Montreal has ways to go before Expos can return

In December a consortium of Montreal businesses came out with a market study that suggests Quebec’s largest city would be a suitable location for an MLB franchise. The study shows that the City would be a middle-tier club in many important commercial aspects.

In theory these findings give Montreal an edge over alternative expansion/relocation markets such as Charlotte, Portland, and Las Vegas.

But Montreal will have to overcome something that none of these other markets will have to – the failures of their past. Like the Winnipeg Jets have proved to the NHL, Montreal must show MLB why it would be a stable host for a franchise, while also demonstrating why things will be different this time around.

Here is a look at the study and two largest obstacles Montreal must overcome if they hope to rejoin the MLB fraternity.

THE STUDY

Stephen Bronfman, son of original Expos owner Charles Bronfman, is the head of the consortium of businesses that released this study.

“The data we’ve collected will greatly assists us with achieving our ultimate goal of bringing the MLB back to Montreal in an exciting, successful and sustainable way,” Bronfman said last week.

The study involved collecting data from 20 minute interviews, with 14,000 fans and business leaders. And the results demonstrate that Montreal would rank in the middle of Major League Baseball’s 27 markets.

The study found that Montreal would rank:

  • 15th out of 27 in metropolitan population size
  • 18th out of 27 in median household income
  • 19th out of 27 in terms of corporations with annual sales of at least $5 million and at least 25 employees

All this information must be taken with a grain of salt, as the people providing us with this data have the most to gain from a return of a MLB team. But even so, the above statistics cannot be denied and they demonstrate that Montreal – in theory – should have a mid-market MLB club.

But the problem is Montreal has always – in theory – been a good market, so what would be different this time?

THE STADIUM 

When recently speaking about a new stadium, Bronfman said he would like it to be a “Jarry Park 2.0.” This statement might raise some eyebrows for those who know the sorted history of the Expos first home ballpark.

The first time MLB granted Montreal a franchise in 1967, there was not a clear short or long term stadium plan. Due to lukewarm corporate backing and vague implied political support, the Expos were almost relocated (to Buffalo) before they even played their first game.

The parallels between the birth of Montreal’s first franchise in the 1960s and the current attempt to bring the team back are concerning.

In the 1960s the team did not have a clearcut stadium plan. There had been the understanding that the new MLB team would play in the multipurpose Autostade. Serious renovations were done to turn the Expos ’67 stadium, into a functional 37,000 seat venue.

But that plan fell through as the cost to add a roof, along with the fee the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes were asking for, made the price too steep. Running out of time and desperate to find a place to play, Bronfman and City planners turned to Jarry Park, which was just that a “park.”

Sportsnet contributor and Expos enthusiast, Jonah Keri described the chaos in which Jarry Park was made in his book Up, Up, & Away.

“With Montreal’s bid down to its last licks, (Montreal Mayor Jean) Drapeau and company would need to convince Major League Baseball that a 3,000-seat amateur ballfield could be converted into a big league – quality stadium – with 10 times the capacity, better lighting, workable clubhouses, concessions, scoreboards, and everything else – in just eight months.”

Although the stadium was built and the franchise was granted – Jarry Park was never more than a public park ballfield that had additional bleachers added.

The move to Olympic Stadium was delayed from 1972 to 1977 due to construction issues, and would not be completed with a roof until 1982.

The current Bronfman-led group needs to have a clearer plan than the first Expos group did. It has been 14-years and the League has a new Commissioner, but the memories of Montreal’s stadium drama is still fresh in the collective memory of the League.

The new Montreal group has discussed the Peel Basin as a possible option for a new stadium and Bronfman has reached out to Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante.

In a December 13 tweet Legault wrote, “Good meeting with Stephen Bronfman to discuss the possible return of Major League Baseball in Montreal.”

But as the Tampa Bay Rays have recently learnt, a stadium proposal, with supposed political backing is not a concrete plan.

In April 2015, Rob Manfred said, “I do think it’s important for Montreal to have a firm plan as to how they would get to a major-league facility, a site, a financing plan and the like in place.”

If the MLB comes knocking soon, Montreal must have a better plan than – “we’ll play in Olympic Stadium until we figure things out.” The League will not tolerate another Jarry Park debocle.

CONTINUED FAN SUPPORT 

Since 2014, Olympic Stadium has seen large crowds turnout for two annual Toronto Blue Jays exhibition games. With almost 300,000 fans showing up for 6 games between 2014-16, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred took notice, and said the fan support was “very positive thing.”

Attendance for Blue Jays Spring Training games at Olympic Stadium

2014: 96,350                                                                                                                    2015: 96,545                                                                                                                      2016: 106,102                                                                                                                  2017: 95,382                                                                                                                      2018: 51,151

But the crowd dwindled to 51,151 in 2018. This was the first time the games had been played on a weekday and the stark drop off in attendance may raise some concerns.

What percentage of these massive crowds from 2014-2017 were Montreal based fans that would support a MLB team on a regular basis?

Let’s say these crowds were made up of half out of town Expos fans and Blue Jays fans. Is the fact that the Montreal-based fans were not able to fill the stadium a concern?

An average crowd of 25,575 fans would certainly be a sustainable number for a MLB team (would have ranked 20th in 2018), and would be a significant improvement over the Tampa Bay Rays 14,523 average attendance last year. But these games are an annual event and the League must consider if even this number is sustainable over 81 home games.

At the Rays 2018 season opener they had 31,042 fans, and since Opening Day is a similar once-a-year event, the comparisons don’t look great for Montrealers.

The study commissioned by Bronfman’s group shows that Montreal on paper is an ideal market for a MLB team but during the last decade of the Expos (1994-2004) it was also in theory a “good market.” The Montreal Group will need to clearly demonstrate how the issues with attendance will be different moving forward.

Another problem Montreal has is that the City does not have a professional baseball team. Charlotte, Portland, and Las Vegas all have minor league teams (although Portland’s is in the suburb of Hillsboro).

One of the advantages Montreal had during their first bid for a MLB team was the recent success of the Montreal Royals. But flash forward to 2018 and the baseball culture in City seems to be solely based off of Expos Nostalgia from decades past.

Montrealers must pack Olympic Stadium again this March, and show that even during the week this is a fanbase that will not be deterred. The City has a hurdle that none of the other relocation/expansion candidates have, which is they must overcome the stigma of being a failed MLB market.

Montreal must show that they are more than just a better market than Tampa and Oakland, they must prove – what the study seems to suggest – that they can be a suitable long-term home for the League.

When and where MLB decides to relocate or expanded to is unclear, but Montreal should be at the top of the list. If the City has a politically backed stadium plan and a strong, ignited fanbase at that time than the choice will be that much clearer for the League.

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A graduate of Centennial's Sport Journalism program. Grew up a Montreal Expos fan but now focus on my hometown Blue Jays. Have been blogging about the Jays and Canadian Baseball since 2015.

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