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Expos at the Big O, circa 1990
Expos at the Big O, circa 1990

There’s been a bit of buzz lately concerning both the future of the Olympic Stadium and the possible return of the Montreal Expos, two of my favourite subjects, incidentally. There’s a lot of information floating around so I figured I’d try to reign it all in, so to speak.

First, as to the Expos, the news is that a lobby group called the Montreal Baseball Project, led by former Expo Warren Cromartie, has released a feasibility study conducted by Ernst & Young, and with the support of the Montreal Board of Trade. Their opinion, based on the study’s results, is that a return of Major League Baseball (herein MLB) is indeed feasible.

As Mr. Cromartie puts it, baseball needs two things to survive: history and numbers. I’m in total agreement as to the historical component – baseball has been a popular pastime and spectator sport in our city for well over a hundred years. The sport itself is derived from traditional games played in the United Kingdom (namely, rounders and cricket) and, given our city’s proximity to the United States and our shared cultural experience with the Northeastern States in particular, it should come as no surprise that baseball has significant historical roots here. The more recent history is perhaps the most significant. Montreal is where Jackie Robinson, the first African American to break the ‘colour-barrier’ in the MLB got his start. We are the city of Canada’s first MLB team, the Montreal Expos, and for most of the team’s life they played in a futuristic and comparatively massive indoor stadium, perhaps the single most unique stadium in MLB history.

We made a run on the pennant in 1981 and fielded perhaps our greatest ever team in the tragically abridged 1994 season, the one many Montrealers still honestly believe we would have won.

According to Mr. Cromartie, we now have the numbers too. The whole project is estimated to cost over a billion dollars, of which about half would be to acquire an existing MLB franchise (the Tampa Bay Rays are rumoured to be the preferred pick, given their poor performance and financial issues in that city), while the other half builds a new baseball stadium somewhere ‘within two kilometres of downtown Montreal’. A 36,000-seat capacity stadium would be required and the report indicates favouring the Fenway Park (home of the Boston Red Sox) model (which is to say about the same capacity and integrated into the urban environment). Locations currently being studied include the Wellington Basin, the Montreal Children’s Hospital and a parcel of land adjacent to the Bonaventure Expressway. The existing Olympic Stadium (former home of the Montreal Expos) and the old Blue Bonnets site are also being considered.

Key to the success of this plan is that the public chips in $335 million, which according to the findings of the report will be paid back to the (assumedly) provincial government within eight years. Further, the report indicates projected tax revenue, largely from the salaries of the players, over the course of the next twenty-two years.

If this is accurate, as sports writer and broadcaster Dave Kauffman put it, all governments should get into the stadium-building business. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in our own city with regards to the Olympic Stadium, this sometimes doesn’t quite work out and winds up costing the taxpayers a ridiculous sum (i.e. the billion dollars already spent by Quebec taxpayers on the existing stadium which formerly hosted an MLB franchise for 28 years).

But assuming that this report is accurate, is there really a market for baseball in our city, today?

I’m of the opinion that there can be a market for just about everything, the question is how well it’s marketed.

Permanence is the real issue – how do you get the team to stay? How is interest maintained?

Montreal benefits from two particular pro-sports success stories. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the Montreal Canadiens, the single most successful professional ice-hockey club in the entire world and one of the most successful pro-sport franchises of all time. The second, and perhaps a bit less obvious example, would be the Montreal Alouettes. The Alouettes prove that a pro-sport franchise can be resurrected successfully in Montreal, and further still that 1) downtown stadiums don’t necessarily have to be ‘downtown’ and 2) that recycling an old stadium helps engage the public with the historical aspects of the team.

In sum, people like ‘getting their history back’.

Both the Als and the Habs play up their history as part of their respective ‘raisons-d’etres’ (an admittedly ridiculous and self-fulfilling premise; “we’ve been around for a long time, and thus that’s why we’re here and you need to like us” – but who cares how silly it is, it works more often than not); the resurrected Expos could do the same for the same purposes, and this, in conjunction with the rush of enthusiasm sure to greet any professional club, would sustain interest at least for a little while.

But neither the province nor the city can get into the business of running a ball club, and if this project starts losing steam in a few years, neither should bail out the team. The team is the business, and thus it is their business to market the hell out of the themselves, popularize the sport locally, ingratiate the public by getting heavily involved in philanthropic pursuits and form the necessary strategic corporate partnerships to alleviate as much of the burden as possible from the taxpayers. In other words, it’s going to take more than simply promising to repay the start-up capital in eight years to truly gain the public’s support.

