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‘We want to be the best in Canada’: How Atlético Ottawa are bringing one of Spain’s most recognisable soccer brands to North America

Less than three years after launch, Atlético Ottawa sit top of the Canadian Premier League but the team’s journey there has been far from straightforward. Chief executive Fernando Lopez explains why Spanish giants Atlético Madrid chose Canada’s capital for their North American expansion and what opportunities the move is creating for the club and its commercial partners.

23 September 2022 Sam Carp

Freestyle Photography/Atlético Ottawa

When Fernando Lopez stepped out of Ottawa’s Fairmont hotel and was hit by the crisp, Canadian winter air, he would have been forgiven for feeling a long way from home. The temperature was well below freezing, a far cry from the milder climate the Spaniard was used to experiencing in his native Madrid.

But this was a special occasion. Back then, in February 2020, Lopez was on his way to a snow-covered TD Place Stadium to celebrate the launch of Atlético Ottawa, a Canadian Premier League (CPL) franchise that would be owned and operated by its Spanish namesake, bringing the number of teams in the fledgling domestic top-flight soccer competition to eight. Having spent six years heading up Atlético Madrid’s international department, Lopez was now being tasked with overseeing the club’s expansion into Canada as the new team’s chief executive.

At the time, then-CPL commissioner David Clanachan said that Ottawa had “won the lottery” by securing the presence of a club boasting a near 120-year history, one that includes 11 LaLiga titles and ten Copa del Reys. The team’s arrival also brought with it welcome credibility for a league that at that stage had only played one season. Indeed, Atlético’s decision to pitch up in Canada might have been surprising to some, but Lopez highlights that there was a lot about the country’s capital that appealed to the Spanish giants.

“We loved the fact that it was from one capital to the other, there was that connection there,” he says, speaking to SportsPro in late August. “Also, in terms of Canada, the colours [being the same as Atlético] is important for us. We visited certain opportunities, not only in Ottawa, but at the end of the day I think the stadium and the facilities that Ottawa presented were aligned with Atlético de Madrid.”

Any initial celebratory mood, however, was short lived. Barely weeks after formally unveiling the club’s identity and logo, Lopez recalls receiving a call from Clanachan during the franchise’s first preseason training camp, advising him that the team arrive in Canada for the 2020 campaign as soon as possible to avoid being shut out by potential border closures as Covid-19 started to spread. As a result, the team’s debut was delayed until August that year, when the league ran a short tournament to replace the full season.

Fernando Lopez, Atlético Ottawa CEO, says everything is “coming together” after a challenging start (Credit: Freestyle Photography/Atlético Ottawa)

Yet the pandemic hasn’t been the only challenge for Atlético Ottawa, who finished rock bottom of the table during their first full season in 2021. The team’s home ground is operated by the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which also owns the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Ottawa 67’s. With the Redblacks taking precedence, it meant that the CPL side were without a permanent training facility last year, leaving them to find a number of alternatives across the city where they could practice.

That’s all changed for this year, though, with the team permanently based at TD Place, where Atlético Ottawa now have a branded changing room kitted out with all the amenities required for an elite sports franchise, including a gym and manager’s office. The lockers and urinals even have motivational quotes plastered on the walls above them to ensure the players don’t lose focus.

Either way, whatever alterations have been made appear to be working. After replacing their manager and undergoing a significant squad overhaul after the 2021 campaign, Atlético Ottawa now sit top of the CPL with three regular season fixtures remaining, and could clinch a playoff berth with victory over the second-placed Cavalry on Saturday. Doing so would represent quite a turnaround for a team that hadn’t even played a game this time three years ago.

“People really don’t understand what [a challenge] it has been for us to build this club,” says Lopez. “It was never written in a book how to start a club in the middle of a pandemic. So right now, we really see that everything that we have been working for is coming together.”

