UPDATED: City, Ticats clash over pro soccer rights at Tim Hortons Field

The city’s newly announced professional soccer team has an owner in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a website and even a Barton Street Battalion fan club.

But whether it has permission to play at taxpayer-owned Tim Hortons Field is suddenly up in the air.

Councillors will debate a surprise motion next Wednesday to seek expressions of interest from pro soccer leagues to play out of Hamilton’s new $145-million stadium.

The Cats were originally granted exclusive rights – and a deadline – to bring a pro team to Hamilton under a stadium lease agreement with the city. The deadline was repeatedly extended partly due to field construction delays.

But the city believes those rights expired long before the announced new team, said motion author Coun. Judi Partridge – who added city councillors have heard nothing other than “media reports” about the proposed Canadian Premier League and a Hamilton team announced last month.

“Nothing has been brought to council on this. We’ve had no updates (from the team). There is no signed contract or agreement, ” Partridge said. “Rather than sitting back and waiting to see if something happens, I feel as a city we need to take leadership role and put the call out.”

And Mayor Fred Eisenberger said on Thursday that neither his office nor council received formal notification of the league’s formation, the new team or its intended use of the stadium.

“None whatsoever, ” Eisenberger said, adding he was “surprised” the announced team has a website that already states home games will be played out of Tim Hortons Field.

The Ticats dispute that interpretation. In a written statement, the team said it informed the city in a letter last May that “the Tiger-Cats had fulfilled the requirements to bring professional soccer to Hamilton.”

The team said it expected the city at that time to “finalize” the soccer licensing agreement, which called for $150,000 in rent paid annually for use of the stadium for soccer. “The city has not yet responded to that letter, ” reads the Ticats’ statement.

John McGrane, a former national club star now representing the proposed Ticats-owned soccer team, expressed hope the dispute is a “miscommunication” over the lease. “I would hope the city knows (the Ticats) have been working toward this new league in good faith.”

He emphasized the proposed team is expected to include a Ticat-run soccer academy at the stadium and pave the way to hold international soccer events at Tim Hortons Field.

“I hope we don’t lose sight of all the benefits over petty politics, ” McGrane said.

“That would be a damn shame.”

Both McGrane and the mayor dismissed the notion the dispute is related to an ongoing stadium lawsuit between the team, the city, the builder Ontario Sports Solutions and Infrastructure Ontario, over construction delays and a litany of problems in the building.

The legal dispute largely prevents the city from doing business with the Ticats and has already been cited as a reason to delay applying for a CFL Grey Cup championship.

“I don’t think the two issues are connected, ” said Eisenberger.

But he added he is still excited about bringing soccer to the city and open to partnering with the football team.

But he added since there is no agreement currently with the Ticats, “it’s entirely reasonable for council to at least consider asking if anyone else is interested (in bringing soccer to town).”

The likelihood of finding a different partner is open to debate, however.

McGrane said Soccer Canada, the country’s governing body for the sport, effectively provided the Ticats with “professional soccer exclusivity” by signing off in early May on the new league and the Tiger-Cats ownership role in a member team.

McGrane said a Hamilton team – as yet unnamed – could be playing in Tim Hortons Field as early as fall of 2018.

The city could try luring a different team in a different league to the stadium, but existing professional soccer leagues are thin on the ground in Canada.

Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have top-tier pro teams playing in U.S.-based Major League Soccer.

Soccer Canada revoked its sanction of the semi-pro Canadian Soccer League in 2013 and some of league’s teams were later investigated by the RCMP over alleged match-fixing.

The amateur Toronto Lynx soccer club approached Hamilton in 2013 asking for exclusive rights to play out of Tim Hortons Field, as a semi-pro club playing in a U.S. league.

The city passed on the opportunity, instead extending the Ticats’ window of opportunity to line up a soccer club.

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