Anticipation grows for kickoff of Redblacks season

With the 2013 CFL season officially in the books following the Nov. 24 Grey Cup game, excitement is growing about the Ottawa Redblacks and their CFL debut at the redeveloped Lansdowne Park in 2014.

A major step towards that debut will be the CFL’s expansion draft on Dec. 16, when the Redblacks will be able to select 24 players from existing CFL teams, including two quarterbacks.

“Quarterback is a key,” says Jeff Hunt, president of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group’s sports division, which owns the Redblacks. “Just getting that nucleus of the team that we can start to build around.”

Hunt says in addition to the expansion draft, hiring a head coach is a top priority now that the 2013 season is over and Redblacks management can speak with currently employed CFL coaches who may be interested in the job.

Even though the team has no players and no coach at the moment, Ottawa fans don’t seem to have any qualms about buying into their new CFL franchise.

Hunt says 12,000 season tickets have already been sold, which will account for half of the new stadium’s 24,000-seat capacity. Buyers are given the unique opportunity to choose their seats using virtual reality software at OSEG’s preview centre, which provides fans with a 360-degree panoramic view from any seat in the stadium.

“We can’t bring fans to the stadium, naturally, so this is the next best thing,” Hunt says.

He says the majority of season ticket sales to date have been to longtime Ottawa CFL fans, but he is confident that younger generations, even those who may be unfamiliar with Ottawa’s football history, will play an integral role in the team’s success.

“The teenagers, the families, the 20-somethings – these are our future fans,” he says.

Ottawa football fans are also snapping up Redblacks merchandise, which Hunt says has been gradually rolling out to retailers across the city.

Chris Rivet, an employee at Elgin Sports on Bank Street, says Redblacks apparel sales “started out really strong” and have remained consistent the last couple months. He says the store plans to bring in a large order of new Redblacks merchandise in the spring to keep up with increasing demand as the 2014 season approaches.

One piece of Redblacks apparel that fans will have to wait to get their hands on is an official team jersey. Hunt says it’s likely the jerseys won’t be unveiled until the spring.

When the Redblacks hit the field in 2014, it will be the first time CFL football has been played in the city since the Ottawa Renegades folded in 2006 after four disappointing seasons and a combined regular season record of 23 wins and 49 losses.

Ottawa’s original football franchise, the Ottawa Rough Riders, won nine Grey Cups from 1925–1976. Two decades later – due to a combination of unstable ownership, losing seasons and plummeting attendance – the team ceased operations after the 1996 season.

Keenan Wellar operates popular Redblacks fan pages on Facebook and Twitter, is the owns five Redblacks season tickets and has been a CFL fan since he was four years old. He says many fans are cautiously optimistic about the Redblacks and their chances to succeed in the league.

“I think everyone’s expectations are very manageable,” he says. “We’ve gone through enough that we’re prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best.”

Wellar says he’s hopeful the redeveloped Lansdowne Park will not only provide a first-class sports venue, but also a diverse recreational space the surrounding communities can enjoy.

“It’s not been a good community place,” he says. “You hold an event, you go home. You don’t stick around.”

Stadium construction is scheduled for completion in spring 2014, just in time for football season. The urban park and the rest of the Lansdowne project are scheduled for completion in summer 2015.