Wanderers ready to grow from storied Grounds

HFX Wanderers FC unveiled in Halifax

Matthew Gourlie

The Canadian Premier League is trying to learn from the mistakes of those that came before them to create a league that endures.

In an interesting twist of fate, a pair of small setbacks helped align the stars to get Derek Martin and Sports & Entertainment Atlantic (SEA), a Halifax-based sports and entertainment production company, involved with the CPL.

From there a lot of hard work led to Friday’s launch where Martin unveiled HFX Wanderers Football Club who will play in the CPL’s inaugural season starting in April of 2019.

HFX-Wanderers FC

“We’re really excited. (Friday) is a chance to celebrate with everybody that’s been helping out behind the scenes,” said Martin, the president and founder of SEA which will operate the Wanderers.

“With the excitement we’re hearing and getting from the people who are coming to be a part of it we’re well on our way — to at least having a chance — to make this a success and hopefully contribute to a strong league right across the country.”

SEA has helped stage a number of high-profile events. They range from concerts to Canadian college basketball and hockey national championship tournaments to trucking in 3,000 tons of sand and creating a 2,000-seat venue on the waterfront for the FIVB Beach Volleyball Junior World Championships.

Somewhat ironically, SEA’s failed attempt at an international friendly in Halifax and a failed attempt to play a rugby match at the Wanderers Grounds in 2015 helped set Martin on the path to joining the CPL.

“Years ago I met Paul Beirne when he was with TFC and I was trying to convince him to bring TFC to Halifax to play a friendly,” Martin said of the CPL president who was the first employee of the league.

That never came to pass because none of the fields large enough to host a match had a suitable playing surface. Still Beirne and Martin continued to stay in touch.

“Paul is a great guy and he’s somebody that once you get to know, you enjoy having conversations with,” Martin said. “We ran a sponsorship conference here in Halifax for a number of years and I invited Paul to come out and speak. We developed a friendship more than anything.”

Nearly two years ago Martin was in Toronto on business and Beirne had returned to Canada after working for Brighton & Hove Albion FC in England.

“He told me that he was coming back to Toronto and working on this idea for a Canadian soccer league. It really started there,” Martin said.

Wanderers Ground.jpg-large

A rendering of the redeveloped Wanderers Grounds.

The previous year, an international rugby friendly between Canada and the Pro12 champion Glasgow Warriors was moved from Wanderers Grounds to Graves-Oakley Memorial Field. The event still drew 5,000 people in temporary venue for Canada’s final tune-up before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“Timing is everything and it just so happens that the year before we had attempted to host something at the Wanderers Grounds with Rugby Canada and had to move it at the last minute because the field was deemed unplayable,” Martin explained. “That led to the City of Halifax realizing that they had this great potential in the site, but they needed to do something to bring it up to a standard that would allow them to host more international or national events. They had gone ahead and already started doing the work to improve the natural grass pitch.

“When I told Paul that… ‘we’re going to have this great facility and here’s what it is and here’s where it’s located. It’s going to have a great new natural grass surface capable of hosting high-level soccer.’ it went from there.”

vintage wanderers ground.jpg-large

Wanderers Grounds was originally part of the Halifax Commons and began hosting rugby for the Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club which was formed in 1882. The venue hosted a variety of sports — including the Canada Soccer Association’s first Challenge Trophy match played east of Montréal in 1957 — over the years, but was in need of some serious renovations both to the surface and the facilities.

SEA were willing to put their own money up to construct a stadium suitable for play in the CPL. That was enough to get Halifax Regional Council on board. They unanimously approved a three-year deal to allow SEA to construct a 7,000-seat “pop-up stadium” that would come down at the end of each season. There are several conditions placed on SEA from the council to minimize the impact of the stadium on the Commons and surrounding area, but the deal allows SEA to prove that there is a demand for pro soccer in the region.

“We’re willing to take a chance and put in our money to prove our concept,” Martin said. “If the concept is proven — which, obviously, we think it will be — then there’s a justification for having a discussion. If enough people are supporting it and feel it’s valuable part of the community, who knows where it goes from there.”

The redeveloped Wanderers Grounds will get their first dry run when it hosts a rugby friendly between Canada and the United States on June 23.

