Can the city and Ticats make up in time to bring pro soccer to Hamilton?

There have been lawsuits, and tense meetings, and arguments over stadiums. Soccer fans, meanwhile, just want a team.

There have been lawsuits, and tense meetings, and arguments over stadiums. Soccer fans just want a team

The Barton Street Battalion has shirts encouraging professional soccer in Hamilton. President James Hutton says the group is anxiously watching what happens between the Ticats and the city. (Barton Street Battalion)

Fans devoted to seeing pro soccer in Hamilton are watching anxiously this week as the city swears off talking soccer with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats until a lawsuit is settled.

But it remains to be seen whether the relationship between the city and the team — strained back to the days of the now infamous stadium debate and now with some fresh irritants — causes any more delays.

We're very much on the side of just wanting soccer to happen as soon as it can.- James Hutton , president, Barton Street Battalion

City council will vote Friday whether to ratify closing the door to Ticats soccer talks as long as the team is suing them over Tim Hortons Field stadium.

This is happening despite the team saying it already has a pro team – part of a new pro league – in the works.

For its part, the team says it's confused by the latest council maneuvers. 

On June 27, the team says, the city issued a statement saying the litigation is "not a barrier" to the Ticats bringing pro soccer here. Now it seems to be saying the opposite.

"We are confused as to the messaging from the city on June 27th as opposed to this week," the team said in an email.

Councillors say a settlement has been offered but was rejected by the Ticats.

For James Hutton and the rest of the Barton Street Battalion, it means they'll have to wait longer. 

"We're very much on the side of just wanting soccer to happen as soon as it can," said Hutton, whose group has already sold about 200 scarves promoting soccer in Hamilton.

He gets why the lawsuit is stopping the city, he said. He's more concerned about the relationship between the city and the team.

The city says it won't have soccer discussions with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats until a lawsuit over the new stadium is settled. (Aaron Lynett/Canadian Press)

"It doesn't sound like there's a whole lot of dialogue between the two right now, and that's what concerns me," he said. "(A team) is something I think is going to make the city better."

I wish I could wave a magic wand and this whole courtroom drama would disappear.- Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor

Hutton isn't alone in his observation. This soccer-related impasse is just the latest in a checkered relationship between the city and the team.

By some accounts, this tension dates back to 2010, when the team had a profound impact on where the city built its new stadium.

It's all about that stadium

The city bought land in the west harbour, and at first, the team was game to play there. Then it reversed course, saying it wanted it to be near a highway to offer fans the "driveway-to-driveway" experience.

The Ticats threatened to leave Hamilton. The city explored various locations, citing the west harbour as the one most likely to boost Hamilton's economy as a whole. After a long impasse, council went with the existing location in the central lower city. Crews demolished the old Ivor Wynne stadium and built the new stadium in the same spot. 

Construction that started in 2013 — done by neither the Ticats nor the city — was fraught with difficulty.

Infrastructure Ontario hired the consortium Ontario Sports Solutions to build the stadium. It was supposed to fully open in June 2014, but was months late, causing the Ticats to play three of their nine home games at McMaster University. 

The stadium was home to soccer games during the 2015 Pan Am Games. (The Associated Press)

As a result of delays, legal actions were filed, in varying combinations, between the Ticats, the city, Ontario Sports Solutions, the Pan Am organizing committee and Infrastructure Ontario. Kenaidan Contracting Ltd., which was part of the consortium with Bouygues Building Canada, begged the city's forgiveness, but councillors still voted not to hire the firm for two years.

I'd like to share numbers with you because I think you'd be surprised.- Lloyd Ferguson, Ancaster councillor

There have been settlement negotiations that have so far proved fruitless. It's not clear what the sticking point is among the parties.

The team's original agreement with the city put the onus on the city to fight for the team with the province over its lost revenue from stadium delays.

Those original stadium lease negotiations between the city and the Ticats appeared tense, with some councillors saying it shortchanged the city.

Included in that licensing agreement: exclusive one-year rights for the Ticats to bring a pro soccer team to the stadium.

That agreement lapsed last year. Then in May, Ticats owner Bob Young announced a Canadian Premier League (CPL) team here anyway. If trademarks are any indication, the team will be called Hamilton Steelers or Hamilton United.

The Ticats can negotiate a new agreement for exclusive rights to pro soccer. They haven't yet, said Coun. Lloyd Ferguson of Ancaster, so the city was surprised by the announcement in May.

'The public would be surprised'

Some councillors also feel burned that the Ticats lawsuit is dragging on like this, Ferguson said.

"I'd like to share numbers with you because I think you'd be surprised," he said of the settlement the city offered the team. "I think the public would be surprised. But I can't talk about them."

Tim Hortons Field stadium was months late, and the issue is still working its way through the courts. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The city appeared poised earlier this year to try to draw its own pro soccer team to the stadium, although that motion was tabled.

The Ticats say the rights issue is clear:

"While we have the exclusive rights to exhibit professional soccer in Hamilton as per our license agreement, and those rights continue, we also have the exclusivity as the professional sanctioned team by the CSA. Beyond that, we have these exclusive rights for no less than the next 10 years, as described by the CPL.

"We hope the city won't prohibit Hamiltonians and soccer fans from enjoying great professional soccer at the terrific soccer stadium we all call Tim Hortons Field."

As for the CPL, spokesperson Greg McIsaac said in an email that the Tiger-Cats have exclusive rights for "a period of no less than 10 years."

"It's truly unfortunate that a great story for the city of Hamilton seems to be getting caught up in municipal politics," he said.

Some councillors say the relationship is fine, and pro soccer via the Ticats is only a matter of time.

"This is not the city versus the Cats," said Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor. "There's an unfortunate drama playing out that involves many parties that is not exclusive to the Cats and the city."

'I totally appreciate the frustration'

For soccer fans, "I totally appreciate the frustration," Farr said.

A pro team "would be a regional draw. There's no doubt it would be great."

"I wish I could wave a magic wand and this whole courtroom drama would disappear, and everyone would be satisfied."

As far as Hutton and other soccer fans are concerned, this can't end soon enough.

"For us, it's watch and wait," he said. "We'll see what the city and the Ticats do."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC


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