BIG READ: How supporters helped turn Atletico Ottawa's MASSIVE dreams into reality in 2022
Watching Atlétco Ottawa's stunning turnaround this season has been a sight to behold.
Of course, the 2022 CPL regular season champions have certainly been worth the price of admission on their own sporting merits, but equally memorable are those who come to watch and support them on a regular basis – supporters who have proven to be a worthy companion to the league's title contenders, creating an atmosphere that has quickly caught the eye of many around the CPL.
When watching Ottawa's games at TD Place, it's not uncommon to hear their raucous supporters groups – Capital City SG and the Bytown Boys – bellowing chant after chant throughout the match; nor is it a rare sight to pan over to the group and see them dressed head-to-toe in team colours and... 'unique' garb, having the time of their lives.
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Heck, it's not even uncommon to see a massive inflatable dinosaur (affectionately named Wally), decked head-to-toe in Ottawa gear also standing out as a prominent figure among that crowd, further adding to the uniqueness of the atmosphere.
That atmosphere has quickly gotten noticed around the league. After dealing with two irregular seasons to begin their existence as a club, Ottawa has quickly become the place to be if you want to enjoy an atmosphere unlike any other in the CPL.
Because of that, many are quite excited about this weekend, where Ottawa is getting set for a landmark moment in their history - their first-ever home playoff game on Sunday at TD Place. The league leaders host Pacific FC in the second leg of their playoffs semi-final, in which Ottawa currently holds a 2-0 aggregate lead.
📣 Breaking News! 📣— Atlético Ottawa (@atletiOttawa) October 21, 2022
With the expected massive attendance for Sunday’s playoff match and the South Side looking like this already, we’re opening up the North Side Stands @TD_Place.
Be a part of history this Sun. Oct. 23 at 2pm.
🎟️: https://t.co/5EOsVTonZs#ForOttawa pic.twitter.com/FG1VCitDWF
Ottawa is expected to bring the noise with a crowd that could very well crack five digits, making for what is expected to be a very, very special game for the city for many reasons.
"This is why winning the league was so important to us," Ottawa goalkeeper Nathan Ingham said last week. "You know that you're going to get a semi-final at home, and if you do your job, you're gonna get a final at home in front of a lot of people and in front of a smart soccer fanbase, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
"The atmosphere is always a blast, so although we don’t know how many people will be there, it appears there will be around 10,000 people there, so everyone can see what a proper football stadium looks like and how much fun that can be versus other games that they're used to going to North America. Our supporters' section is fantastic, so it’s going to be fun, no matter who you’re there to support."
Capitalizing on Ottawa's rich soccer history
While the buzz surrounding Atleti has been mesmerizing to see in Ottawa, it’s left some wondering - where did it all come from?
For those who have been paying close attention to the sport in the capital, an avid interest in soccer has always been brewing. In fact, the soccer history in the city dates back decades, ranging from clubs such as the Ottawa Intrepid to the Ottawa Fury.
Take a quick look at the Canadian National Teams, and you'll find some key players from Ottawa among their ranks, such as Jonathan David and Vanessa Gilles, two huge contributors who prove each window that there is untapped talent in the city.
Not bad for one of Canada's oft-forgotten soccer hubs, no?
While it might not get the attention that Toronto, Vancouver or Montréal might, history suggests that might be due for a change.
"Ottawa has always been an untapped market," Capital City SG member Aaron Hooper told OneSoccer. "It’s one always overlooked in favour of Toronto, growing up here as a footballer people have always looked for the best players in Toronto, or for the best atmospheres, but I’ve always thought that we had something to compete here."
"Ottawa has a very rich soccer background," Capital City SG match day officer and capo Eddie Benhin explained to OneSoccer. "But we’ve just never been able to show it, we competed in the USL, but we weren’t able to win anything.
“We won in the NASL, but that was years ago, but now with the CPL, we're here to come and dominate and show that we are a soccer city. We can compete there with the major cities around Canada. Ottawa is here, we're on our stand and we're here to show that we're massive."
