Monday, March 31, 2014

Montreal Still a Longshot to Host an MLB Team

   For Expos fans, of which there still apparently are many, this past weekend of exhibition games, tributes, and reunions was heavenly.
   Over 90 000 fans crammed ageing Olympic Stadium (there were concerns that more than 3 cm of snow would have put one or more games in jeopardy, thanks to the sagging roof) for the final pair of preseason tilts for the Blue Jays against the Mets.
  And while there is a growing sentiment that since MLB has no expansion plans for the near or distant future, Montreal should seek a current franchise for relocation, like the Tampa Bay Rays, it's hard to see that happening.
   While shifting the Rays to Montreal would create a rivalry not just with the Blue Jays, but the Yankees and Red Sox (who have thousands of fans making the trek to Toronto every year) as well, the chances of Montreal ever hosting a major league team again are slim at best.
   Two related factors would weigh heavily against MLB ever granting Montreal a franchise again.  One would have to be a suitable stadium.  The Big Owe can hold 45 000, but it is not, nor was it ever really ever a great facility for baseball.  We visited the park in 2002, and judging from the state of the place, it would take a major retrofit just to get it up to MLB standards in terms of parking, washrooms, and concessions. And with the park pushing 40 years of age, it's become very outdated in this day and age of retro parks full of corporate suites. At best, it could be used for 2-3 years while a new one gets built.
   In order to get a stadium built, a local ownership group is needed.  A recent study proposed a downtown site, but would need about $750 million (out a $1 billion price tag) of private funding to get built. And there just aren't many potential candidates with that kind of finances in Montreal.  The Molson family purchased the Canadiens back from American businessman George Gillette in 2009, so it's doubtful they would have the resources to fund a major league team.  Bell has corporate headquarters in Montreal, and sponsor the building in which the Habs play, but they already jointly own 75% of MLSE with Rogers.  Transportation giant Bombardier is based there as well, but they do not appear interested in being players in the franchise-owning game. Quebecor, the powerful media conglomerate, has backed attempts to build a new arena in Quebec City in the hopes of bringing the NHL back to the provincial capital.  They might represent the best hope to purchase a franchise and move it (a ball club might be a great marketing tool, in the manner of Rogers with the Jays), but there has been no indication yet that they're interested.  The Saputo family is one of the top 10 producers of dairy products in the world, and are based in Montreal, but are heavily involved with the Impact of the MLS.  Otherwise, there aren't any other large corporations headquartered there.  It would likely take a consortium of corporate interests to assets to purchase an existing team and build a new stadium
   And let's not forget that despite this past weekend's love-in, there's the lingering memory of the dwindling crowds the Expos drew after the 1994 strike, as they failed to exceed the 1 million fan mark every year from 1998-2004. When then-owner Jeffery Loria failed to secure public financing for a proposed downtown stadium site, the club fell into sharp decline, and after no local ownership could be found, major league baseball operated the club on a shoestring for its final years.  What's to say that after an initial honeymoon period after acquiring the Rays, the same thing doesn't happen again ? Attendance could easily drop again, even with a contending team.  The Stadium is old, and it's not that accessible.
  So, unfortunately, there will be no MLB team for Montreal until a suitable stadium is built (or approved to be) by a deep-pocketed owner, who will have to rely on considerable provincial government funding in an unpredictable political environment.
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