The history of the location and its proximity to the heart of downtown Halifax has captured the imaginations of supporter’s nationwide. Martin is confident that they can work through the challenges of the venue to give their supporters a great match experience.

“It’s going to have all of the things you really want during the 90 minutes when you’re watching a match and it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from the rest of everything that makes Halifax so unique and special,” Martin said. “That’s really our greatest asset and what will make our game day experience special. It’s not just about what happens for those 90 minutes, it’s about the two hours you spend beforehand — hanging out with old friends, making new friends on Argyle Street — and the friend’s house you to to after when you keep that social experience going. To me that’s the most important piece.”

wanderers ground detail

Details of the potential capacity for the Wanderers Grounds.

The space and the temporary nature of the facility do offer some drawbacks, but Martin is confident the benefits greatly out-weigh the negatives when it comes to the venue and location.

“We’re not going to be able to get 20,000 people into that venue, but the advantage is that we’re going to have a soccer-specific, fans-right-on-top-of-the-action, loud environment that won’t have the amenities that larger, more expensive stadiums have,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with portable toilets for a couple of years. We’re going to have to deal with serving beer out of cans because they’re chilled and kept cold without the ability to have draught taps.

“It really is the best way for us to get started.”

The Canadian Soccer League’s Nova Scotia Clippers played at Beazley Field in Dartmouth and finding a suitable venue has continually hindered the region’s attempts at landing a Canadian Football League team.

“From the very beginning we’ve said this is the right model,” Martin said of the pop-up stadium concept. “This idea in Halifax of a stadium has just been beaten to death over and over and over again. They always come at it from the same perspective, which in my humble opinion is wrong, saying: ‘let’s build it as big and beautiful as we possibly can and access as much money as we can to do it. And then hope that attracts a tenant who will come in and fill it up.’ We looked at it the opposite way and said ‘why don’t we find the tenant first and then why don’t we build something that can grow with our fanbase and with our team?’ If we can get to the point where having the demand that exceeds the supply of how many seats we can put in there, then at least we have a justification for to look at something grander. It seems very simple, but that hasn’t been the approach.”

Due to their dealings with council in securing the Wanderers Grounds site, the Halifax team has been more public and out front that any other CPL club. That has given Martin the opportunity to talk to a lot of people in the community who know SEA’s work over the past decade.

“We’ve had a good amount of lead time to meet with people and really explain to them what this is really about,” Martin said. “People have such interesting preconceived notions about what professional sports are all about and what it will be — or maybe even what it won’t be.

“We’ve had a good opportunity now to tell people why we think CPL is different and why we think CPL has built a base that will allow it to be successful.”

At the core of every successful venture is a group of quality people and as much as he believes in the Halifax region and the potential of soccer in Canada, Martin is really excited by the qualify of the people the CPL has attracted.

“I have been continually impressed — over and over again — by the team that they have pulled together at the CPL,” he said. “The group of individuals who now make up that team have so much talent and experience and you’re starting to see it now as things become public and plans are revealed.

“They’ve been extremely diligent and good at really having this long-term vision and plan that they’ve executed really well. They put together this really amazing team and that really bodes well for its success.”

Martin doesn’t have a soccer background, but he quickly saw that the vision for the CPL made sense to him and for the Halifax market.

“What I was immediately drawn to was a very rational, smart, business approach to saying ‘this is a long-term plan. We’re going to take our time. We’re going to do it right. We going to build this year over year over year with realistic expectations for attendance figures and growth,’” Martin said. “That just makes sense to me and I think it will make sense to the general public and the general fan who really is the key to make this all work.”

SEA has done a great job of drawing people who may not be passionate beach volleyball or college basketball fans to fill stands at events they have produced. Martin knows they will need to do the same to make the Wanderers a success.

Derek Martin

Derek Martin

Martin acknowledged that there is a rabid soccer community that have been hungry for a national soccer league for a number of decades. He knows that the hardcore supporters need to be catered to, but he also feels that “what will really make this league successful is capturing that casual fan who doesn’t recognize themselves as a soccer fan today.