Glad to see Wally finally turned his cousins into Football fans. We would say maybe they’ll get their own banner eventually… but it’s Newcastle so not happening anytime soon (Sorry @TheSuperAJ ) #CanPL #AtléticoOttawa #playoffsareMASSIVE https://t.co/26JdF4GmT9 pic.twitter.com/oaTMOQo6tQ— Capital City Supporters Group (@CapitalCitySG) October 19, 2022
Aiding Ottawa’s cause for more consideration is that a lot of what they've built has been off the back of a rich soccer history in the city. While leagues like the CPL are brand new, the sport itself has been around for centuries in Canada. Oftentimes, that history is overlooked in some markets, something that Ottawa has tried to avoid since their inception.
"Everything that's happening right now is built off of the history and the growth of the past," Hooper offered. "What is happening right now on the terraces with Capital City and other supporters who have been there for a long time; that passion is only a testament to the work that has been really put in by a lot of those members, and the passion that has been transferred from them onto us.
"And I like that we're still building history. That's always something I like to try and reiterate to friends and family and the casual football fans when talking to them about this – the fact that we are actually a part of building Ottawa's football history right now. Where other sports were 100 years ago, we’re there today."
Growing the sport in the nation's capital
With the comfort of support in the stands, Atlético Ottawa can now aspire to become a hub for soccer in the country.
That starts by growing the base.
Capital City SG has increased its membership from just over 100 members to nearly 600 just this year – no small feat in a sporting world that has seen teams struggle to attract fans at the same rates as before.
Of course, the newfound success of the team hasn't hurt their quest, but that has only served as a catalyst for what many have believed has always been there, but were just waiting for an opportunity like this to emerge.
You throw in the rising of all tides spearheaded by the successes of the Canadian National Teams, and it's created a perfect storm for growth, one that Capital City SG has been quite pleased to be a part of, having put a lot of work over the years into making that happen.
"It's been exponential growth, really," Daniel Duff, Capital City SG founder and president, noted to OneSoccer. "We're riding a trend, to be fair, but it's been pretty spectacular. Getting out of this pandemic with the type of support that the group has seen, the Canada viewing parties that we’ve had, the road viewing parties that we’ve had and the attendance that's continuously growing in the stadium, it’s great.
"It's been a lot of hard work, it’s not just something that appeared out of thin air, it’s taken a lot of people donating their time and their skills to get the word out, whether it’s been digitally, or face-to-face at the pub or at community events, and right now, it’s proving to be successful."
He continued: "I mean, our membership has grown exponentially this year. It's up 400 percent. It has been absolutely explosive in terms of that growth. If you can't buy into football now, with the women being Olympic champions and our men going to Qatar, and with our league of our own that has proven to be only growing in quality, exposure and popularity, then when can you dine out on it?"
More supporters = richer club culture
Growth in the stands isn't the only benefit here; the more people you bring in, the more creative you can be.
Take Ottawa midfielder and MVP candidate Ollie Bassett, who arrived at the club last winter from Pacific FC.
Since making his debut for the club, he's become a fan-favourite, with his strong skills and cool demeanour earning him the nickname 'Olliewood' from supporters, who now display banners baring his moniker and have successfully petitioned the midfielder to earn a deserved Player of the Year nod.
So much of stardom in a league like CPL comes down to perception; performances help, of course, but supporters have more influence than perhaps even they know in swaying sentiment.
For his part, Bassett has noticed that he could really feel that support coming from an organic place. For the former Aston Villa academy pupil, it's made for an atmosphere that he isn't too unfamiliar with – it's actually rather similar to what he sees in the UK.
"It’s been amazing," Bassett told OneSoccer last week. "Some of the guys have said that they've been here since before the Fury days, but since they've had this new club, they were kind of thrown in the deep end in the first two seasons, with the club starting from scratch, and then having a bubble during COVID. So I think this is the first real season that they've been able to properly come out and support us, and I think they've done an extremely good job of growing the culture not only in Ottawa, but in Canada as a whole.
"They have a lot to be proud of, and can take credit for pushing us week in and week out on the pitch. They've always been there to support us when we've needed them, so they have done a fantastic job."
Rain or shine, Ottawa is going to support their team, and that sort of support can only spur a team on when they’re feeling down.
“I think one of the biggest turning points this season actually was when Ottawa was playing Edmonton,” Hooper said with a smile. “And there was a huge downpour, and the crowd did not leave or go to take cover.”
