Sports  Return of the Expos may be closer than we think

Feasibility study: baseball in Montreal is viable

Few sports are as enamoured with marking milestones and dates as baseball; every home run is one closer to that magic number of 500, every hit is one closer to that rare number of 3,000, and every winter day passed is one closer to the fresh start of April. But for the remaining Montreal Expos fans, the most important upcoming date is March 28, 2014. On that day, baseball will return to Olympic Stadium for the first time since the Montreal Expos were infamously moved to Washington, D.C. in 2004, based on the idea that Washington could financially support a baseball team better than Montreal had. The only remaining Canadian team in Major League Baseball (MLB), the Toronto Blue Jays, will face the New York Mets in Montreal for their final two spring training games. Since the loss of the Expos franchise nearly a decade ago, there have been consistent calls for the team’s return, all to no avail. Yet, now the potential return of the team seems closer than ever.

Just one month ago the Montreal Baseball Project, in collaboration with Ernst & Young and the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, produced a feasibility study of the return of baseball to Montreal. The study concluded that the city could financially support a team and mapped out exactly what would be required to land one. It estimated that a total sum of $1.025 billion would be needed with roughly $350 million of it coming from government funding and the rest from a private investor. Half of that total would be put toward purchasing the team, and the other half would go to building a new stadium in downtown Montreal.

According to the study, the construction of a new stadium would be a necessity if baseball were to return. The Olympic Stadium was not an ideal location. It was too far from downtown, featured poor facilities, and lacked an authentic baseball atmosphere. Many believe that the lack of a passable stadium – leading to low attendance figures – was the primary reason why the team left in the first place.

Shortly following the release of the feasibility study, The Sports Network (TSN) 690 Radio released a speculative design for a new stadium. Their imagined stadium is located just outside the downtown core, bordering the St. Lawrence. It’s an open ballpark with no more than 36,000 seats, and the home plate faces out toward the river, meaning a long home run could conceivably land in the river (San Francisco-style) and that games could potentially be played in an April, or even hopefully October, snowfall. Pictures of the proposed stadium evoke a strong similarity to the beautiful PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

At first sight, the large amount of public money may appear problematic as many public stadium deals have not returned their investments, but the study estimates that the government would recover the amount spent after eight years, mostly through sales and income tax paid by players. The study also adds that over 22 years the government would stand to gross another $1 billion in tax revenue from the team. Not to mention the overall boost that the economy would receive from hosting 81 baseball games a year. This would go a long way toward justifying the initial sum that would be required from the taxpayer.

The biggest hurdle to jump in the project is a private firm stepping up with the remaining $675 million. No firm has committed to getting the process rolling, despite a reported 81 per cent of companies in the Montreal area supporting the idea of the team’s return.

One possibility however, and this is purely hypothetical, could be Montreal-based communications giant Bell Media. They are the largest communications firm in the country, and were ranked as Canada’s eighth most profitable publically traded company by The Globe and Mail last June. But, as the owner of TSN, Bell has seen its prospects for competitiveness in sports media substantially challenged since losing the Canadian broadcast rights to most National Hockey League (NHL) games. TSN is now left with the majority of National Basketball Association (NBA) games and the Canadian Football League (CFL), which are much less popular in Canada. Rogers’ Sportsnet also owns all the rights to the Blue Jays and the majority of other MLB games, but if Bell purchased a new baseball franchise for Montreal, it would give them exclusive rights to 162 games a year, a move that makes sense because it might become a necessary one to save TSN, and could keep them competitive with Rogers in the sports media field.

In a press release, president and founder of the Montreal Baseball Project Warren Cromartie said, “Baseball’s return to Montreal is definitely feasible […] keep in mind that Montreal is currently the largest market in North America without a Major League Baseball team.”

Despite forgetting that Mexico is part of North America, which has two cities substantially larger than Montreal, Cromartie’s point about size should be considered. Montreal is the largest market between the U.S. and Canada that does not have a baseball team, and this is in the day and age of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have been a perennial playoff contender since 2008, even with a tiny payroll, thanks in large part to their brilliant General Manager Andrew Friedman, but the team still sees incredibly low attendance figures year after year. In 2013, the Rays finished with a record of 92-71, made it to the American League Divisional Series, and still finished dead last in the majors in attendance. They averaged 1,000 fewer fans per game than the next lowest team. When a team is winning and the market isn’t responding, there appears to be a clear problem.

If the Rays were moved to Montreal it would not only replace a poor market with a larger, albeit still uncertain, one, but would also mean the creation of a new Toronto-Montreal rivalry by putting the Expos in the American League East with the Blue Jays. This rivalry was minimal before the Expos moved. The two teams were in different leagues and played only 43 total regular season games against one another over seven seasons, each one of those generally providing a strong boost to attendance.

As some of the pieces to the puzzle seemingly come together, the question of fan support remains prevalent. Would fans come out and support a new baseball team in Montreal? Early signs thus far have been positive. In a poll taken by Leger Marketing, 69 per cent of Quebecers said they were in favour of the Expos returning, and in September, just ten days after going on sale, 45,000 tickets to the spring training games in Montreal had been sold.

Attendance at the two Blue Jays games here will be a major factor for whether a return of the Expos takes the step from ‘theoretically practical’ to ‘in progress.’ If the majority of fans attending are just travelling Blue Jays fans eager for spring ball, it will not look good. But if a boisterous crowd of local Montrealers cram the seats for two meaningless March games played by two visiting teams in an old and run-down stadium, who knows. A great deal of things still have to happen, but many can be comforted in the realization that the return of the Expos may no longer be just a pipe dream.