Canadian appeal

The arrival of Atlético filled a void of professional soccer in Ottawa briefly left by the Fury, who ceased operations in 2019 when their United Soccer League (USL) franchise rights were sold to Miami FC. Lopez considers this the first “real year” for the club given the disruption caused to the 2020 and 2021 seasons, but says he has already been encouraged by the way the local community has “embraced us like one of their own”.

Despite being in only their second full season, Atlético Ottawa currently have the second-highest average attendance in the CPL, while Lopez says the club has around 1,200 season ticket holders. That suggests there is still some way to go to achieve the goal of regularly filling the team’s 24,000-seater home, but Lopez expects those numbers will continue to grow as long as Atlético Ottawa sustain their form on the pitch. He is also confident that Canada’s co-hosting of the Fifa World Cup in 2026 will inspire more locals to attend games.

Yet ticketing is just one area that Lopez is regularly discussing with his colleagues back in Madrid, who he says he is in contact with on a daily basis.

The owner is asking me after every game how we played. They are very on top of us because they really want us to succeed.

Fernando Lopez, Chief Executive, Atlético Ottawa

“I don’t know how many chats I have on WhatsApp with groups from Madrid,” Lopez says. “For example, our recruitment director is based in Madrid, he has a team and he is analysing Canadian players, the CPL, and we are in touch with them in order to incorporate players for the next season. But also with the commercial team, we are having monthly meetings.

“So they are very, very involved. The owner is asking me after every game how we played. They are very on top of us because they really want us to succeed.”

Indeed, soccer is a sport on the rise in Canada thanks to the achievements of its national teams. The men will compete in a World Cup for the first time in 36 years this winter, while the country’s women’s side won gold at last year’s Olympic Games. The likes of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David have long been turning heads with their performances in European soccer, so it makes sense that Atlético are keeping a closer eye on the Canadian market to ensure they don’t miss out on any up-and-coming talent.

While there is the potential for Los Colchoneros to develop a pathway to Europe for Canadian players, the club’s presence in Ottawa also creates opportunities for Atlético Madrid players, such as Diego Espejo and Sergio Camus, who have both been loaned to the CPL side this season.

“We know that the mandate of the league is to develop Canadian players, but having an international partner like Atlético allows us to bring European talent to this league,” Lopez notes. “So we want to provide that platform for our own players, and I’m sure that in the future we will see more [players] going both ways.”

Atlético Ottawa are hopeful of growing their home attendance, which is currently the second highest in the CPL (Credit: Freestyle Photography/Atlético Ottawa)

A winning formula

Lopez is speaking to SportsPro in Roll’d Up, an ice cream parlour just outside TD Place Stadium that serves as one of Atlético Ottawa’s partners. He says that the team has been focusing on a “more local” sponsorship strategy, a decision that will in part have been driven by the CPL’s relationship with Canadian Soccer Business (CSB), which sells the rights to certain categories on behalf of the league’s clubs.

CSB has itself been at the heart of a row between Canada Soccer and its national teams, who in July called for an investigation into their federation’s relationship with the company. That came after a TSN report revealed that CSB is paying Canada Soccer a maximum of only CAN$3.5 million a year to market the Canadian national team broadcast and sponsorship rights until 2027, allowing it to pocket any excess revenues. Given the current success of the two sides, combined with Canada hosting a World Cup in four years, it’s easy to envisage those rights soon fetching a cumulative fee that far outstrips the value of that guarantee.

We want to take advantage of this network of Atlético clubs to provide a platform for brands to grow internationally.

Fernando Lopez, Chief Executive, Atlético Ottawa

It could also be argued that CSB’s stranglehold over certain CPL sponsorship categories might prevent Ottawa’s soccer team from being able to fully leverage the strength of the Atlético brand and maximise the value of its own commercial partnerships. Lopez, however, sees more power in the league’s teams as a combined offering while the competition is still in its infancy.

“In the end we’re a collective and we are all part of CSB in the same manner, and we are just trying to build and grow the business equally for all the clubs,” Lopez states. “So in that regard I think that it makes sense to go all together right now, especially as a new league.