“That’s where I think we have a little bit of a head start,” Martin continued. “We have people in this community who don’t identify as a soccer fan, but identify as someone who loves their community and think it’s great that they’re going to get a chance to sit outside with their friends and watch a sporting event downtown throughout the summer. What the entire league needs to be successful is getting those people who all of a sudden come to a game and say ‘huh, I didn’t know I liked soccer, but that was a lot of fun and I’m going to go back.’ If you pick up more and more of those people every time you play a game we have a chance to make this work.”

The deep-pocketed investors who have come onboard with CPL has been impressive. To that end SEA is not the sole financial backer of Wanderers FC.

“We’ve got some private investment that, at this time, wants to stay behind the scenes,” Martin said. “At the end of the day, we see ourselves as the operators given what we have done in the past and how well we know the market. We’re treating this like we would any of the other projects that we have. Our job is to make sure that every single game and every single event is a great experience.”

While SEA typically hosts major events, he likened the Wanderers’ season as a series of events where they can learn and improve each time out.

“You can take what you’ve learned from each event and apply it, but you’re almost starting over in a lot of ways each time you do it,” he said of the larger events they’ve staged. “The attraction of having a team that you can build brand equity with and a large number of people who are getting tickets to every game and are giving feedback. It’s exciting to think that we can keep learning every time and apply it after every game. And keep getting better game after game after game to the point where after a few seasons we’ve hopefully really learned what works in our market and are delivering the best possible experience for the fans.”

Martin is from Hamilton but came to Nova Scotia to attend St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. He guided the X-Men to their second trip to the Vanier Cup in 1996 as their quarterback. After putting himself in the top-10 in every AUS all-time passing category, he played football in Europe and moved to Toronto where he worked for NFL Canada and the Vanier Cup before returning to Nova Scotia.

Unlike York 9 FC and Cavalry FC, the Wanderers don’t have a founding partner with a strong soccer background. Martin said that they are hoping to have someone in place to guide their soccer operations shortly.

“It’s a huge priority. We’re well on our way in that regard and we’ll be making an announcement not too long after we make our team announcement,” he said. “It’s something that we identified early on as a really important part of this. I’ve been very up-front and honest that I’m not that guy. I’m not a soccer guy. I played the other football. I really need a strong, qualified person who understands the game and understands the Canadian game and is really in a position to help us build a competitive club.”

The Wanderers are well into the process of finding the right candidate. Former Canadian national team manager Stephen Hart, a Halifax native, is quoted on their web site. However, Martin said no candidate had been locked down and they are hoping to finalize that piece of the puzzle so they can move on to other decisions. The front office will work out SEA’s offices and Martin wants the head of their soccer operations to have a say in where the team trains and some of those more functional decisions.

“We have some short term options and some long term options,” Martin said of potential training facilities. “Ultimately we want him to have some ownership of those decisions and incorporate them into his overall plan of how we build this club and how we get to where he wants us to go.”

While the CPL has spent years trying to get the details right on the business side, Martin understands that being successful on the pitch will only help them be successful. He said that Friday was going to be a celebration and there will be a lot of well-earned congratulations, but that “not long after that come the questions about performance.”

“All of these nice things we say about representing our community and being out there around the country, playing games and making people feel fondly about their hometown of Halifax… that doesn’t work very well if you’re getting beating 5-0 every time,” he said.

HFX-Wanderers FC

The club unveiled their colours: aqua ocean, naval grey and harbour blue. The name seemed obvious, but Martin said they considered a lot of options. However, the local supporters were passionate about adopting the ancestral name of their ground. The team’s launch video noted that it was also particularly apt given the kilometres the club will have to wander to play their away matches.

The Wanderers’ logo features the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge that spans Halifax Harbour in a eight-pointed shield in the shape of the Citadel with waves and an anchor at the bottom. The team name is styled HFX Wanderers much-like the NBA’s Phoenix Suns alternate logo that has had PHX on it for 18 years.

Below the name is the Gaelic “Ar Cala, Ar Dachaigh, Ar N-Anam” meaning: “Our Harbour, Our Home, Our Soul.”

The supporters had a march to the Nova Centre before the announcement. James Covey from the Halifax Wanderers supporters group was the club’s first official member as a thanks for his hard work behind the scenes promoting the club  and the league. The Wanderers supporters group was founded in September of 2016 by Garrett McPhee and was instrumental in pushing for the adoption of the Wanderers name.

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