Welcome to the debut of CPL DEEP DIVE, a new series on CanPL.ca where we take an in-depth look at a particular subject matter of interest in the Canadian Premier League, examining it from a variety of angles and perspectives. What better way to launch this new web feature than to look at the birth of Atlético Ottawa.
OTTAWA – Like most treasured relationships, the partnership between the Canadian Premier League and Club Atlético de Madrid, which led to the launch of Atlético Ottawa as the league’s eighth team, began over dinner.
Tucked away in a steakhouse within the maze-like streets of Madrid, representatives of the upstart Canadian professional soccer league met with Atlético CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin last May to swap tales of football and of a budding sporting movement in Canada, with the city in equally-high spirits on the eve of the UEFA Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
The assembled party of Canadians and Spaniards shared their stories over steak and fish, and a wide assortment of traditional Spanish fare. As CPL Commissioner David Clanachan described, Atlético CEO Gil Marin took charge of the evening: “It was funny, Miguel, he has a wonderful habit of just going, ‘Okay, everybody likes everything? I’ll order!’ It’s symbolic of how the trust was there, and that respect for each other, too.”
This particular meeting was facilitated via a connection through multibillion dollar, Barcelona-based broadcasters MEDIAPRO, owners of OneSoccer, the CPL’s broadcasting partner. Having made the key introductions, MEDIAPRO Canada CEO Oscar López said the seeds of something bigger were planted at the dinner and left to sprout at its own pace.
“We are an important part of La Liga – the international agency – and we’ve been working with La Liga for 25 years. We know perfectly Atlético Madrid,” López said. “So, we put in contact CPL and Atlético, and for sure, we are really happy that finally, this happened.”
It didn’t take long for Clanachan and Scott Mitchell, Canadian Soccer Business CEO, to start talking shop with their hosts, either.
“They were interested in what we were doing at the time,” Clanachan recalled in an interview with CanPL.ca. “A lot of people around the world have never seen a league stand up all at one time. They’ve seen new clubs start, sure, but an entire league? They were intrigued.”
Indeed, whispers of something special emerging in Canada with the launch of the CPL reached Atlético’s ears. They were curious.
And so, Clanachan, Gil Martin and Mitchell sat and ate and drank and talked. And talked some more, of everything and anything, of the CPL project, of where things stood and how they might one day stand even taller. By the time the night was up and everyone involved were satiated in food and football, another special relationship had formed.
“It started fraternally, as a friendship more than anything else,” Clanachan said of the dinner with Atlético Madrid officials. “It was like meeting your big brother.”
Marin recalled of the evening: “My friends, Scott and David, they wanted to create a very strong domestic league. I understood that it was a very nice project, an interesting project.”
The Spring of 2019 proved fruitful for the Canadian Premier League, in more ways than one.
Come the end of May, Liverpool defeated Tottenham and claimed the UEFA Champions League crown. The crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano, including Clanachan and Mitchell, would take in the dramatic final, and, as is always the case in football, settle down from the high with renewed passion for the sport.
Atlético de Madrid CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín on the future of Atlético Ottawa.
Back home in Canada, the CPL had launched the previous month. Seven clubs from across the country– Pacific FC, Cavalry FC, FC Edmonton, Valour FC, Forge FC, York9 FC and HFX Wanderers FC – were making waves, as the quality of play in the league began turning heads where doubters may have expected much worse, and the first signs of another special story emerged.
Forge’s foray into the Concacaf League; Cavalry’s upset win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in Canadian Championship action; Finals 2019 seeing Forge and Cavalry square off against one another – these were all stories coming to the attention of Atlético Madrid.
Over the next few months, as Clanachan explained, Atlético would reach out and chat. And, as the inaugural CPL season came to a close, those conversations went from cordial to candid, too.
Clanachan revealed that Atlético Madrid’s initial interest in the CPL was “just to help.” He explained that Atlético wanted to see where support may have been needed, whether in sound advice, structural organization … anywhere, really.
“The footballing knowledge they have? They’ve forgotten more about football than most of us know,” Clanachan pointed out.
“We had the possibility at that moment to help, and work together with the CPL to grow a new football league in Canada,” Gil Marin added.
“We started talking about places in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, even in Toronto,” Clanachan revealed.
Expansion was always a hot topic. A possible ownership opportunity for Atlético was another interesting idea. But, it would take the death of the Ottawa Fury to set those wheels in motion. Once the Fury folded last November and TD Place Stadium became available, that chatter quickly turned into action.
“With the circumstances changing in Ottawa a couple of months ago, we changed it and said, ‘Hey, here’s an idea; you come from the capital of Spain, and we need a team in the capital of Canada. What about Ottawa?’ The wheels started to turn faster right there,” Clanachan said.
