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Atlético Madrid looks to CPL team to expand the club’s brand in North America

From left to right: Atlético Ottawa strategic partner Jeff Hunt, Atlético Madrid CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín and Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan (Credit: CPL)

  • LaLiga giants acquire Canadian Premier League expansion team Atlético Ottawa
  • Takeover follows the purchase of Mexican side Atlético San Luis in 2017
  • Spaniards spotted gap in the market following collapse of Ottawa Fury in November

Atlético Madrid’s acquisition of a Canadian Premier League expansion team in Ottawa represents the latest move by the LaLiga giants to grow its brand in North America.

Atlético Ottawa will join the start-up CPL team in 2020 for the league’s second season and play at the 24,000-capacity TD Place Stadium, which is primarily the home of the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Redblacks.

The team’s crest pays homage to Atlético Madrid’s iconic red and white vertical stripes, while former Atlético Madrid and Toronto FC player Mista has been named the inaugural head coach.

It is Atlético Madrid’s second affiliate team in North America. In 2017, the club bought a majority ownership stake in Mexican team San Luis Fútbol Club and renamed it Atlético San Luis. The team gained promotion to the top-flight Liga MX in 2019.

“We are growing the Atlético Madrid brand – the idea is to do something similar here in Canada. I feel it is a good opportunity for us,” Atlético Madrid chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín said at the official unveiling this week. “We are starting from zero but with a very strong structure [in the CPL]. It my opinion it will be easy to grow here.”

Atlético Madrid also had a minority stake in the Kolkata-based Indian Super League franchise Atlético de Kolkata. But the club sold its equity stake after three years in 2017 due to disagreements over youth development.

Atlético Ottawa will be jointly run by Atlético Madrid executive Fernando López and veteran Ottawa sports executive Jeff Hunt, the former team president of the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67s and the Redblacks. Hunt’s formal title is “strategic partner”, but he is expected to be given a more formal role in the near future.

Atlético Ottawa crest (Credit: CPL)

The move is a significant milestone for the CPL, which has long-coveted a team in the Canadian capital. It additionally represents foreign investment from one of the most prestigious brands in global soccer and also means that the CPL will have a more balanced schedule with eight teams. “This is a momentous day,” CPL commissioner David Clanachan declared. “Ottawa has won the lottery.”

It has not been disclosed how much Atlético is paying for the Ottawa team. The league’s initial expansion fee was reportedly C$3m (€2.0m/$2.3m). Discussions, meanwhile, are taking place with governing body Canada Soccer for Atlético Ottawa to take part in the 2020 Canadian championship.

Atlético Madrid has made it clear from the outset that its CPL sister team will be a long-term project. “Atlético came to Ottawa to stay,” Gil Marín says. “We are born here and we will die here. We will not move the franchise.”

Filling a void in Ottawa

In November 2019, Ottawa was left without a professional soccer team when the United Soccer League Championship’s Ottawa Fury suspended business operations after being informed the club would be denied sanctioning to play in the United States-based league for the 2020 season by the United States Soccer Federation and regional governing body Concacaf.

The move came after Concacaf ruled that it was withdrawing Ottawa’s right to play in the USL in 2019 through its “exceptional circumstances” law before relenting amid the club’s threat to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the matter.

The Fury was run by parent company Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which owns the Redblacks and 67s and whom Hunt is an investor in. The team operated for six seasons from 2014-19, initially in the now-defunct North American Soccer League before moving to the USL ahead of the 2017 season and later becoming an affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact.

Notably, the Fury was poised to join the CPL in its inaugural season in 2019 but pulled out at short notice due to the uncertainty of playing in a new league. CPL executives had maintained contact with Fury executives about potentially joining in the future, but the decision to stay in the US-based USL proved fatal for the club’s business operations.

In December, the Fury sold its USL franchise rights to Miami FC, leaving Ottawa without a team. Just a month later, though, Atlético Madrid swooped to fill the void by buying a CPL expansion team in the market.

Atlético Ottawa’s inaugural head coach Mista (Credit: CPL)

“When the [Fury] announced that it was ceasing operations, there was a passionate group in the community that were devastated. We saw literally tears shed of disappointment, of sadness,” Hunt tells SportBusiness. “The Fury were on a growing trend and soccer was becoming more and more a part of the conversation and part of the fabric of Ottawa. So to lose that team was devastating for a lot of people.

