Could MLB Really Return to Montreal?
The Toronto Blue Jays recently held two exhibition games in Montreal, Quebec against the Cincinnati Reds, drawing nearly 92,000 into Olympic Stadium.
The home of the Montreal Expos from 1977 until their move to Washington after the 2004 season, the stadium, built for the 1976 Summer Olympics, was considered an albatross. Throw in a shaky Canadian Dollar, a team run on the cheap and general apathy after the 1994 Strike and you can understand why relocation was an option.
Since Montreal was abandoned, however, there has been a large grassroots effort to return Major League Baseball to this jewel of a city. The Blue Jays have now played exhibition games in Montreal for two seasons, giving hope to those wanting baseball’s return.
If given a second chance, could Montreal and baseball work together?
Montreal would have a difficult time competing with such cities as Charlotte, Las Vegas or any other Southern city if MLB decides to go for another round of expansion soon. Aside from the astronomical fee any new ownership group would need to pay, a new stadium with public financing, multimedia backing and assurances that fans will show up this time will have to happen. There is a reason the last expansion team to come from the North was Toronto in 1977. It is very hard to put that financial package in place. Cities without pro sports teams are going to be more willing to throw enough money around to make it work. Remember, Montreal was burned financially by those 1976 Olympics, including a stadium that never worked as designed running millions over budget.
Good luck getting the city and Province of Quebec to fork over a half-billion for a stadium and infrastructure upgrades for a new team. The amount of private financing needed to make it worthwhile probably takes them out of the expansion race.
The door to baseball’s return to Montreal, however, is not closed.
Two current franchises are in dire need of new stadiums, Oakland and Tampa. Making the logistics work for the Athletics to move back East is tricky. Oakland has expressed a strong desire to stay in their own market, including a long legal entanglement with MLB and the San Francisco Giants to move to San Jose. In order for Montreal to be on Oakland’s radar, one would think the Bay Area, Portland and Las Vegas would all have to pass. The likelihood of that happening is next to none. Even if we reach that point, there would need to be another divisional realignment to move the Athletics to the American League East, shifting Kansas City to the West probably and an unwilling team out of the AL East.
That leaves us with Tampa, a team withering in St. Petersburg. For all that has been said and written about Montreal not being a good MLB market, Tampa has proved to be worse.
Toward the end of the Expos tenure, they were usually on the bottom of the National League attendance table. Even in 1993, before the strike with a 90-win team, they were 13th in attendance. From 1984 on, Montreal was never above eighth in the league at the gate, including two years they finished second in the NL East and the infamous 1994 season when they were considered the best team in baseball.
During the late 1970s, however, it was a different story. From 1979, when they barely lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, until 1983, when they finished third at 82-80, the Expos were third or fourth in attendance. They were followed and loved averaging from 26,000 to 28,650 a game.
What about Tampa, the team with an AL pennant and four playoff appearances in six years?
The Rays never broke ninth in attendance. In 2010, they averaged 23,025, good enough for that high watermark and missed the playoffs. Except their first season, when they finished seventh at the gate, the Rays have never drawn more than two million in attendance. In 2013, their last playoff season, Tampa finished dead last.
A bad stadium location, an answer given the most often why the Rays cannot draw, cannot be the only reason that baseball is ignored. Most cities would be thrilled to pull for a team with that kind of track record. Look at what Montreal pulled during their heyday.
All that, and St. Petersburg’s stubbornness to let the Rays out of their lease, makes Montreal a realistic relocation target.
In part two, we will look at what Montreal could do differently to make baseball fit like a glove.