“In fact, everyone took their shirts off and started cheering harder and you could see the atmosphere actually increase tenfold. Since then it’s continued to develop, so people are excited to now check out the team and the atmosphere.”
Youth and inclusion key pillars for support
Ottawa is known for bringing the noise, but what is most fascinating about the group is the makeup of its members.
Whenever the camera pans to 'Section W' – where the Capital City Supporters stand – it's not uncommon to see a crowd that wouldn't look out of place in a university campus.
In a soccer country where fans typically skew a bit older, Ottawa has built its supporters group off of a young audience that has brought energy and exuberance to games.
Through ideas such as their creation of Wally the Dinosaur, theme nights and other creative and engaging events, a uniquely Canadian atmosphere has been born, one that brings a different sort of vibe to the game than what many are used to seeing.
"From day one, I noticed a different energy and a different demographic in the crowd," Hooper said. "It was definitely a younger crowd, not kids, per se, but people in their 20s, university students and people who are drawn to football, and are now excited to now have a local team.
"It's just gotten louder and more vibrant and more engaged as the season has gone along."
Ratio + Buy the shirts tomorrow + Ottawa is Massive #AtléticoOttawa #playoffsareMASSIVE https://t.co/2mozsBJRHz pic.twitter.com/LjZsL8vZkj— Eddie Benhin (@edbenhin) October 8, 2022
More importantly, Capital City SG has put an emphasis on being as inclusive as possible, really leading to strong diversity in the group.
Their group isn't just young, but also made up of people of different races, genders and identities, a great representation of Canada's cultural mosaic. For a global sport like soccer, that sort of representation, and the low barriers of entry it creates, is itself massive.
"Ottawa is an immigrant city," Benhin explained. "There are a lot of people my age who are children of immigrants, and soccer is what we grew up with. But the biggest problem with North America is being able to get these fans to the local game.
"Let’s face it – compared to Europe, it's all a different level. That level isn’t here yet. So when it comes to getting people to support the team, there has to be a reason. That was a big thing that really brought me onboard; I really want to make sure that people will come to these games regardless of what's happening on the pitch.:
Added Duff: "We have tried to break the walls of the traditional gatekeeping aspect of supporters' culture, and have tried to be as inclusive as possible. The only thing we ask people not to do is to sit on their hands. We want you to sing and chant and yell. We have chants in English, French, Spanish and Farsi, so we're trying our best to make it inclusive.
"We have deliberately picked extremely creative, charismatic people that are younger and engaged in the football community to have authoritative, strong influential management roles within our group that allow them and their social networks and their personal friendship circles to get involved in what we’re doing here.
"Ottawa loves to get behind something that is their own, right? Because so many people are transient as this is a government town, it is our capital. Everyone has their team back home, so Ottawa only tends to come out when the local clubs are winning. But let me tell you – with a winning organization like Atlético Madrid now involved, being a proven winner in terms of the style of play that they play, and with our results speaking for itself, and our supporters taking up the challenge to rival some of the best fan support in the league? All of those things have come together to create this perfect elixir for fans to come out and enjoy.
"Deep down, it's all about supporting the 11 players on the pitch, men or women, and developing a community around that. We don't have any prejudice as to gender, race, sex or anything, our gospel is Atlético Ottawa, and under that banner, we welcome everybody."
The power of social media and #banter
Ottawa's love of soccer extends far beyond the confines of TD Place, as supporters have created a strong online presence, one that is quite noticeable on platforms such as Twitter and Discord.
It's not uncommon to see fans either talking about their team, dishing out banter about rivals or just enjoying talking about the sport, having created such a strong online community.
"They're certainly quite vocal!" said Armen Bedakian, the OneSoccer social media admin. "I've had my finger on the pulse of Canadian soccer – particularly CPL, of course – for more than a decade, and these Ottawa fans go toe-to-toe – or, I guess, tweet-to-tweet – with the very best I've seen, not just in breaking down a game, but enjoying the spirit of good fun that makes this sport special.
"Memes, debates, engagement, all of it makes a digital content nerd proud to see. While Valour's in-house social team brings their own brand of banter and York United's content staff are putting up hits week after week, Ottawa's supporters are second to none."
Ottawa's online presence has also helped them drive support out to the games, as they've managed to create a buzz about the team, one that can often reach out of their soccer circles to drive fans to games.
