It's getting harder and harder to ignore the rumblings. Something seems to be happening with baseball in Montreal.
Over a decade has passed since Major League Baseball left Montreal for good, brought low by a sequence of inept owners—including, at the end, Major League Baseball itself—a non-supportive media and business community and an indifferent fan base. Once rabid public support, which some say rivalled the Montreal Canadiens in popularity at one point, was terminal by the turn of the century, thanks to years of mediocrity, labour disputes, drama, dashed hopes, and a crappy, crumbling stadium. On September 28, 2004, the Expos slunk out of town for Washington, DC, never to return.
But some other team could.
For Montreal baseball boosters, the prospect of MLB returning here has never been brighter, mostly because many of the factors that contributed to the Expos' demise have been addressed and, in many cases, fixed. However, there are a number of things that need to be sorted out before one meaningful pitch is thrown in this town.
Montreal Isn't Even a 'Baseball Town'
Other than for some die-hards and media types, it isn't. But as Montreal-born, Denver-based baseball writer Jonah Keri, author of a kickass book about the Expos, says, that doesn't matter. "The average Montrealer doesn't give a crap, but neither do most people in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago," he says. "The point is to have a big enough base to make it work."
He thinks a base of 20,000 season-ticket holders would stabilize the franchise enough to give it some legs, to make it viable enough to sustain in the long-term.
But a new stadium and teal wouldn't just be offering Montrealers a chance to catch a ball game on a Friday night. It would anchor a whole slate of entertainment options.
Owners are realizing that any new stadium has to come with an accompanying entertainment district. See the LA Live complex next door to Staples Center. Other cities are catching on: there's the soon-to-be-completed and awfully named The Ford Center at the Star in Dallas, the District Detroit, the Battery at the SunTrust Park in Atlanta—hell, even Edmonton is getting in on the act, with the Ice District going up next to the new Rogers Place.
There's no reason why Montreal would build a stadium in isolation, like they did in 1976. That would be idiotic. Most baseball watchers speculate that the best place for a new stadium would be the Peel Basin, a generally neglected light industrial area just west of Old Montreal and south of downtown that has the space to add spinoff buildings and facilities.
That kind of investment—estimated cost would be minimum a billion dollars to purchase a team and get a stadium built—would be just peaches to a lot of people, beginning with Montreal's mayor, Denis Coderre, whose "Montreal is back" has become an at-times unconvincing mantra of his.
(A cynic might add that the city's notorious construction industry would love to see a new baseball stadium project too, for all the wrong reasons.)
Keri says having a new park and entertainment district would—if done properly—change the whole aura around baseball in the city. By the time the Expos left, he says, going to see a game at the Big O was "an uncool thing to do. It was like, 'You're an Expos fan? That's for suckers.'"
So is Montreal a baseball town? Not yet. But there's no reason it couldn't be.
Nostalgia is Big Right Now
According to Montreal radio host (TSN 690) and baseball lover Mitch Melnick, demand for baseball has been quietly growing over the past few years as Montrealers have hit that decade-in-the-making nostalgia. And that, he says, began with the death of beloved Expos catcher Gary Carter in 2012.
Carter, Melnick says, "was as big as anybody for that era. He was the face of the franchise. He was the number one sports figure in the early 80s.
His death tapped "deep feelings and emotion that people had put aside. And people realized how much they missed baseball."
Those feelings and emotions were made manifest, at least in part, during the two exhibition series played at the Olympic Stadium in 2014 and 2015. Both two-game series drew tens of thousands of paying fans, enough to impress MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Attendance for the two games planned for this spring—featuring the Toronto Blue Jays and the Quebec-raised Russell Martin—is expected to top 100,000.
The next step is to convince him to host a three- or four-game regular season series; something that Coderre says is a possibility at some point.
Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has also been working the nostalgia angle, organizing reunions and celebrations of past seminal Expos teams via his Montreal Baseball Project. And on Tuesday night, the MLB network aired its (William Shatner-narrated!) documentary The Colorful Montreal Expos.
Montreal Has the Money
Getting a team here won't be cheap. It's expected to cost something like $500-million for expansion or relocation fees, and another half-bil to build a new stadium.
But the good news is, other than extremely well-heeled investors, like Stephen Bronfman, son of former Expos owner Charles Bronfman, there are also huge Canadian telecom companies around today that are looking for content for their all-sports networks. Bell's TSN and RDS have been around for a long time, but Rogers Sportsnet and Quebecor's TVA Sports are major players now as well. Bell, which lost the NHL to Rogers and TVA for the next dozen years, would probably be hungriest. Concordia University marketing profesor Bruno Delorme, who specializes in sports business, says owning the team you're carrying is logical from a business perspective.
"Sports, like news, is appointment television—you want to watch it live," he says. "Baseball games constitute content, and games cost very little to produce. Whereas you have to pay, say, a million dollars at least for a half-hour episode of Two and Half Men or whatever."
Also, MLB's revenue sharing model has dramatically altered the financial landscape, making it much easier for small to medium-market teams to pay for quality talent. "The money from national TV contracts is out of this world," he says.
He's not kidding. MLB is reaping in crazy amounts of money from national TV rights alone—a total $12.4-billion until 2021. That money is split between all 30 MLB teams. Add on local TV rights, (the Dodgers inked a deal worth $7-billion over 25 years) plus the gate and concessions, and you'll see money is flowing.
Melnick says one of the problems with the Expos was an ownership group—and not just the hated Jeffrey Loria/David Samson duo—that botched the business end of the franchise. He doesn't think that would happen today.
"There were a few too many dinosaurs back in the day," he says, "people with no vision, no balls.
"Now, there's a new generation of business types who are really plugged in and understand how much money can be made." Most of it through media rights, but also through licensing and strong merchandising sales. Baseball is doing very, very well—and the people interested in bringing it back to Montreal are convinced it will do well here too.
Can Baseball and Montreal Come to an Agreement?
Bringing baseball to Montreal isn't as easy as "writing a big fat cheque," says Keri. "You have to look at the mechanism. Will it be relocation or expansion? And if it's expansion, where will the second team be? Because you need a second team to balance things out. So who else is there besides Montreal? Sheboygan, Wisconsin? No. So it could be a while."
Nevertheless, for guys like Matthew Ross, the founder of fan site ExposNation.com, the future is looking, if not rosy, then at least better than it was ten years ago. Among his fellow die-hard fans, the mood, he says, "is very cautiously optimistic."
Montreal will still need convincing, and a lot of it. I suggested as much to Ross, adding that the low turnout at the end of the Expos' history was the result of fans simply saying "fuck it," and never looking back.
Ross agrees. "There have been so many 'Fuck it' moments," he says. "In '91, a concrete chunk of the stadium fell off. In '94, when the Expos were the best team in baseball, you had the strike. Attendance the next year dropped by 20 per cent, and that never recovered. In '96 they got rid of Moises Alou. In '97, they traded Pedro. It's really remarkable you'd ever get 20,000 people out to a game, because no one gave a shit." He pauses. "It's not like there wasn't a passion. But people just didn't want to get hurt."
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