“This kind of idea, of course in this city, the capital, the possibility to bring our knowledge and our passion here to work in the last few months, we’d keep talking every month, almost every week, and we agreed two weeks ago to close the deal,” Gil Marin added.
“I think that the target for everybody is the same – grow the league, grow soccer in the country,” López offered. “When everybody puts their efforts into the same direction, it’s a good, beautiful thing.”
In the span of just a few weeks from conversations taking place over December and January, the CPL and the historic Madrid-based club put pen to paper and formalized a friendship, turning it into one of the most meaningful and prominent partnerships in North American soccer.
On Tuesday, February 11 at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, the Canadian Premier League and Club Atlético de Madrid jointly announced the first expansion team in league history.
Atlético Ottawa was born out of the ashes of the newly-folded Ottawa Fury, and the club was immediately put on a short time-table for success. Head coach Mista was announced, player signings were promised sooner rather than later, and a mid-April kickoff date was floated, too.
And, with children and supporters and officials and even a few CPL players in attendance, professional soccer returned to the nation’s capital with a bang.
But, as with every club in the league – and, really, in the world – you can’t do it without boots on the ground. That’s where strategic partner Jeff Hunt came into the picture.
Hunt is a familiar face to many who have followed the Ottawa sports scene, as he serves as part-owner of both the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s and the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Redblacks. As a partner in Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, Hunt was also involved with the Ottawa Fury, particularly in the early days of the team, prior to the club’s folding in late 2019.
So, when the Fury ceased operations, Hunt was left to pick up the pieces. Luckily, he saw enough there to turn things over into a new club quickly and effectively.
“I really felt like the pulse of professional soccer in Ottawa was still beating,” Hunt told CanPL.ca. “I didn’t want (to wait) a year, and neither did Atlético, to let a year go by and really just completely vanish any side, it’s almost like you’d be starting all over again. It’s amazing, and I know I saw the heartbreak of many when the Fury ceased operations. But to be able to, a couple months later, say ok, we’re back in the game, and bigger and better.”
Hunt was brought on board to execute a pretty straightforward vision.
“Fill the stadium, win the championship,” he boldly declared.
Over the next few weeks, Hunt will need to assemble an organization ready to compete and to thrill and delight in the Canadian Premier League. That means finding front office, back office, and gameday staff, and getting everyone on the same page, too.
You’d be forgiven for a touch of concern as to the sheer, well, speed of the project. But, when opportunities like these come knocking, sometimes you have to rush and answer the door.
Atlético Ottawa strategic partner Jeff Hunt talks about the importance of Atlético Madrid’s brand.
“We talk about expansion, right. We’re asked about expansion. This is expansion with a capital E,” Clanachan said. “It’s one step above. It’s one thing to expand, but it’s another thing to expand with one of the top 10 best footballing clubs in the world, and certainly the financial stability of the club, you can’t challenge. They’re so good. It’s not just good for Ottawa – it’s good for all of Canada. It’s good for all of us, all our clubs.
“I’m really looking forward to this. I can see the days of Hamilton vs. Ottawa, York9 vs. Atlético, or Cavalry riding into the nation’s capital. It’s beautiful. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Clanachan admits the club’s “main challenge” is time.
But, think longer-term. There’s more to this than a single season of professional soccer, in the end.
“The idea is to start to work now in two different ways,” Gil Marin explained. “We have to find people for the first season, and it’s hard for us because we have to hire employees, players, coaches – we just hired the coach – so one side is the professional side. The other side is the young kids. We work with girls and boys in Spain, and the idea is to bring the same mentality of work here … to bring a union of the academies here around the city, to work together with just one idea.
“To be part of the development of the kids, as people and as players? You can raise and nurture those little academy players who can play in Atlético Ottawa, a professional team.”
And, one day, maybe just maybe, for Atlético de Madrid, too.
When that day comes, there will be an idea of legacy floated around, too.
They’ll say it’s premature today, sure. But one day, that topic will be at the forefront. Between MEDIAPRO’s investment in the growth of soccer in this country, and Club Atlético de Madrid fuelling the return of the beautiful game to the nation’s capital, the relationship that Canada shares with Spain when it comes to the sport simply can’t go unacknowledged.
But, of course, there is nothing but humility, for now.
“We are just one piece of the puzzle,” López stated. “We work really hard, and we’ll work even harder in the future. We have the same objective as the other pieces of the puzzle. But … I hope (we are remembered fondly).”
Certainly, Clanachan will reminisce fondly upon the genesis of Atlético Ottawa.
“It’s a great story … and it was a great dinner.”