An MLB return to Montreal?

Montreal Expos logoNamed after the Expo 67 World’s Fair, The Montreal Expos (French: Les Expos de Montréal) were a Major League Baseball team located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, from 1969 through 2004, holding the first MLB franchise awarded outside the United States. After the 2004 season, MLB moved the Expos to Washington, D.C. and renamed them the Nationals.

The Expos started play at Jarry Park Stadium under manager Gene Mauch. The team’s initial majority owner was Charles Bronfman, a major shareholder in Seagram. Following the 1976 Summer Olympics, starting in 1977 the team’s home venue was Montreal’s Olympic Carter and the ExposStadium. After a decade of losing seasons, the team won 95 games in 1979, finishing second in the National League East. The Expos began the 1980s with a core group of young players, including catcher Gary Carter, outfielders Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, third baseman Tim Wallach, and pitchers Steve Rogers and Bill Gullickson. The team won its only division championship in the strike-shortened split season of 1981, ending its season with a 3 games to 2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

Pedro and FelipeIn May 1992, Felipe Alou, a longtime member of the Expos organization since 1976, was promoted to field manager, becoming the first Dominican-born manager in MLB history.  Alou would become the leader in Expos games managed while guiding the team to winning records, including 1994, when the Expos, led by a talented group of players including Larry Walker, Moisés Alou, Marquis Grissom and Pedro Martínez, had the best record in the major leagues until the strike forced the cancellation of the remainder of the season. After the disappointment of 1994, Expos management began shedding its key players, and the team’s fan suppoPedro Export dwindled. Brochu sold control of the team to Jeffrey Loria in 1999, but Loria failed to close on a plan to build a new downtown ballpark, and did not reach an agreement on television and English radio broadcast contracts for the 2000 season, reducing the team’s media coverage.

In November 2001, MLB’s owners voted 28–2 to contract by two teams—according to various sources, the Expos and the Minnesota Twins, both of which reportedly voted against contraction.  However, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, operator of Minnesota’s Metrodome, received an injunction requiring the Twins to play in the Metrodome during 2002, so MLB could not eliminate the Expos alone while preserving its 162-game schedule. In December, the Boston Red Sox accepted a purchase bid from a group led by John W. Henry, owner of the Florida Marlins, and so Henry sold the Marlins to Loria, and MLB bought the Expos from Loria. In the collective bargaining agreement signed with the players association in August 2002, contraction was prohibited through to the end of the contract in 2006.

Pete Rose Expo

On September 29, 2004, the date of Montreal’s last home game of the season, MLB announced that the Montreal franchise would move to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season.The Expos played their final game on October 3, 2004 at Shea Stadium, losing by a score of 8–1 against the New York Mets, the same opponent that the Expos first faced at its start, 35 years earlier. The Washington team was named the Washington Nationals, and retained all the Expos’ records, player contracts, and minor league affiliates, as well as their spring training complex in Viera, Florida.

The rebirth of the Montreal Expos might look like this: a relocated ball club bought for $525 million playing in the American League East, its new home a $500-million open-air downtown stadium, an average attendance sitting at roughly 28,000 keeping it healthy.

The Hawk ExpoThat’s the vision described by Ernst and Young in a feasibility study conducted for the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal and the Montreal Baseball Project, concluding that a new team “would be financially viable under a set of realistic assumptions, including a modest but competitive payroll.”

The findings were unveiled Thursday and a copy of the impressively thorough 62-page report was forwarded to Major League Baseball, where officials were reviewing it. Last month, commissioner Bud Selig said “I am paying close attention to it, it’s great,” when asked about the study.

Big Unit ExpoStill, by no means is a return of “Nos Amours” to La Belle Province imminent – far from it actually – but the document offers a potential starting point for the pursuit of a team, and a baseball-only venue to house it.

“What we’re looking for in the next weeks is to see if the private sector is up to the task,” Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the board of trade, said in an interview.

That this is being discussed seriously at all as the 10th anniversary of the Expos’ departure to Washington nears is remarkable, underlining exactly how much the environment has changed in a decade.

As the study notes, the business of baseball is much different now with increased revenue sharing among owners plus new revenue from national TV deals, advanced media and merchandising, not to mention a much stronger Canadian dollar, which ranged from 62-84 cents against the American dollar from 1994-2004 (the study is based on exchange rate at par but adds a decline to 90 cents “shows little impact on the viability of the study”).

