R-Nation rewarded for allegiance to Redblacks

Just two seasons removed from a 2-16 season, Ottawa Redblacks fans gearing up for Sunday's eastern division final are counting themselves lucky to have yet another shot at the championship game.

Decades of bad football or no football made fans hungry, but also informed ownership

Faces of the franchise: Redblacks fans have proven to be among the most loyal in the CFL over the past three seasons, registering 11 straight sellouts at TD Place. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As the Ottawa Redblacks get set to take on their Grey Cup nemesis from last season in the eastern division final, fans of the team are counting themselves lucky for another shot at the championship game. 

It seems hard to believe now that the Redblacks opened their inaugural season by going winless in nine games, finishing the 2014 campaign dead last with a record of 2-16.

The Sunday afternoon tilt against Edmonton comes after the Redblacks finished first in the east for the second straight season, albeit with a 8-9-1 record, several wins shy of their 12-6 record the year before. But, as many diehard fans of the team will tell you, it's not just about the wins.

Fan appreciation

Season ticket holder Matt Skinner, 41, takes his eight-year-old son Charlie to all the games, and to several team functions too. 

"I've always been a fan of Ottawa football teams but the Redblacks have something special in the age of social media. The Redblacks are so active in the community... the team is incredibly accessible. We've met so many of the players, gotten so many pictures with them, and autographs. Being able to go on to the field after games to meet the players is a great idea.

"[Their] social media team is top-notch, they really make you feel like you're a part of the team. My interaction with the RedBlacks Twitter account, which started between the first and second seasons, is a huge part of why I feel so invested with the team.

Matt Skinner's eight-year-old son Charlie cheers on the Redblacks and gets to meet with his favourite players after games and during special events organised by the team. (Matt Skinner)

"We were going to a Fury game and [defensive tackle] Moton Hopkins tweeted he was going as well. I invited him to join the Bytown Boys [supporters group] at the pub prior to the match to march with us to TD Place, and he did."

Team had hurdles to climb

Team president Jeff Hunt, says there were risks and obstacles in bringing pro football back to the nation's capital. But owners Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group went in with their eyes open.

Redblacks president Jeff Hunt calls TD Place Stadium the centrepiece of Ottawa Sports and Entertainment's business model. (OSEG/YouTube)

"Well I think any time you launch a business you have optimism for success. We knew we had some hurdles to climb. Was there a lost generation of CFL football fans? Could it ever be relevant again in Ottawa? We proceeded because we felt we could have success."

The highest of those hurdles came in the form of the group Friends of Lansdowne, which wanted the park re-imagined as a community green space with minimal corporate involvement, leading to a protracted court battle.

"We felt probably it was going to take years to build. The new stadium was the centrepiece of our business model in that it was a great place to go and if people want to be somewhere or enjoy being somewhere then that really is half the battle. And Lansdowne was such a distraction in its old condition. I'm not sure any team could have succeeded no matter who ran it," says Hunt.

We have some of the best business people in the city running the franchise. And it shows.- Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson

Mayor Jim Watson thinks the people running the Redblacks are a big reason for the team's overall success.

"We went through that whole period with the Rough Riders. It was not always a stable management organization. We have some of the best business people in the city running the franchise [now], and it shows."

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris is credited with being a great ambassador for the team as the face of the franchise through three seasons. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

'The most admired fans in the league'

At least so far. Consider Hunt's own experience as a fan before his foray into team ownership.

"Fifteen years of owning season tickets to the Rough Riders, I saw one semifinal game in Ottawa. And now, to be going to our second eastern conference final after a season of 10 consecutive sellouts, it's really quite something. 

"It's now maybe the most admired franchise. Certainly our fans are the most admired fans in the league."

Hunt says those fans, by and large, fall into two camps right now.

"There's the diehard fans who remember Gerry Organ and Tony Gabriel, and 1976 Grey Cups and all that stuff. They have that nostalgia and they want to relive that nostalgia," says Hunt. "And I think the other half are new fans that don't know about those great years and don't, thankfully, know about those bad final years."

'The biggest bar in Ottawa'

That's where the Lansdowne redevelopment, and the game day experience, had to deliver. 

"I say, on Redblacks game nights, we're the biggest bar in Ottawa. And the football game is core, it's the centrepiece. But it's really a social event." 

Hunt has maintained that his biggest competition has been the comfortable living room and the flat-screen television. Now, Hunt says, he's beating that competitor too.

"We're social beings and we love to be in large crowds together, unified in watching your home team play. When you're sitting in the stands and there's a big play or a big run, a big return, it gives you goose bumps. And you don't get goose bumps in the living room."