On Labour Day, over 200 Montreal Expos fans made pilgrimage to the Rogers Centre to watch the Blue Jays fall 4-0 to the Baltimore Orioles and, more importantly, pay tribute to their dearly departed Expos, now eight seasons gone from the MLB. Although the Expos ultimately departed from the city due to a combination of declining attendance, a poor stadium and some questionable team ownership decisions made by the MLB brass, there still exists a small, but devoted group of Expos fans. The city of Montreal has a long and rich baseball tradition, beginning with the minor league Montreal Royals who began play in 1897, and the success of the first 25 years of the Expos. Additionally former Expo Warren Cromartie, at a reunion of the 1981 team earlier in the year, expressed interest in assembling an ownership group who would bring top-flight baseball back to la belle province. In spite of the history and shows of support, are the factors in place in order to allow a revived team to succeed where the Expos failed, or is baseball returning to Montreal a pipe dream?
Montreal has all the makings of a city that should be able to support a major professional sports franchise. As of 2011, Montreal is the 15th largest metropolitan area in Canada and the USA, excluding the Riverside-San Bernardino area which is part of Greater LA, and the largest without a professional baseball team (source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_metropolitan_areas_by_population). Montreal is almost 2.5 times the size of the greater Milwaukee area, where baseball has thrived for many years. The median household income for Montreal is $36000 per year (source:http://www.tableaudebordmontreal.com/indicateurs/activiteeconomique/revenuperso.en.html), which would place them 24th in the MLB for per capita income (source: http://economicsinbaseball.blogspot.ca/2011/02/mlb-cities-and-median-houshold-income.html), above cities such as Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, St. Louis and Milwaukee. All of these cities but Cleveland have had new ballparks constructed since the turn of the century. Montreal ranks on roughly even footing with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, three teams which have experienced financial success over the past number of years. Although Montreal would be in the bottom third of per capita incomes in the league, they have a larger metro area than most of the teams below them in the per capita income rankings. Simply put, Montreal’s ranking in the lower third of median per capita incomes would be partially offset by their ranking in the middle of the pack for metropolitan area population.
A contributing factor to the failure of the Expos was the drastic decline in the value of the Canadian dollar in the early part of the 21st century. On September 29, 2004; the date on which the MLB officially announced the relocation of the Expos to Washington DC; the Canadian Dollar closed at a value of US$0.7875 (source: http://www.bankofcanada.ca/rates/exchange/10-year-lookup/), meaning that one Canadian Dollar was worth 22% less than an American one. A mere two and a half years earlier, the Canadian dollar closed at US$0.6179, a 40% markup and the lowest the exchange rate had ever reached. Consistently over the last decade of the team’s existence the exchange rate floated around the high 60 –low 70 cent range, meaning that the Expos; who collected their gate receipts, concessions and most of their merchandise payment in Canadian dollars; were placed at an immediate disadvantage in terms of spending power. Today, the Canadian dollar is worth more than the American dollar, and has floated around parity over the last half-decade. Although this better exchange rate would not be a magic solution to the financial problems that plagued the Expos, the more favourable exchange rate would allow the money that they collect to be turned into on-field talent.
The true death blow to the Expos came in 1998, when following the post-strike fire sale of talent; the team reached a new low of a 65-97 record. Their .401 winning percentage was the third lowest in club history, bested only by their expansion year and 1976, their last season at Jarry Park. From their inception in 1969 until 1998, the Expos had average a little under 19000 fans per game, not overwhelming numbers by far, but respectable. In 1998, the team had the lowest payroll in all of baseball and the ownership group bragged about how they were able to turn a profit. In 1999, attendance plummeted and when the talk of contraction began to take place, the team was never able to recover. Jeffrey Loria’s ham-fisted attempt to extract more money from English language broadcasters was an abject failure and he abandoned the team to purchase the Marlins. Under the three year ownership tenure of the rest of the MLB owners, the Expos were placed under a hard cap for payroll and no improvements were made to the roster or stadium. A poor on-field product, combined with overtures of contraction or relocation, resulted in poor attendance, making it easy to justify the team’s ultimate move to Washington.
