Making Baseball Work in Montreal
The City of Montreal would like you to know they are ready for Major League Baseball to return.
With the help of the Toronto Blue Jays, huge crowds filled Olympic Stadium the last two exhibition seasons to watch the Jays play the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds. Fans of the old Expos will remind you Montreal is the lone market where a team has left and not had another team stay or replaced since 1901. Seattle, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington all lost teams over the years to see clubs either move or expand back into those markets.
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how realistic Montreal’s chances were through either expansion or relocation. This article will examine, if given a second chance, how the team and city can make a new bond work.
A proud fan base eager to prove doubters from New York to Miami wrong, any team choosing to call Montreal home will start as heroes. What experts will watch for is how that relationship builds after the first few seasons. An expansion group or ownership bringing an existing team North will be ahead of the curve if they follow this plan:
Build A New Stadium- What may seem the most obvious step in baseball’s return to Montreal may be the hardest.
When converted to baseball after the 1976 Summer Olympics, Olympic Stadium promised to be a state-of-the-art ballpark with the first retractable roof and sightlines for a new generation of fans ready to spread out after eight seasons in quaint Jarry Park. Instead, Olympic Stadium will go down as one of the worst stadiums ever built. The roof never retracted. When they finally had the roof installed, there was no air-conditioning and the sight lines were awful. With bad food and a sterile experience of watching a game from inside a subway station, Stade Olympique has to be a one-season choice at most for any new team.
What kind of replacement stadium is built will largely be whatever the new ownership wants to build. Public money from Montreal and the Province of Quebec will be limited. A retractable roof stadium will cost more than $500 million. Multipurpose stadiums are a relic and getting help on an open-air baseball-only stadium will be easier than a domed replacement.
If they can play outside in Minnesota in April, they can play in Montreal. Sure it will be cold, but spending $100-300 million extra to avoid two weeks of cold weather is silly.
The American League East is Your Friend- Although the leading assumption is Tampa being the team most probable to relocate to Montreal, the market remains a logical choice if the Oakland Athletics cannot find a new stadium out West or whether someone forks over the expansion fee if MLB expands again.
One of the many things hurting the Expos before they moved was a lack of a high-drawing rival in the National League East. While some would love the chance to show the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins leaving Quebec was wrong, the natural rivals in Toronto, New York with the Yankees and nearby Boston would ensure 27-30 home dates a year against familiar teams that will draw well. Wins against those teams will tighten the bond between the city and team and keep fans streaming in for games against Kansas City or Houston.
Embrace Quebec- When the Expos were born in 1969, they were Canada’s first non-NHL major pro sports team. This time around, the Blue Jays are the national team leaving a full market of people who dislike all-things Toronto willing to become fans.
A unique city more reminiscent of Europe than North America, Montreal and Quebec are unabashedly proud of their distinct French heritage. Although an ownership group based in Quebec understands that, a team that moves may not. Encourage the players to learn the language and be part of one of the better cities in North America. Understand this new squad will never be as popular as the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, but be willing to collaborate with them and learn why they own the market.
The Habs are not rivals. Watch how Boston has formed partnerships and friendships between their pro teams and do the same. The front office needs to be fluent in French and having a manager and a few players comfortable in the language will not hurt.
Depending on where the stadium goes and how much room they have, a concern in an older city like Montreal, the team will need to integrate with their neighborhood. Whether it is a good after-game bar and food experience or postgame concerts, promoting the brand name of the team is as important as the games, especially when the team is largely unknown.
Negotiate A Smart Television Package- Television is a bit more complicated up North than here. Besides tighter regulations on how channels are allocated, the country’s sports packages are owned by either Rogers or Bell, both telecommunications giants. Rogers owns the Blue Jays and rights to all English-language Canadiens games. Bell has regional French rights to the Habs. If Bell won the baseball rights for English TSN and French RDS, where would baseball fit against the more powerful Canadiens? The ideal would be the two teams working together, but with Rogers owning the Jays, would regulators step in ensure competition? Although the regular season barely overlaps, and playoff hockey games will. How does television protect the baseball team when Quebec’s focus is elsewhere?
In addition, ownership has to put games on free television. There does not need to be 80-100 games on, but a package of games on either CBC/SRC or CTV/TVA not competing directly against the Stanley Cup Playoffs will build fans. Having 15-20 games a year on for anyone wanting to watch will draw casual fans. Televising those games in French is a must, but an English package will draw fans watching on the American side of the border. Those fans will come to Montreal to watch and spend money.
Do Not Be Cheap- Among the list of grievances killing the Expos in Montreal was the lack of effort to keep any good player developed by their minor league system. Stars such as Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker and Pedro Martinez moved on before they could cash in on the growing payrolls of the last 30 years. You can understand why fans would show frustration and apathy for a franchise refusing to invest in their product.
If indeed the Tampa Rays come to Quebec, they cannot run the team up North the way they did in Florida. If there is a modern team most like the Expos, it is indeed the Rays, shipping off pitchers and players before they hit free agency. Montreal will support a good team, but any effort to return to the days when the club ran on a shoestring budget and the new club will lose their fans.
No one is suggesting any team in Montreal should match the spending of the Boston Red Sox and Yankees, but ensuring those breaking in with Montreal have a chance of staying in the city or taking a chance on an expensive free agent will go a long way proving the team is willing to compete. The Expos were never truly competitive in the Wild Card era after 1994. Now, there are two Wild Cards. Look at what the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals achieved by taking risks.
Effort goes a long way keeping fans happy.
Fans Need to Keep Their End of Bargain- If an ownership group can bring a team to Montreal, spend close to a billion dollars in a stadium and infrastructure while fielding a team competing for a playoff spot on a regular basis, the seats need to be filled.
For a variety of reasons, fans stopped showing to Olympic Stadium from 1984 on. The team never finished above eighth in NL attendance after 1983, including their close call in 1993 in making the playoffs and the magical 1994 season. Sure, the team was treated badly by ownership and by MLB, but it is difficult convincing prospective free agents to play in front of half-empty stadiums. Hard to justify ticket prices being too expensive as an excuse when one could get above home plate seats in 1988 for $4 at the door when comparable seats ran $10 elsewhere.
Any new team will need to draw around 25-30,000 a night. A new stadium with a smaller capacity and better seating will help, but when you consider payroll, what Montreal and Quebec will spend along with the cost of the stadium, we are talking a one-billion dollar investment.
The honeymoon will wear off. Sometimes, the team will play badly and not be as entertaining. It rains in Quebec. The Stanley Cup is on. All excuses to stay home. This time, it cannot happen. If the Rays do leave Tampa, the fans of Montreal cannot give ownership the same experience. They have to come out.
From their years in the International League, remember Jackie Robinson made his minor league debut with the Montreal Royals, through this season’s Blue Jays games, Montreal has shown it is a good baseball market. If you give people a reason to watch, they will. For someone willing to take the risk, the rewards awaiting are deeper than money. The market is worth the investment.