When the Ottawa Fury ceased operations after the 2019 USL Championship season last November, pro soccer in the nation’s capital appeared to be dead and buried.
But things took a dramatic turn in February when soccer in Ottawa was taken off of life support, after Club Atlético de Madrid stepped in and was granted an expansion franchise by the Canadian Premier League.
Atlético Ottawa not only became the CPL’s eighth team, but the club’s launch marked the first foreign ownership group in league history.
It wasn’t a complete surprise that Atlético de Madrid stepped up the way it did, as it wasn’t the first time that the La Liga outfit invested in a foreign soccer club. It previously co-owned the Indian Super League franchise Atlético de Kolkata, before ending its partnership with the ISL club in 2017.
Also in 2017, Atlético de Madrid bought a major ownership stake in Mexican team San Luis Fútbol Club and renamed it Atlético San Luis. The side went on to win promotion to the Mexican top flight from the second division last year.
There are other examples from around the world of big foreign clubs investing in teams in North Americans markets. Chivas USA played as an offshoot of Mexican giants Guadalajara in Major League Soccer for ten years before folding in 2014. New York City FC is partly owned by Premier League side Manchester City, while Spanish outfit Rayo Vallecano once took a controlling stake in Rayo OKC of the NASL.
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Bringing on Atlético de Madrid as an owner was a major coup for the CPL, considering the Spanish club’s rich history and its standing in the sport. To have one of the world’s most prestigious soccer brands involved raises the profile of the CPL and could help the league attract more high-profile owners in the future.
What Atlético de Madrid did in Ottawa is a growing trend, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see more foreign ownership groups pop up around the world in the next few years, including the possibility of more in the CPL. More and more, the biggest pro clubs are looking to expand beyond their national borders, and extend their iconic brands into other parts of the world.
“Globally, we are already seeing some of this – in many cases it is about ‘extending brands,’ but it also is about creating a more diversified business in my opinion, which is just smart if it fits a club’s strategy,” CPL Commissioner David Clanachan told CanPL.ca.
Fernando López agrees with Clanachan’s assessment. As CEO of Atlético Ottawa, López will oversee the club’s transition into the CPL, something he has previously done as the “international expansion manager” for Atlético de Madrid, who has also owned or run teams in China, France, and Israel.
“I’m sure that this will become a growing model … (International expansion) has really become global for top clubs, like Atlético de Madrid. It’s important to not just have the knowledge about a league, but it’s very important to have a team there for several reasons,” López explained to CanPL.ca.
“For brand extension and exposure, that’s why we decided to be in key global markets. For us, it was important and strategic to be in China, Mexico, Israel, France, and now Canada. It was a key part of our international strategy that we started almost six years ago.”
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While Atlético de Madrid gets to extend its global brand into Canada with the launch of Atlético Ottawa, the CPL also gains something valuable in the partnership with the Spanish outfit, that was founded in 1903 as Athletic Club Sucursal de Madrid.
“In a word, (what the CPL gets is) experience – 116 years’ worth. Working with such an established and historic club brings a breadth of knowledge that will help grow the league,” Clanachan explained.
“From having the experience and track record of running a successful global club/brand, to scouting, ticketing, coaching, player acquisition, fan engagement – they have years of expertise and skill to help launch a club successfully.
“Truly a club like Atlético de Madrid, with its history, has as they say, ‘forgotten more than most know.’”
López warns that it can’t be entirely about brand extension and exploiting commercial opportunities, though. Clubs who invest in foreign teams have to see the bigger picture, and be genuinely interested in growing the sport; they have a responsibility to put more into the local soccer community.
“There is player talent everywhere and we are experts in developing talent; you can see it at our club. I’m sure we’ll be able to put our brand in Canada so that everybody knows what Atlético de Madrid is, but we must also help to work together with Canada Soccer and the CPL in developing future talented players for the Canadian national team,” López stated.