“If you present the package as a league, we are nine teams [from next season], we have this [many] viewers, we have these metrics, I think the numbers make more sense for all of us.

“As the league continues to grow and evolve, restrictions will lift in order to allow clubs to have more individual revenue. But right now I think that the collective is more important for the survival of the league than individual ones. I’m sure that together we can generate more than as individuals.”

In any case, Atlético Ottawa have still been able to assemble a portfolio of 16 partners, according to the club’s website, which is testament to both the heft of the Atlético name and the team’s improved performance on the pitch.

“Now that the team is winning it is easier to have [commercial] conversations,” Lopez admits, “so we are trying to leverage the positive wave that we are on to start connecting with more brands and with more companies.”

Alongside Liga MX outfit Atlético San Luis, Atlético Ottawa are now one of two overseas clubs owned by the Spaniards, and Lopez believes that their multi-club network can offer both existing and future partners a more compelling sponsorship proposition. He also suggests that there could be opportunities down the line for companies to sign deals covering Atlético’s teams in Spain, Canada and Mexico, a move which could provide those businesses with a gateway into new markets while also driving more revenue for the club.

“We want to take advantage of this network of Atlético clubs to maybe provide a platform for brands to grow internationally,” Lopez continues. “Maybe there is a Canadian brand that wants to work in Mexico, or wants to get introduced to Europe, and through all these connections we can build a programme for them, and they can have a huge presence worldwide.

“It’s something that we still need to work on and develop, but I’m sure that we are going to see some results with that as well.”

Becoming the best in Canada

Throughout this interview Lopez sprinkles in various examples of ways in which the club can continue to grow the profile of its CPL franchise, ranging from flying Atlético’s women’s outfit over for exhibition games and playing friendlies against major European clubs, to using men’s first team players in Madrid to announce Atlético Ottawa draft picks.

However, it remains to be seen if the franchise can achieve its lofty ambitions while playing in a league which still lags behind some of the more commercially developed competitions in North America. Lopez is philosophical about what the future holds for Atlético Ottawa but doesn’t seem to rule anything out, also suggesting that closer ties between the CPL, Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US and Mexico’s Liga MX would be beneficial for everyone.

“I think that if North American soccer really wants to compete with European soccer at one point in time, whether it’s before the World Cup or after the World Cup, I think there needs to be some improvement in terms of leagues,” he says.

“I heard that there have been conversations about creating a unified league between MLS, the Canadian Premier League and Mexico, maybe with the top teams. So maybe there’s a way if that happens for Ottawa to be there.”

Any unified league would certainly create a bigger platform for Atlético to continue to build their brand in North America, but it remains to be seen if such a competition will be formed. In the meantime, their best opportunity to compete with sides in the likes of MLS and Liga MX will come through the Canadian Championship and Concacaf’s Champions League, which is the continent’s premier club competition.

Atlético Ottawa are on the verge of clinching CPL a playoff place (Credit: Freestyle Photography/Atlético Ottawa)

Lopez is playing his cards a little more close to his chest as it relates to the rest of this season, stressing that Atlético Ottawa are taking it “one game at a time”. But however the remaining fixtures play out, there’s a sense that it will do little to curb the club’s aspirations to rival the continent’s best teams – including Canada’s three MLS franchises.

“We want to become the best team in Canada,” Lopez declares. “I think that if we can be a top team in the CPL we can really compete with the Canadian teams in other competitions like the Canadian Championship. And maybe, one day, [we can] close the gap with Montreal, with Toronto and with Vancouver, and demonstrate – like other CPL teams have demonstrated – that we can face them, we can play against them.

“Then the next step, playing Concacaf [Champions League] regularly, show the world that Canada has a lot of talent, has very good players, and we can have a team competing with Costa Rican, Panamanian, North American clubs, and then we can progress.

“Then why not? Maybe we can have a Canadian finalist from the CPL in Concacaf in the next six years.”

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