uprights in overtime. The crowd erupts – the RedBlacks have just moved to 3-2 on the season, and appear to be well on their way to contending for a playoff spot in the Canadian Football League’s East Division.

As the fans slowly leave the stadium, the occasional ‘Let’s go RedBlacks‘ chant starts and stops, the occasional drunk guy trips over himself, and the occasional kid sits on his dad’s shoulders, half-asleep. Quite a way to spend a Friday night.

It’s hard to imagine that, seven years ago, this Lansdowne Park facility was condemned. With the finding of strucural cracks in the south side stand’s superstructure immediately after the venue hosted 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup games, the future of what was then known as Frank Clair Stadium was shrouded in uncertainty.

Enter Jeff Hunt and the Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group (OSEG). The first of OSEG’s five partners to own a sports franchise in the national capital region, Hunt had purchased the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s in June of 1998, and his junior hockey club’s future was deeply intertwined with the Lansdowne Park venue’s.

“I always felt like I was in a very fragile environment (at Lansdowne),” said Hunt, “I knew that the facility couldn’t stay the same forever, and what we wanted was something that would work long-term.”

Though today the TD Place venue is the biggest in Ottawa, with a capacity of 24,000, Hunt says the idea started very subtly after the Renegades CFL team had departed the Ottawa market.

“The owner of the Argos at the time invited myself and (OSEG partner) John Ruddy down to Toronto to discuss what it would take to bring CFL football back to Ottawa,” explained the Newfoundland native. “We came up with ten reasons why football failed in Ottawa, and we realized six or seven had to do with the stadium.”

Thus, it was during what Hunt describes as a, “shoot-the-breeze,” conversation at a lunch in Toronto that the wheels were set in motion to eventually return CFL football to the nation’s capital.

“We discussed additional ideas around the venue to offset costs, and realized, ‘hey, this is something that could happen,'” said Hunt, “we began exploratory talks with the city, and everybody agreed that something had to be done.”

When it was all said and done, Hunt and the other partners in OSEG – Roger Greenberg, Bill Shenkman, John Pugh, and the aforementioned John Ruddy – knew they had to bring in other revenue streams to make any kind of renovated Lansdowne venue viable in the long-term.

“In order to have CFL football, along with NASL soccer and OHL hockey, here, we needed more revenue,” explained Hunt, the current president of OSEG. “You can’t pay the bills with just sports anywhere in the world, so it’s always been a part of our strategy to make Lansdowne the heart of the city.”

While the RedBlacks are obviously the main tenants of the stadium during the summer and fall, bringing a top-notch atmosphere to the riverside stadium on their nine game days, the venue also plays host to the Ottawa 67’s major junior hockey team and the Ottawa Fury FC professional soccer team. Of TD Place’s two other tenants, Fury FC is the true ‘startup’, having played its first competitive game in April of last year. Its president, John Pugh, admits that seeing the club blossom into what it is today – a first-place team that regularly draws crowds in excess of 5,000 – has been a dream come true.

“I was originally involved with soccer in the city with Ottawa Fury SC,” explained Pugh, who played semi-professional soccer in his native England before excelling in the computer industry on this side of the Atlantic. “We have a venue here that many clubs would die for, not just the stadium, but everything that’s going on around it.”

After a bumpy inaugural season in the second-division North American Soccer League, Fury FC has hit its stride in year two under head coach Marc Dos Santos, with the club sitting first in the 11-team circuit and catching more and more attention from the local sports media.

“We’ve got a destination here; the restaurants, the bars, the shops, and of course, the sports, AC/DC,” laughs the towering Englishman, “it’s come a long way since somebody first said, ‘hey, do you want to get involved,’ and it’s been a great ride.”

With football once again the darling of the capital during the summer, and the Fury hollowing out a tidy grassroots niche of the market for themselves, that leaves one OSEG team that has yet to discover its identity at the new venue: the Ottawa 67’s. A junior hockey staple in Ottawa for nearly fifty years, the 67’s organization has struggled to settle back into its original home.

A two-year relocation (2012-14) out to the mammoth Canadian Tire Centre in suburban Kanata seemed to have hurt the franchise at the gate, but OSEG president Jeff Hunt remains confident that his original team to returning the team to its former level on- and off-ice.

“We suffered a pretty huge setback being at the CTC for two years, and being as bad as we were,” admitted Hunt, “we lost a lot of fans.”

Positively for the 67’s, the team got an on-ice boost last season in the form of new head coach and former NHLer Jeff Brown, who guided the team to its first playoff appearance in three years.

“As the year went on, we saw growth, and just like we’re rebuilding our team on the ice, we’re rebuilding our brand off the ice,” explained Hunt, “there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a spot in the Ottawa market for the Ottawa 67’s.”

When you examine the three OSEG sports brands, each one offers something unique to the Ottawa market; the RedBlacks maintain a strong Ottawa football tradition and electrify well over 20,000 per night in a way that only football can, the Fury offer a calibre of pro soccer not seen before in this market, and the 67’s still offer an alternative hockey experience to the one offered by the NHL’s Senators.

With failed baseball teams leaving a gaping hole in the national capital region’s summer sports market, OSEG found the gap and powered through it, to borrow a football analogy. By offering pro soccer in an Ottawa market which had shown potential, OSEG added another fifteen events to its schedule and took a leap of faith. The Lansdowne area comes alive on game days, resulting in an urban buzz that can’t be recreated at Senators games in the suburban west end.

The two new pro teams have completely reconfigured the local market; sports radio is no longer focused exclusively on the offseason dealings of the Senators, and more Ottawans’ summer weekend plans now centre around the Lansdowne complex.

“The long and short of it is, it was a very long process, with many council votes and public debates,” remembers Hunt, “it’s really been quite an experience to see this all come together, see what we dreamed, and the way it’s been embraced by the city.”

Kudos to you, OSEG, for diversifying the market and turning Ottawa back into a multi-sport, multi-team town.