In addition to certain public-confidence-winning efforts I already mentioned, I would argue strongly in favour of provisions, such as for the creation of a trust financed through a portion of ticket and concession sales, which could in turn be used to support various public initiatives. This $335 million investment would be a lot more palatable if what it produces eventually gives back to the people that made it happen in the first place. If an ‘Expos Trust’ was able to finance specialist medical equipment for a hospital, or provides for the construction of a new homeless shelter, or finances the creation of a school, the potential fan base increases. Moreover, civic engagement with the team increases too, and that’s good for all interested parties.

Though this report is encouraging, there are still many obstacles in the way.

The first and perhaps most challenging will be determining which public will be making the ‘public investment’ this whole plan is predicated upon. Since this team will play in Montreal, and the stadium will be located in Montreal, and the majority of spectators will be either Montrealers or people who live in the region of Greater Montreal, it’s only fair that we come up with a somewhat significant portion of this money. Getting all Québec taxpayers to finance this project is inappropriate. I would even argue in favour of a temporary tax increase for people living in any community that is part of the agglomeration council, since we’ll be the ones to benefit most directly from this initiative. If the provincial and federal governments would like to chip in that’s fine too, but it may be in everyone’s best interest that the city have a more direct stake in the stadium. Perhaps the city could derive additional revenue streams if it was directly responsible for start-up capital, I think it’s worth investigating.

Second is choosing a location for the new ballpark. I think we can strike off Blue Bonnets for distance and the congestion it might cause on the Décarie Expressway, and I don’t think the Montreal Children’s Hospital site is remotely large enough for a baseball stadium (unless it was one really innovative stadium design). The Labatt Park proposal from 15 years ago was to be located on a site roughly three times as large as the MCH site, so unless there was a plan to expropriate Cabot Square and radically redesign the whole Atwater area I can’t imagine this location working out. I have a feeling the new stadium will end up just south of the ‘downtown’, but the Wellington Basin seems to be perhaps a bit too far south.

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By contrast, there is at least one spot along the Bonaventure Expressway I think would work quite well, outlined in blue above. Outlined in red is the space that was allocated to the construction of the proposed Labatt Park, so you can see they’re somewhat similar sizes of land. I like this location for several reasons. First and foremost it’s without question a downtown ballpark, and could be linked up to the RÉSO by means of extending the tunnel that connects to the Tour de la Bourse. Second it’s close to major transit and transport arteries, everything from Gare Centrale to the proposed ‘southern entrance’, the Orange Line of the Métro, the Underground City etc. Third, and depending on how it’s designed, it could bridge the gap between the Cité des Multimédias, the International Quarter, Old Montreal and the reborn Griffintown. In sum, there’s a lot going on in this area and it would take up space currently used for a parking lot, which is always a winner in my books.

All this said, I think the Montreal Baseball Project should be open to using the Olympic Stadium at least for a while as it drums up interest. We should start with exhibition games and move forward from there, but we shouldn’t wait until the stadium is built to field a team. The Alouettes used the Big O while Molson Stadium was being renovated for their explicit use, so why not follow their lead. Furthermore, if the Expos work out some kind of deal with the STM (again, much like the Als have), then special shuttle buses could help make the Big O a lot more ‘accessible’ than it currently is.

I realize as I’m writing this that I don’t have any space to write about the Big O and its potential future, so I’ll save that for another post.

Until then, just remember these key facts in case you need to debunk any of the popular theories surrounding the Expos. This is a city of naysayers, and I think both Mr. Cromartie and the MBP have a point to be made, but I don’t want them to be drowned out by what effectively amounts to little more than low morale.

1. Baseball ‘works’ in Montreal and has ‘worked’ here for more years than not. The Expos have been gone for a decade, this is true, but they existed for 35 years prior to that. Before them the Montreal Royals existed from 1897-1917 and then again from 1928 to 1960. Ergo, the ‘gaps’ without baseball average about a decade and since 1897 we’ve only been without baseball in this city for 30 out of 116 years.

2. The Big O is not ‘too far away’. While it would definitely be more ideal to have a ballpark centrally located in our downtown core, the Big O is close to the centre of the region of Greater Montreal, sits atop a Métro line (and provides access to two stations) and is well served by surrounding boulevards, tunnels and bridges. If it needs to be used temporarily, the STM can help make it work. Further, it’s not ‘too far’ for fans of the Montreal Impact, whose stadium is literally next door, or for the many tens of thousands of people who visit the Botanical Gardens, Olympic Pool or Biodome. Further still, I believe the Big O offers far better parking options.

3. We lost the Expos due to bad management and taking the fans for granted, not because there’s no love for baseball here. Even the protracted dispute over Labatt Park didn’t sink the club (but putting so many eggs in an undeliverable basket didn’t help).

Anyways, that’s where I’ll end. Looking forward to seeing how this one plays out, no pun intended. Apparently both Mayor Coderre and Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron support the project, as they’ve no doubt considered the potential economic stimulus and spin-off.

But as they say, you need to spend money to make it.