It's time for Ottawa to step up

Lansdowne Live’s  vision of Lansdowne Park being transformed with the addition of retail shopping,...

Lansdowne Live’s vision of Lansdowne Park being transformed with the addition of retail shopping, a refurbished stadium and an outdoor farmers’ market.

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

If all goes as it should, Ottawa will enjoy a nice little growth spurt today.

It will take another step toward becoming a legitimate, big-league city -- a claim it cannot truly make with just one professional team.

When completed, the movement would be significant enough to knock Eugene Melnyk from his pedestal as the Top Owner In Town --when the gauge being used is the one that determines which proprietor is providing the most nights out for local sports fans.

A yes vote by city council in support of Lansdowne Live! today -- and the rubber stamp of approval after 30 days of public consultation -- and that distinction would soon belong to the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.

Gotta figure it's just another reason for Melnyk to be quietly praying for a 'no' and the dusting off of his Major League Soccer plans.

City council should be overwhelmed today by the plans of Jeff Hunt, John Ruddy, Roger Greenberg and Bill Shenkman to turn Lansdowne Park, a prime piece of real estate, into a jewel by the canal. That would pave the way for Ottawa to have a CFL team and a United Soccer Leagues team by 2012, and Hunt to host the 30 home games those two franchises would play along with the 34 dates which his 67's occupy the Civic Centre.

Word that a USL-1 franchise would be Ottawa's if OSEG gets the green light to proceed should be an influencing factor in today's vote.

Back when the city was torn between going after a CFL team or a MLS team, an EKOS poll was conducted on behalf of the Hunt group. It showed 43% in favour of football and 42% in favour of soccer. Toss a coin.

Now the sports fan can have his cake and eat it, too. In a great neighbourhood.

The Hunt group wanted that to be the case originally, but Melnyk was not interested in setting up an MLS franchise at Lansdowne. The USL-1 is a half step behind the MLS.

"On average, an MLS team would beat a USL-1 team," said John Pugh, the owner of the Ottawa Fury who yesterday formally joined OSEG's soccer division. "But the gap is not that great. USL-1 is really good soccer."

Affordable soccer

It's also very affordable soccer, with an expansion fee price tag at $750,000 -- or $39.25 million less than what it costs to purchase a MLS franchise.

Pugh's assessment and EKOS poll findings notwithstanding, pro soccer in Ottawa needs a trial period.

Who didn't think the city would continue to support a Triple-A baseball franchise in a pretty little park, right?

Reports indicate there are 50,000 registered soccer players in Eastern Ontario, from youth leagues to adult leagues, and 90,000 people are actively involved in the sport from the same region and including Western Quebec.

But how many people would show up for USL games in Ottawa on a regular basis?

The Montreal franchise averages around 12,000-13,000, while Rochester draws about 7,000. Pugh will only guess that an Ottawa team would "be in the mix" with those attendance figures.

"The 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup was probably a landmark in terms of soccer in Ottawa," he said, referring to the exceptional event and the 26,000 fans at some of the games. "Fans reacted to wonderful soccer."

Pugh thinks touring European teams, a friendly featuring David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy and Nutrilite Canadian Championship games would have similar results. It would not surprise him if every one of the 24,000-25,000 seats in the new Lansdowne stadium would be filled.

"Every time we've put something in front of the fans, they've showed up," he said.

If soccer takes off like it could --and with Hunt and his Dream Team in charge, there's no reason to doubt that it will -- Ottawa might only have a USL-1 team for a couple of years.

If it's successful, OSEG could conceivably chase a MLS franchise next.

It's a natural progression, just as today is the time to take another step forward in the nation capital's development.

don.brennan@sunmedia.ca


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