Grey Cup spurs Ottawa's CFL expectations

Grey Cup fever hit Ottawa this weekend as the Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders get ready to square off in Toronto for Sunday's championship game.
Tony Gabriel of the Ottawa Rough Riders makes the game winning catch from quarterback Tom Clements as Saskatchewan Roughriders defender Ted Provost looks on during the 1976 Grey Cup final. It was Ottawa's last CFL championship. (Canadian Press)

With a CFL team slated to play in the capital for the 2014 season, Grey Cup fever hit Ottawa this weekend as the Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders get ready to square off in Toronto in Sunday's championship game.

Former Ottawa Rough Rider Mark Kosmos, who helped the team bring home two Grey Cups, including one on the 100th anniversary of the team in 1976, is a believer that Ottawa's next chance at a team will be successful.

"You know what, I can still dream about playing football in my sleep and be disappointed because it was a dream," he said. "I think all players have that situation. It doesn't give you a headache, but a warmth of when you played and if we can get that heart and say to others, 'I want to be this and do this,' I think we can have more fans than we ever have."

Kosmos’ time with the Rough Riders were the glory days for football in Ottawa, when the team attracted 30,000 fans a game to Frank Clair stadium.

But the team would not win another Grey Cup after 1976 and didn't make it past the first round of the playoffs after 1982, and as a result, attendance and interest dwindled.

Last two teams ended poorly

In their last four seasons before folding in 1996, the Rough Riders won 14 games and lost 60, including two early playoffs exits.

The city had a second try at CFL football in 2002 with the Ottawa Renegades, but the team also struggled and folded by 2006.

Ottawa's third try was spurred by Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group's pitch to renovate Lansdowne Park and Frank Clair Stadium. But the cost of the renovation currently underway has risen to $218 million and made some city councillors skeptical.

"I'm just not convinced the tax payers are getting as good a deal as we could have," said councillor David Chernushenko of the investment.

Francophone fans key: prof

Putting people in the seats will be a big challenge for the new owners and important in generating both excitement and revenue for a fledgling team.

Norman O'Reilly, a professor of sports management, said the risks of such a venture are high.

O'Reilly thinks reaching out to all potential fans, particularly francophones, could be a winning strategy.

"One of the reasons that's been suggested of why teams have not been successful here is an inability to engage the francophone market," he said.

This week, the CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon agreed reaching out to francophones will be key.

"The growth of football in Quebec is phenomenal," said Cohon. "In the Gatineau region in Hull, football is rapidly growing so we've talked to (OSEG) management about doing that."

Another key to building excitement is the idea that Ottawa could host a Grey Cup in 2017 – a possibility that has ramped up some local expectations as this year's Grey Cup approached.

'The CFL has to be in Ottawa'

Obby Khan, who played with the Ottawa Renegades in 2004 and 2005 and is suiting up for the Stampeders in tomorrow's Grey Cup, says football and Ottawa were made for each other.

"I think the CFL has to be in Ottawa ... I loved to play there," Khan said.

In addition to raising spirits of local football fans, hosting a Grey Cup can mean big bucks as the event is estimated to bring more than $120 million in economic spin-offs, if previous cups are any indication. 

Dollars and cents aside, Mark Kosmos said he can feel the football excitement growing in Ottawa.

"Because we don't have a team, we sort of don't gravitate to the Grey Cup, but because we're saying 2014, we'll see more people coming up wearing the jersey," he said.

And he’s having more of those dreams – that the excitement of football is coming back.