New ownership for the Expos would need to resemble the old ownership group of the late 80s and early 90s, when the team was run by a consortium of local owners, including BCE, CR and Loblaw’s. In 2010, Bell had a net profit in excess of $2 billion. Given their move towards the purchase of content generators, evidenced by their recent purchase of a 37.5% share in MLSE; owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC and the Toronto Marlies, they would appear to be one of the frontrunners to buy a franchise should one return to Montreal. BMO, with a net profit of $3.2 billion and a valuation of $477 billion; CP, with a market value of $7 billion; the Molson family, owners of the Montreal Canadians and chairs of Molson-Coors; the Weston family, owners of Loblaw’s; and Saputo, Montreal based dairy giant and owners of the MLS’ Montreal Impact, also could enter the conversation for ownership. More than one of the mentioned groups would likely join the ownership team, so as to cut the very large costs of purchasing either an expansion franchise or another team, at a likely cost of $500-$600 million, plus the additional costs of building a new stadium.
Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Olympics and was wrought with problems from day one. Not even properly completed until 1987, the "retractable" roof tore, leaked, collapsed and was eventually closed for good in 1999. It was a 70s multipurpose stadium in every sense of the term, no luxury boxes or private suites, poor sight lines and a high upper deck. In spite of all these drawbacks, the Expos outdrew the Mets from 1977-83 and the Yankees in 1982 and 83. The Big O was viewed as a White Elephant by some; it took until 2006 for the special cigarette tax imposed by the provincial government to recoup the costs of building the stadium. Counting interest, repairs and renovations, Olympic Stadium cost over C$1.6 billion to construct, making it the second most expensive stadium of all time. During the final years of the Expos tenure, the stadium was poorly maintained, grimy with chipped, stained and soiled concrete. The poor venue maintenance, combined with the poor play of the team, made it easy for fans to stay away, despite the cheapest average ticket price in the majors for the last several years of the Expos tenure in Montreal.
The presence of the stadium debt stood in the way of attempts during the Expos tenure to build a new stadium. During the debate over a 1997 convertible stadium proposal, which would have stood two blocks from the Bell Centre, in the heart of downtown Montreal, then Premier Lucien Bouchard was quoted as saying "there's already a stadium in Montreal that cost a lot of money, and it's still not paid for", effectively ending the debate over the funding of the proposed venue. The chosen site for the then $225 million stadium is now a condominium complex. The stadium, which would have been located at the corner of Notre Dame and Mountain, would have been a 15 minute subway ride from the old city, half as long of a commute than to Olympic Stadium which is located in Olympic park, 35 minutes north of downtown on the subway. Although the original proposed location for the new stadium no longer is available, a stadium still could be constructed close to the downtown area, on St. Helen’s Island, near the Montreal Biosphere, an Aquatic complex and the site of the annual Montreal Grand Prix. Most importantly, this site would be a 15-20 minute subway ride from downtown and a 200 meter walk from the nearest station. St Helen’s island is also accessible via two bridges, in the north connecting to Papineau and south, connecting to downtown. With the stadium facing west, fans would be treated to a view of the Montreal skyline across the narrow stretch of river separating the island from the rest of the city.
Factoring in inflation, the stadium would cost $335 million to build today; approximately $100 million of the cost could be covered through the sale of seat licences, luxury boxes and advance season ticket packages. The sale of naming rights to the stadium could net another $40-$50 million. If the ownership group could be counted upon to contribute $100 million of their own finances, only $95 million would be required from government sources to complete the funding, a far more manageable amount than the final cost of Olympic Stadium, and funded in equal part by all three levels of government, would only cost $31.6 million per level, which could be recouped through bond issues, slight tax increases or a variety of other revenue sources.
Montreal has all the right pieces in place to be able to support an MLB franchise. A large metro area, combined with a population with enough disposable income to support a team, a history of baseball support, a cost effective plan for an accessible stadium which could be resurrected and enough potential, locally based owners to financially support the theoretical team. Montreal lost their team to a poor stadium, poor post-strike results and owners disinterested in putting a good product on the field without first getting their hands on a new stadium, a gambit which backfired on them. However, without a team in the league at the moment which is in serious financial or stadium based difficulty, there is little opportunity at the present time which would result in a quick move of a team back to Montreal. In the next decade, depending on the changing economic landscape of the sport, the aging of stadiums and the possibility of expansion to make each league 16 teams, the possibility may soon become an opportunity, and if an ownership group were to come into being, MLB could one day return to Montreal and allow baseball to right one of their worst wrongs of the past 15 years.