There is no shortage of gifts being showered on us and Christmas is still weeks away (although the Christmas season seems to have been with us since July). The latest offering is the promise of a professional basketball franchise for the city. For many of us, basketball is never a bad idea.
As has been noted in the coverage of Ottawa’s franchise in the National Basketball League of Canada, there will be lots of sports competition in the city. In addition to the National Hockey League, there will be a Double-A baseball team, a professional soccer team and a new franchise in the Canadian Football League.
That’s good for us. This may be a hockey town, but it was once a football town and could be again. Remember, though, that in the last few years of the Rough Riders and Renegades in the CFL, fan support was less than overwhelming. Similarly, baseball flourished in the early years of the Ottawa Lynx then somehow faded away. We are a sports town, but we can be a fickle town too.
Basketball hasn’t really been tested. Carleton and University of Ottawa games are well-attended and Carleton's incredible success in recent years has probably created many new basketball fans.
The university championships, when they were held at Scotiabank Place, drew good crowds. Hundreds of men and women, boys and girls either play or have played basketball in high school. You notice that whenever you attend a game in the city: there are more tall people in the crowd than you usually see elsewhere.
None of this adds up to surefire success. There were a lot of people who had played baseball in Ottawa, there were major league teams down the highway in either direction and there was a high calibre of ball being played at the Triple-A level here. There was a friendly and well-designed stadium. In the long run, none of that was enough.
What would be enough? Well, hockey succeeds here because it’s the best hockey in the world and Canadians breathe hockey. Plus, the team wins, but even when they stop winning the fans still turn out.
Another factor worth mentioning, though, is the extent to which Senators players have involved themselves in the community, partly by making themselves visible in charitable activities, partly just by being residents and neighbours.
The same formula was at play in the most successful years of the Ottawa Rough Riders. Before the age of mega-buck contracts, the players lived here throughout the year and were active in the community in various ways. So the city felt, as it does now with the Senators, that the team belonged.
That wasn’t true in later years, nor was it true with the Lynx. Even in this sophisticated age where we have no end of entertainment options, we still like the idea of a team being our team, not just a group of well-paid mercenaries who happen to perform here and leave as soon as the season is over for warmer climes.
Despite beginning play at the remote Scotiabank Place, a venue far too cavernous to be ideal for basketball and too remote for many potential fans, the new basketball team does have an opportunity to capture the city’s heart. One odd advantage is that the player salaries will not be high. So this will not be a group of guys who jet in and jet out.
It appears also that at least part of the team will consist of people who have played here at high school or university level. That will help. Friends and relatives buy tickets too.
It probably doesn't make much difference one way or the other that basketball was invented just down the road in Almonte. What does matter is that basketball is a game that is growing in popularity the world over. Handled properly, it could work here.