Nova Scotia

Sports economist says CFL group keeps fumbling Halifax bid

A sports economist says the backers of a proposed CFL franchise in Halifax should take a page out of the playbook of the HFX Wanderers FC to get more public support.

'This ownership group has continued to miss opportunities to raise their brand awareness,' says Moshe Lander

Fabion Foote of the Montreal Alouettes sacks Toronto Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, left, in CFL action in Moncton, N.B., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. Montreal won 28-22. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A sports economist says the backers of a proposed CFL franchise in Halifax should take a page out of the playbook of the HFX Wanderers FC to get more public support.

"That team has almost immediately built itself into the fabric of the city," said Moshe Lander, who spends part of the year teaching at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

After spending May and June in Halifax, he said he was "stunned" by the number of people he'd see out in the Spring Garden Road area every night wearing Wanderers jerseys and scarves.

The Wanderers, a soccer team playing in the Canadian Premier League's inaugural season, play to boisterous, near-capacity crowds at the Wanderers Grounds in a pop-up stadium that can accommodate 6,200 fans. Several games have sold out.

HFX Wanderers FC's Kodai Iida, right, gets challenged by the Ottawa Fury FC's Dakota Barnathan (58) in Halifax on July 10, 2019. Since the team's debut in the Canadian Premier League's inaugural season, the team has played to large crowds and many sellouts at the site that holds 6,200 people. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The site doesn't have permanent infrastructure, but rather makes use of temporary grandstands for seating with shipping containers for suites.

Lander said some of the things the Wanderers have done right are playing in a downtown Halifax space, meeting timelines and unveiling the team's name only after most of the other logistics were worked out.

Schooner Sports and Entertainment — formerly Maritime Football Limited — the ownership group looking to bring a CFL team to Halifax, originally eyed a franchise start date of 2020, but that was recently pushed back to 2021.

The team would have to play in Moncton while a stadium is constructed in Halifax to meet that timeline.

Jeremiah Johnson of the Montreal Alouettes stiff arms Toronto Argonauts' Abdul Kanneh in CFL action in Moncton, N.B., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"Obviously, getting a team here is important, but really it's about building this properly in a way that's going to be used by the community for years to come," said David Wallace, Schooner's lawyer.

"And because of that process, and because of the amount of information that's required to do that successfully, it's taken a little bit longer than we suspected."

Last fall, the proponents announced the team name would be the Atlantic Schooners.

"Getting people excited about a team name when you don't even have a formal application in to join the league, this falls flat, so you really didn't see a lot of interest in the CFL team because this ownership group has continued to miss opportunities to raise their brand awareness," said Lander.

HFX Wanderers FC play at the Wanderers Grounds in downtown Halifax on a site that doesn't have permanent infrastructure. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Last weekend, a CFL game between the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts was played in Moncton before a crowd of 10,126, which the CFL called a sellout.

The proponents submitted a business proposal to the city on Friday after business hours. It will now take some time to get before council, as the city's CAO and staff will need to review it first.

Lander said he can't understand why the team didn't get the proposal in before the Moncton game to create some buzz, which would have allowed the CFL commissioner to make an announcement at the game.

"Why could they not have done it a week earlier? What possible research could they have found in the last week?" said Lander.

However, he still has optimism about the venture, noting the idea of a team setting up shop is coming from a business and it has boots on the ground in Halifax.

Schooner wants to build a 24,000-seat stadium in Dartmouth's Shannon Park that would also be used for high school and university sports, concerts, music festivals and community events. The stadium would be part of a development that would also feature housing, office and retail space.

The proponents have said they will need taxpayer assistance to make the stadium a go.

Lander said the proposed Shannon Park location doesn't fit in with the trend of where stadiums are placed these days. Usually, they're placed in the heart of a city.

"You want to build up that going to the game is merely part of my evening out, not the full focus of my evening out, so I can go to a bar, have a little happy hour drink, go to the game, come back for a nightcap and then go home," he said.

Halifax fans show their support for an East Coast franchise as the Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats compete in CFL action in Moncton, N.B., on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (The Canadian Press)

Wallace said while downtown Halifax was the first choice for a location, logistics such as the large footprint needed to build a CFL stadium ruled it out, which is what brought them to Shannon Park.

He said the success of the Wanderers bodes well for the appetite for professional sports in Halifax.

He said the team is happy with how it has gone about trying to bring a CFL team to Halifax and doesn't have any regrets about how the process has unfolded.

"We are trying to put a plan in place that we believe is the best for the region and the city and we really do appreciate all of the feedback and whether it's positive or negative, we frankly feel it is healthy and positive that people are engaged and have a strong feeling about it, and so we do welcome it and appreciate it," he said.

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