Plus, the metropolitan Montreal area’s population of 3.8 million makes it the 15th largest market in North America, and the biggest without a baseball team.

Montreal Expos Canadiens

Those and other factors – like an ownership that won’t alienate the fan-base – led the study’s authors to draw a parallel between a new team and stadium in Montreal and the Minnesota Twins and Target Field, describing both as “a good model” for the endeavour.

Both franchises were once pegged for contraction by Major League Baseball, but a new stadium and better business conditions have helped the Twins become stable and profitable. The same could happen for a new team in Montreal under similar circumstances.

Some of the key numbers underpinning the viability of a new club include the $525 million purchase fee, based on various valuations and conversations with eight current clubs to test ideas, the $500 million cost of an open-air stadium (a retractable roof adds $150-$180 million to the price) and an average paid attendance of 28,742 with a season-ticket base of 60 percent.

To anyone who remembers the dismal crowds in the Expos’ final years, those last figures seem particularly ambitious, but Leblanc says “Ernst and Young experts are convinced that number is realistic for Montreal.”

An online survey conducted by Groupe Leger of 1,589 Quebecers (with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percent) and a telephone poll of representatives from 392 Montreal-based corporations gave credence to those projections, predicting an average attendance of 27,600-31,600 with a willingness to pay $25-$75 for tickets.

Expo farewell

Additionally, 69 percent of Quebecers favoured baseball’s return to Montreal while 11 percent were opposed, 81 percent of businesses approved and 24 percent of businesses expressed interested in buying advertising, along with season tickets.

A downtown stadium near the corporate core is key to that, explained Leblanc, a lifeline the Expos couldn’t tap into because of the inconvenience of getting to Olympic Stadium.

Funding for the entire project would be a hybrid of private and public funds and a baseball-only venue is crucial because the study notes that Major League Baseball “has made it clear that a team returning to play at the Olympic Stadium would not be acceptable.”

The study envisions the club’s owners contributing 67 percent of the projected $1.025 billion cost to buy a team and build a ballpark, with governments providing the remaining 33 percent, while retaining ownership of the facility.

How the government receives the study will be worth watching.

Leblanc said preliminary discussions with various levels of government urged him “to do the work thoroughly” and then “they said, ‘We’ll look at this seriously.’”

Still, the plan is to start with business engagement before pursuing the political track and finally, trying to work with Major League Baseball. Leblanc explains the plan is to put every step in place progressively and for the moment, “we’ve got more homework to do.”

“We need to have a project that unites Montrealers and Quebecers in a positive way,” he added. “We want this to be something that gives Montreal some oomph.”

All those various pieces must be in place to get baseball officials onside, something that must happen since the stadium plans and the team acquisition must go hand in hand. No one’s building a baseball-only stadium without a real commitment.

There is no shortage of people in baseball who’d like to see it happen, and super-agent Scott Boras weighed in Wednesday at the winter meetings, naming New Jersey and Montreal as two possible homes for teams.

“I think Montreal would be a tremendous environment for baseball,” he told reporters. “I remember in 1994 — when you look at the attendance rates and the Canadian rivalry in baseball, I really think baseball was in a good place. Players enjoyed playing there. It’s a beautiful city.”

Last month, Blue Jays president Paul Beeston told Sportsnet that he’d “love to see baseball back in Montreal. It’s good for us, it’s good for Canada and the fans would really love it.”

Canada Day 1997

Later he added, “The timing has to be right – if a team wants to leave, OK, or the league wants to expand. To be honest, 30 isn’t the ideal number of teams, 32 is a much better number. Because you play every day, 32 would really make it nice. And Montreal is a big market and a great city, it’s a world-class city and it’s got a history of baseball.”

The Blue Jays will play a pair of spring games against the New York Mets in March, the first action at Olympic Stadium since the Expos’ 9-1 loss to the Marlins on Sept. 29, 2004. It will be yet another chance to spur the process along.

“We heard about those comments (from Beeston) and were happy to hear the positive signals from him,” said Leblanc. “The two spring games are a great opportunity for Montrealers to show their love for baseball.”

The goal of having a team of their own once again remains way, way off in the distance, but maybe the feasibility study is the guide that helps get them there.

Hmmm… sleep with one eye open Tampa Bay Rays fans.

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