Will Atletico Ottawa be a hit in Canada?
Background image: Earl Andrew
The Canadian Premier League announced its newest expansion club last month, bringing the number of participants in the fledgling league up to a nice round eight. While the market chosen for the new club, Ottawa, made plenty of sense considering the recent demise of US second-tier Ottawa Fury, the ownership and branding of this new franchise took a few by surprise.
The eighth Canadian Premier League club will be Atletico Ottawa, feeder to European giants Atletico Madrid.
This is an interesting move but hardly a unique one. The foreign feeder model has been tried before. Chivas USA of the MLS played as an offshoot of Mexican giants Guadalajara, folding in 2014 after years of mediocre performances and declining crowds.
Atletico Madrid isn’t even the first club from Spain’s capital to experiment with a North American feeder. In 2015, then La Liga outfit Rayo Vallecano took a controlling stake in a new Oklahoma City outfit, Rayo OKC. The club was plagued by issues from the off and eventually folded after a single bizarre season in which it played in a high school and the turf was stolen from its home field. Its parent club announced it was pulling out “not because we don’t want to (be here) but because the city doesn’t want us.”
No doubt Atletico Ottawa will be a force on the field. The question remains whether Ottleti can build a big enough brand off-field to stand the test of time.
There are a couple of early indications that they will. The first is name recognition. Rayo Vallecano may have (at the time of the OKC experiment) had the prestige of competing in La Liga, but the club has almost no brand recognition outside of Spain. Especially in the USA. Despite having the Spanish word for “lightning” in their name, the leftist bastion of Vallecano, with its anarchist fanbase and St Pauli-esque culture was never likely to appeal in Oklahoma, even if its largely conservative knew who they were.
Atletico, on the other hand, are a global name, behind only Barcelona and Real Madrid in reputation among Spanish clubs. For a soccer fan walking the streets of Ottawa, a team developing players for a European giant might present an appealing option.
While Guadalajara are one of the best-supported teams on the continent, Chivas suffered from congestion, sharing a stadium and a market with US heavyweights LA Galaxy. Few would support a B team when they could just as easily follow a club bringing in powerhouses of world football, such as David Beckham and Steven Gerrard.
Atletico Ottawa won’t have that problem, either. They’re the only soccer team of any stature for hundreds of miles following Ottawa Fury's demise. They’ve got the market at their mercy and make no mistake, this is one that has a growing love for the beautiful game.
However, the new club can’t be complacent. Name recognition is a good start, but they must back it up by giving the people of the city good reason to keep coming back. This means success on the pitch. But more than that, the club must reach out to fans, launch an effective marketing campaign that will pique interest. Crucially, they’ll have to find a way of creating an atmosphere inside their 24,000 capacity TD Place Stadium.
Atletico Madrid may never surpass their royalist neighbours in terms of popularity. But if they play their cards right, they might just win a place in the hearts of the Ottawa public and build their reputation in one of football’s biggest emerging markets.