"Our group has a lot of members who are on social media and those different personalities are perfect to help us hype up the team," Benhin explained. "And the thing about Twitter is that we're all coming with our own circles, we all follow different sports, and different people follow us, so if we're all coming and tweeting about Atlético Ottawa at the same time, we're just doing so much marketing for the team without them having a single hand in it, and that's the best thing Capital City has done.
"We've been marketing the team to a lot of casuals, and those casuals that have been brought into the team now, and then those casuals start tweeting about it, it goes further, creating this cycle. And I think that's the best way, it's the future, really, of marketing teams. Social media is here to stay, so for all supporters groups and teams, they really should use it to help market their team."
🚩Join @CapitalCitySG and @BytownBoys for our Playoff 🦖Supporters March this Sunday ❗️— Capital City Supporters Group (@CapitalCitySG) October 17, 2022
🍺The Glebe Central Pub
📍779 Bank St
📍1015 Bank St
Parade Departs ⏰1pm#playoffsareMASSIVE #CanPL #AtléticoOttawa pic.twitter.com/7a7FdY77G9
Ottawa supporters are quick to poke fun at their cross-province rivals York United, creating the sort of bonds and rivalries that they feel can only grow and add to the fledgling soccer culture that is starting to grab hold across the country.
In the end, a healthy league with healthy fanbases is what everyone wants, and Ottawa's fans are certainly trying their best to try and push some of their counterparts in every way possible – while doing their part to keep their rivals on their toes, too!
"It's fun to see that sort of bond being created amongst the supporters," Hooper said. "Even amongst other fans and whatnot, just to see people being passionate about their clubs, that’s exciting, so it's great that we now have a rivalry with York and their supporters, for example.
"I want the league to grow, I want to see their fan bases grow, and our fan base grow, and develop this into something that can be even bigger and livelier, like, we see in other places around the world, so that’s exciting. And I think seeing the supporters' group pushing through social media is what the supporters need, so we can gather more young people and keep growing."
"We do a good mix of remaining professional online," Benhin added. "As we have specific things to be done, but also having fun. That means we have the balance of being funny on Twitter, having banter, but then also being able to represent Capital City and Atlético Ottawa in a professional light. And I think that combination touches all that we’ve needed to become successful in Section W.
"Canada is such a huge country, it is very hard to see other people in person, so social media is the best way to reach people. You look at a city like Ottawa, even our land size is bigger than Houston, so as one person it's hard to market, but through social media, you can find a way to do it."
'We are massive' – inside joke turned league-wide phenomenon
Those who doubt the impact that social media can have on support are making a massive mistake. Literally.
Just take Ottawa’s relationship with that exact word - 'massive.'
What started out as a joke has turned into the buzzword for the club, one that is almost as synonymous with them as their red-and-white striped kits, or their strong defensive style of play.
The word massive is strewn around like a victory flag of sorts both online and in the stands, signifying how Ottawa fans feel about their team.
It's also spawned GIFs, T-shirts and a whole lot of mentions on official club and league channels.
What started as an inside joke from their first season has become a key part of the club's identity in 2022.
"West Ham was the first time I saw it; they said that they’re massive," Benhin, who first coined the term, explained. "I saw that, and I started using it for Arsenal, as I'm also an Arsenal fan, but then I thought, 'Hey, why don't we just start calling Atlético Ottawa massive?' So I just started tweeting about it to no one. Then it just kind of started rolling, especially in our Discord, people started saying we were making massive signings, that we were a massive club.
"I was just trying to create hype, saying that we were massive and we win the league, because we had no players, we didn't know who the new coach was. So with everything that happened, I pushed it. Did we sign a waterboy? We're massive. A coach? Massive. And it just kept going and kept going. From there, it just blew up.
"Now, fans from other teams, when they see the word massive, they think about Atlético Ottawa. That's where massive came from, and we're gonna keep saying it: We're absolutely massive, nous sommes massifs, whatever language you want to say it, it’s true - Ottawa is massive."
In better clothing news… MASSIVE shirt has arrived @CapitalCitySG @atletiOttawa now I can spam Massive without even opening my mouth 😍 #AtléticoOttawa #CanPL #playoffsareMASSIVE pic.twitter.com/Z5x2wJPQe3— Eddie Benhin (@edbenhin) October 20, 2022
The club is massive, and everything they do is massive, but are the players massive, too?
