Ottawa has had football teams since the 1870s, including the Canadian Rugby Union champions in 1898, 1900 and 1902. The name Rough Riders was acquired in 1898. A Hamilton newspaper took exception to their rugged, ungentlemanly play in a game against the locals and tagged them with the descriptor "rough riders," a reference to Teddy Roosevelt's regiment's charge up San Juan Hill in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. The team alternated playing in the Ontario and Quebec Rugby Unions until 1907, when it joined Montréal, Toronto and Hamilton in the Interprovincial Union, commonly known as the Big Four. As a result of a merger with the St Bridget's club, the team was known as the Senators when it won the Grey Cup in 1925 and 1926. The Rough Riders name returned for the 1927 season and remained until the demise of the team after the 1996 season.

The Rough Riders returned to the Dominion final in 1939, 1940, 1948 and 1951, defeating Toronto Balmy Beach and Saskatchewan respectively in 1940 and 1951. Coach Frank Clair and quarterback Russ Jackson, probably the greatest Canadian ever to play that position, took Ottawa to Grey Cups in 1960, 1966, 1968 and 1969, losing only to Saskatchewan in 1966. In 1973 Jack Gotta coached the Riders to another Cup victory and his successor George Brancato won the championship in 1976 and lost to Edmonton in 1981.

During the 1980s, a succession of coaches and general managers was unable to produce a winning team. In 1989, Jo-Anne Polak was hired as general manager, the first female general manager in major professional sports. Serious financial difficulties brought about by poor on-field results led the community ownership to disband halfway through the 1991 season. The CFL took over operations of the team, and after uncertain terms of ownership under Detroit businessman Bernie Glieberman and Horn Chen the team was disbanded after the 1996 season.

Ottawa was without a franchise in the Canadian Football League from 1997 to 2002 until a new team, the Ottawa Renegades, joined the CFL. However, the Renegades disbanded in 2006 and Ottawa did not have a professional football team until the ​Ottawa Redblacks began playing in 2014. The Redblacks won the Grey Cup in 2016.