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Alliance between Eugene Melnyk and the CFL


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Melnyk's pitch might need Hunt

September 16, 2008


Senators owner Eugene Melnyk will unveil his plans to acquire a Major League Soccer expansion franchise this morning and more interestingly, plans to construct a west-end stadium in which it would play.

With the Jeff Hunt-led group poised to announce its plans to bring back a CFL franchise to Ottawa and revitalize Lansdowne Park, this is perhaps the most critical few months the current and next generation of national capital sports fans will face.

At this point, it appears each group is rumbling along independently of the other and there's nothing wrong with that. There is likely not much love lost between the two groups since they are in the same business and both driven by variously sized egos.

There's nothing wrong with competition. Maybe at some point a joining of forces might make more sense, but right now that looks a long way off. The only thing that should really matter to the sports fan/taxpayer is Ottawa gets a well-run, world-class stadium any self-respecting capital of a G8 nation should have.

With the trend in Canada away from publicly funded and operated sports facilities, it's not uncommon now to have separate, sports-specific stadia.

In both Montreal and Toronto, there are separate facilities for professional soccer, football and tennis, while the Big Owe in Montreal looms over the landscape as a vacant monument to municipal largesse, dusted off every few years to host the Grand National Drunk.

There is little doubt Melnyk has the financial wherewithal to dip into petty cash and fund the soccer project with the cost of the franchise expected to be $40 million and its playhouse probably in the same ballpark.

Similarly, the Hunt group is backed by some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the city.


While at least one and maybe two fresh sports venues are long overdue, both groups face considerable challenges before we could see an opening touch or kickoff at either a new soccer stadium or a revitalized Lansdowne Park.

Melnyk needs a team to play in the stadium and he would be viewed as a longshot, at best, to land an expansion franchise. The MLS will add four teams over the next four years with Seattle and Philadelphia slated to join over the next two years.

Ottawa is expected to be considered for one of two teams to be added for 2011 and will face worthy competition. Montreal, for instance, already has a track record in pro soccer and the new Saputo Stadium, adjacent to the Olympic Stadium, which can be expanded from its current 14,000 capacity to 20,000, if needed.

Former NBA MVP Steve Nash has joined forces with Vancouver Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot to bid for an MLS franchise for that city. Those are two cities you would likely rank ahead of Ottawa in the MLS competition and that's just in Canada. There's also interest from Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, St. Louis and a second team for the New York area (which could be owned by MLB's Mets).


The situation faced by the Hunt group is the opposite and considerably more complicated. It has already been awarded a conditional franchise by the CFL, but must find a way to navigate the maze of agendas, personal interests and parochialism at City Hall to make the revitalization of Lansdowne a reality.

The frustrating thing is no matter how much sense the Hunt proposal makes, there will still be some involved in the decision-making process who will be unable to resist invoking their anti-developer bias and reject it out of hand.

We need a new stadium in Ottawa. Hosting something like FIFA's U-20 championship last summer proved its worth, generating money for businesses up and down Bank St., and in the downtown core.

Maybe, out of the dust from the imploded south side stands, we'll wind up with two spectacular new facilities.

But at this point -- as much as I would like to see both groups succeed -- I wouldn't give either of them better than 50-50 odds of turning what will be well-crafted plans on paper into something concrete.


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