"I think we'll leave that one for the fans," Bassett said with a laugh. "But yeah, we've seen the word. It's great to see the friendly banter between them and other teams in the league, as that’s their way of engaging with other people on social media, and I think they deserve credit for everything they do, they've really grown the sport and pushed the culture forward."
Anything else to add?
"It’s just a fact that ... we are massive," Hooper proudly stated. "We have the best supporters, we have one of the best teams out there, we are geographically a massive city, we are one of the biggest cities in Canada, so it's an amazing tagline that really emphasizes our passion and our willingness to go above and beyond in terms of supporting this team, and making our massive team in the capital region the biggest in the nation, much like the five-year plan of Carlos González. And that is a massive, massive plan."
"So it's not even just a tagline, though I'm happy that it has become our slogan because we're able to back it up and we're able to prove that we deserve to be here and in the running to hopefully make history in Canadian football."
Building on momentum the next step
Now, the goal for Ottawa is to turn their massive intentions into so much more than a hope and a dream.
At some point, the new-car smell is going to wear off, and that's where the work to ensure that the fun atmosphere at TD Place remains, even when the team faces trials and tribulations.
Capital City SG isn’t daunted by that challenge, though – quite the opposite, in fact.
Not unlike their club, who has famously been working on a multi-year plan, they too have worked to ensure that their support isn't just a flash in the pan, but something that will be synonymous with the sport in the city for years to come.
"This is not a fluke," Duff confidently stated. "We have made this happen because we have sat down and planned it out from now until year 10, seeing what we have to do to get this thing to be permanently sewn into the fabric of the sporting landscape of this city. We know the Senators are here, we know that there’s 110 years of CFL legacy in this city, that our universities are known nationwide for their support, and we're not trying to derail any of that.
"We want to make sure that the supporters' culture is permanently here, and in good shape and that it is one that is not divisive and not exclusive to any one group.
"Our focus has been and will be to create a bedrock for a supporters culture in Ottawa that can be creative and inclusive and at the forefront of what supporters are doing in this country going forward."
Having been through so much just to get to this point, the goal is to keep this ship in one direction – onwards and upward.
Through games such as this weekend's semi-final – where the outstanding crowd will potentially make soccer fans for life – and for future big games – be it a 2022 final, or Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League runs – these supporters know that the next few years can be just the start of something special.
So for those who are yet to buy in, the Capital City SG has a simple message: Come on down for a game, have a good time, and be a part of something unique and special in the Nation’s capital.
"It's been a wild ride,” Benhin admitted. "This club’s first season was during COVID, so it took a whole season for us to even see them in person. And then when we finally did see them in person, we set the record for the least amount of points in a season, so it meant that we’d dug a hole, and we had to start building out. But we just kept going, we knew that as supporters you have to keep building the atmosphere, and we started to notice that throughout last season, people were saying that they kept coming back not because of what was going on the field, but because of what we were doing in the stands.
"And then finally this year, we got the product we wanted, and we continued building our fanbase, and now this team is loveable, it’s winning games, and now we're finally in the playoffs. I know all of us said that we’d win the league at the beginning of the season, but the fact that we're this close to actually doing it is absolutely incredible. And you can just sense this buzz going around, and you can see it. On Twitter, there are a lot of people who weren't really focusing on Atlético Ottawa who are tweeting about games in abundance now, people I never thought knew anything about Atlético Ottawa now talking about it. Even at my job, as I work at a soccer store, I've noticed people coming in talking about Atlético Ottawa, so I can feel that here's a huge buzz around this. And I think winning the league is just going to start something more, because Ottawa’s a city that likes winners, and this team looks set to win for a long time.
"Games are just so much fun, there’s smoke, there are songs, so as someone who's young and looking for a fun time, Atlético Ottawa games are one of the best places to go to. I’ve heard so many people my age saying, ‘hey, we just want to go and have a fun time’, And in Ottawa, there are not a lot of things to do for fun, so if you can go to a game and just have 90 minutes of just being crazy and doing whatever you want to have fun, why wouldn’t you want to do it?"