OTTAWA – It’s not a rebrand, it’s not a restart, and it’s not a reboot.
Atlético Ottawa’s arrival as the newest Canadian Premier League club is a refresh of the professional soccer scene in the nation’s capital.
Soccer supporters of many stripes and wearing different kits gathered this past week at a fan event held at one of the city’s favourite watering holes near TD Place Stadium, which will serve as Atlético Ottawa’s home for the 2020 CPL season.
Supporters of the Ottawa Fury, the USL side that shut up shop last November, made up the bulk of those in attendance at Craft Beer Market on Tuesday, and many of those same supporters witnessed the official unveiling of Atlético’s name, colours, and crest earlier in the day at at TD Place Stadium. But the pub event was something different, as it represented a natural handoff between fans of the Fury and Atlético.
Far from a wake or celebration of life, Tuesday’s announcement left the memory of the Fury firmly in the past for supporters such as Nick Harrison.
During a OneSoccer panel discussion at the pub event with Atlético Ottawa strategic partner Jeff Hunt – who previously worked with the Fury – the topic of the Ottawa Fury came up several times, including from Harrison himself.
“The Fury organization was in healthy shape,” said Harrison, who has already reserved an inaugural season package with Atlético Ottawa. “Now that we have Atlético behind us, I’m a lot more inspired and excited. There are a lot more opportunities.
“The CPL has a truly stable foundation and a long-term vision – same goes for Atlético Madrid.”
Of course, as Hunt spoke to supporters on stage, he saw a mixture of CPL merchandise, as well as Fury and Atlético Madrid jerseys. The crowd had a hodgepodge feel, but the sheer amount of people that packed the place told Hunt and his staff one thing: Ottawa fans want to support local soccer.
“Let’s not bicker, let’s get back to it,” said Stephane Brisson-Merrick, who serves as the sergeant-at-arms for the Ottawa supporters group Bytown Boys.
He pointed to his “Support Local Football” shirt, a slogan synonymous with Canadian soccer in the 2000s. Bytown Boys supported the Ottawa Fury and the short-lived CSL side Capital City FC before that. Now, they’re set to fully support Atlético Ottawa.
“We know this is a possibility in this city. Why would we cement ourselves with one team?” Brisson-Merrick asked.
Stony Monday Riot, another supporters group previously associated with the Fury, were also in full force at Atlético’s fan launch. For founding member Matt Hawkins, Club Atlético de Madrid’s investment in the CPL offers a chance to bring more soccer fans in Ottawa into the fold.
“It hurt a lot of Fury fans to explain it – and people wanted to be loyal,” Hawkins said. “They’ve removed that divisive point, and we’ve added a bunch of people in this city who didn’t know what the Fury were about.
“What we’ve got is an opportunity to see people who are soccer fans that didn’t think it mattered before. There’s a good chance they’ll see this club – people will see the security.”
‘Build on our momentum’
Bytown Boys president Sam Colverson saw Tuesday’s announcement as a new peak in a wave of increased interest in Ottawa’s professional soccer scene. While the Fury’s attendance figures declined in its final years, he saw a steep increase in people willing to be “involved outside of games.”
“There has been so much interest outside of our group since this announcement,” Colverson said. “People here asking how they can join, how to be supporters.
“We didn’t have bigger attendances in the stadium, but we saw more people in our section last year and people looking to be involved beyond games. So, to turn over so quickly, and build on our momentum we finally started to build again, is fantastic.”
The stop-start nature of Ottawa’s professional soccer off-season sent Bytown Boys into a tizzy. Before Atlético Madrid’s involvement, Brisson-Merrick had his group organizing road trips and supporting local youth teams – everything but professional soccer at TD Place. Heck, the agenda at Bytown’s latest annual general meeting had to be almost completely scrapped once rumours of the CPL coming to town began to float around.
“Our AGM itinerary was written but, once CPL came around, we went down the list and said, ‘this is not relevant, so is this,”’ Brisson-Merrick joked.
“We lost a couple months and we’re going into a new season a bit more rushed, but it’s worth it.”
For Brisson-Merrick, supporting local soccer means getting behind any Ottawa-area club, even with a Fury scarf around his neck.
“That’s the mentality. You either accept the football or don’t,” Brisson-Merrick stated.
Looking ahead to 2020, Colverson is planning to organize manageable road trips for his group. Recalling a 24-hour round trip to New York once taken by the Bytown Boys, he thinks, rather dryly, that Canadian opposition will interest those in the nation’s capital more than USL clubs.
“Nobody cares how you did against the Rochester Rhinos or the Tampa Bay Rowdies… in two leagues, no less,” Colverson said. “Yes, this isn’t the first league we’ve joined, not the first we’ve left, but it is Canadian. It’s Hamilton, York, Pacific. These are big identities.
“It’s massive that away trips are feasible for this group. You can go to away games without a passport. You can do a road trip without dedicating a whole day.”
Heightened interest in Atlético Ottawa
Whether it’s road trips to York Region or a direct connection to one of the world’s biggest clubs, supporters at Tuesday’s event promised the professional soccer scene in Ottawa would grow with Atlético Ottawa – something former HFX Wanderers FC fullback Zela Langwa talked about at the club launch earlier in the day.
“With the Fury, a lot of people shied away from it,” said Langwa, a native of Ottawa. “This is a fresh start for our city. You have a massive entity coming out of nowhere and it’s a big deal.”
Both Colverson and Hawkins have seen increased interest in the Bytown Boys and Stony Monday Riot, respectively.
“There has been so much interest outside of our group since this announcement,” Colverson said. “People here asking how they will join, how to be supporters.
“Committed interest is what we need. We’ve seen more active involvement from fans, more than just attendance.”
Hawkins had also seen a marked increase in potential support going to the 2020 CPL season.
“I’ve had more people reach out to me on the rumours, to talk about the club more than ever,” said Hawkins, referencing the Fury’s seven-year run “People who aren’t necessarily soccer fans know it’s an important thing. There are a lot of people in the soccer world in Ottawa that know this is important.
“Atlético has made an investment in Ottawa. That means a lot to people.”
Whether Ottawa’s professional soccer scene grows with the addition of Atlético Madrid and the Canadian Premier League remains to be seen. But it does offer a greater pull for the average soccer supporter.
Yes, professional soccer left Ottawa, but it has also returned.