Some things appear to be impossible, others just highly
implausible, but making baseball work in Ottawa?
That Sisyphean task now falls on the shoulders of former Durham Bulls triple A
team owner Miles Wolff and his Ottawa-based partner, minority shareholder and
Parliament Hill lobbyist David Gourlay.
© Mark Holleron
Energetic, preternaturally optimist Mr Wolff bought the
Durham Bulls for $2,466 at a time when minor ball was nearly dead. It was 1980
and Miles figured he’d learned everything he could from being GM of several
other clubs, so why not try to build a successful franchise, one he owned
Of course, it helps if Hollywood
comes knocking at your door—the hit film, Bull Durham, is, naturally, based on
the Durham Bulls. Miles, after reading the script, never thought the film would
see the light of day, but he did get to shake hands with one of the movie’s
The film needed a crowd scene, so Miles suspended disbelief,
and got 2,000 of his season ticket holders to come out to shoot a day scene.
The producers were so disorganized that day turned into night, so the scene in
the final edit is actually a night shot.
The movie was made in 1987, and Mr Wolff sold the team in
1991 to a television exec out of Raleigh
for a reported $4 million. If that number is correct, it means Miles got a
95.82% compounded rate of return on his investment during the 11 years he owned
that team—probably beats your mutual funds (and mine) by quite a margin.
But back in the 70s and 80s, GMs were doing everything they
could do to keep the grand old game alive—“hot pants nites” and “free gasoline
for a year” were just a few of the hundreds of schemes they used to fill minor
league parks. Of course, it helps if gasoline is $1 a gallon instead of $3, but
still you can see the lengths they had to go to bring people out.
“Baseball is a passion and a calling not a real job,” Miles
says. He has a Masters in southern history, and an undergrad degree from John
Hopkins, which he put to good use when he published a book, Lunch at the five and ten: the Greensboro sit-ins, a
contemporary history. Mr Wolff sees baseball as a force for social
change—whether it’s getting Jackie Robinson, number 42, a roster spot in the
majors or desegregating baseball parks and lunch counters at Woolworths.
Miles was also the publisher of Baseball America, a tabloid magazine that
came out every two weeks. Mr Wolff it picked up in 1981 for its debts (less
than $50,000). He built it into a powerhouse eventually supplanting Sporting
News as the bible of the industry. The publication was started by Canadian Alan
Simpson (from BC) who used to cross the border (from White Rock) to get access
to cheaper USPS postal rates. Alan sold it to Miles so he could get a green
card, eventually moving to Durham
to work on their joint project. They sold it to a group out of Atlanta in 2000 for
another seven figure pay out.
But Miles just can’t stay retired.
One of the knocks against minor league ball is that all
triple A teams are now affiliated with MLB clubs so their objective is not to
win championships, but to develop players for the show. This drives fans in
those cities, who faithfully support their minor teams with their cash and
adoration, crazy. Just as their team is poised to win it all, top players
vamoose to the bigs.
Around 1900 all minor league clubs were independent—they
made most of their money selling players they’d developed to MLB. By the 1920s,
they could sell a player for $75k or even $100k. Major League Baseball decided
they could develop players less expensively by stocking affiliated minor league
teams themselves. By the 1950s, independent baseball was dead. Jack Kent Cooke
was the last holdout… until the 1960s.
So Miles decided to go back to the future. He is now the
commissioner of not one but two leagues. The one the Ottawa Champions plays in
is the Can Am league (with six teams); the other is the American Association
(with thirteen teams).
“All teams are independent, and they’ve been successful
beyond my wildest dreams,” Miles says. “The St Paul Saints are sold out every
game. They get 5,000 fans, sometimes outdrawing the Twins just six miles down
the road,” Mr Wolff adds proudly.
After the Ottawa Lynx folded in 2007 and the previous effort
at establishing a Can Am team in Ottawa
in 2008 failed by way of overspending, who would have thought that the Ottawa
Champions could draw 115,000 fans in their first year to 55 home games?
Even though he did not really want to own a team in Ottawa, Miles says, “Look,
the reason I invested is that here’s a town of 1.3 million people, they’ve got
a decent park that the city is willing to fix up, and David (Gourlay) had 3,000
pledges for season tickets. It just plain makes sense.”
It didn’t hurt that they sold the naming rights to the
stadium for $150,000 for three years, and Miles knows how to keep both player
and operating costs under control.
Their best promotion is decent weather, never a certainty in
a northern shelf city like Ottawa.
Their second best? Dollar hotdog nite.
“Next year will be even better,” says Miles. “We’ll do much
more in group sales. I see us getting to 2,500 maybe even 3,000 fans a game.”
For now, Miles has no plans to retire. He has an apartment
in New Edinburg and loves Canada
so much that he has given his son, Hoffman Wolff, age 30, to the nation.
“Hoffman lives in Quebec city
and speaks French like a local,” a proud papa says.
M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker.
Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce
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