“Then within a few months to not only announce that we’re going to bring professional soccer back to Ottawa but to also do it in collaboration with one of the greatest brands in the soccer world…it’s inspired a lot of confidence and a lot of excitement. I think there is a real feeling that a savior has come to town and will take this vision and dream of professional soccer in Ottawa to the next level. They bring a credibility that very few could bring. It looked like all was lost and now here we are, back and with even more momentum than ever before,” Hunt says.

Mediapro plays role as middleman

CPL’s media partner is Mediapro, a Spain-based media company, which played a crucial role in introducing Atlético Madrid to the league a few months before the opportunity arose to purchase a team in Ottawa.

“It wasn’t anything other than, ‘they [Atlético] want to get to know you’,” Clanachan recently said. “Atlético were intrigued with a whiteboard [of Canadian soccer]. We don’t have 100 years of history…As they stepped in and started watching, they were more and more intrigued by how we were doing things. Eventually it turned into, ‘we want to get involved in the league’.”

In February 2019, Mediapro signed a 10-year broadcast deal with Canadian Soccer Business, a commercial entity made in partnership between the CPL and the Canadian Soccer Association, which covers all Canadian soccer. This includes the CPL; men’s and women’s national team home games, including all youth levels; the Canadian Championship club competition; and League1 Ontario, a regional semi-pro men’s and women’s league. The deal is worth a reported C$20m per season.

 

As part of this partnership, approximately 100 CPL games were aired on Mediapro’s new streaming service OneSoccer last season. It is believed Atlético Ottawa games will be available to a Spanish audience on OneSoccer as well.

Mediapro’s work behind the scenes was crucial to the Atlético Ottawa deal, Hunt believes. “In and around the time Atlético were having conversations or negotiating [with the CPL], the Ottawa Fury were denied sanctioning to play in the USL. The Fury ceased operations and that opened up the capital of Canada to be available for an expansion team in the CPL, which was the very thing that Atlético was negotiating with the CPL about,” Hunt adds.

“Presumably they were looking at other markets in that time period. But when Ottawa opened up, I think they saw a real opportunity. It really appealed to Madrid being the capital of Spain to be in a country’s capital like Ottawa. I think the planets lined up quickly for this situation…and they were able to act now on [this] opportunity.”

Plans for 24,000 sell-out in home opener

Hunt, who himself was introduced to Atlético Madrid by Canadian Soccer Business chief executive Scott Mitchell, concedes that he has a “very limited soccer background, particularly from a technical perspective”.

His expertise, rather, is in the business of sports, especially in Ottawa, based on extensive experience with the 67s and Redblacks. “My role is to be the partner on the ground that knows the market,” he says.

Hunt says it is important from the LaLiga club’s point of view to have a local expert help with development efforts.

“One of the things that came out of [Atlético’s] conversations with the CPL is that it’s very important to them that they have a very strong local partner in each market,” he says. “There will be resources from Atlético deployed to Ottawa to oversee the operations, working obviously hand-in-hand with myself. That is the strategic nature of this partnership. I’ve run a professional sports team in Ottawa for 20-plus years, I know the market very well, the facilities, I have contacts.”

Hunt says his official job title and role is likely to change going forward. “Right now I am referred to as a strategic partner, but I think my role will evolve into a more significant day-to-day role as we evolve,” he said.

TD Place Stadium (Credit: Getty Images)

Hunt will target former Ottawa Fury fans, as well as general European soccer and sports fans in Ottawa, to become supporters of Atlético Ottawa. He specifically is targeting a 24,000 sell-out at TD Place Stadium for the team’s home opener, which is scheduled for May.

“I have just over three months to reintroduce professional soccer to Ottawa with as close to a sell-out as we can achieve, which would be 24,000 people. I think that would really change the conversation about professional soccer in Ottawa. It’s a lofty goal but that’s my obsession and we’ll go from there,” he says.

Hunt says Atlético Ottawa will aim to be competitive immediately despite the short time to put a squad and coaching staff together, something Gil Marín admitted would be “tough.”

The long-term goal for the club is for an Atlético Ottawa player to play for Atlético Madrid one day. “That would be a dream,” Hunt says. “And that’s the big part of the vision of the CPL is to create a better infrastructure for Canadian talent to develop.”

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