Tag Archives: Pro Sports in Montréal

What a Night it Was


6:15 pm on a Friday night and Lionel-Groulx is busier than I’d expect. Throwback jerseys abound. Suburban knuckleheads on pilgrimage, smiles and high spirits all around.

The train arrives packed and we press ourselves in tightly, as though compelled by some invisible Tokyo subway platform attendant at rush hour. Squeezed in I find myself face to face with old friends and a common agenda.

Baseball. Lost opportunities. Nostalgia. Hope. Rebirth. Novelty.

Being there…

The Métro took it’s sweet time snaking it’s way through the tunnels of the city centre to Pie-Ix, pausing longer and longer as we slowly crossed the city, each time an increasingly agitated brakeman telling us, for the love of god, to let go of the antique mechanical doors that not a week ago nearly halved the head of some old woman.

It was slow and uncomfortable and no one cared. For the first time in a decade there was a baseball game to attend and that’s all that mattered.

Disembarking at Pie-IX I quickly lost track of my friends in the absolutely massive crowd surging its way to the stadium entrance. I had never seen the station ever look quite so busy, and a line stretched from the M̩tro turnstiles to the stadium and back again, pulsing to the beat of the Bucket Drummer. My heart sank Рwas this the line to get in?


We quickly learned that this was the now infamous will-call wait line, thousands strong and perhaps the single longest line of human beings I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My pace quickened. Tickets in hand we’d waltz right on in.

Walking into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is very much like stepping back in time. Almost immediately I noticed my cellphone reception was shot, and that the seething mass of vendor kiosks and food carts reminded me not so much of baseball as it did a kind of food court you’d find in the middle of an epically massive 1980s video game arcade. Pink and baby clue neon lights and harsh overhead lighting stands out in my mind. Oddly appropriate and cacophonous Techno music was playing in the background as an assorted gaggle of sports fans – many of whom wearing Alouettes and Montreal Canadiens jerseys and caps – slurped down overpriced poutine and pizza slices from carts seemingly shipped over from La Ronde.


Security guards and staff were decked out in clothing that must have been designed in the late-1980s and stored in boxes since the Expos’ folded. This, in conjunction with the overall retro aesthetic and lack of technology (no cellphone reception, no Interac, too few and generally outdated ATMs, antique scoreboards etc.) only re-enforced the strangeness of the situation. It was utterly bizarre.

I overcame the bewildering scene and propelled myself towards the upper deck seats behind home plate with my name on them. Moving swiftly through the bowels of the Big O comes naturally enough – the shape and size of the immense structure compels movement, the ramps almost make you want to run – it was apparent enough to all the children racing around.


When I get to the upper deck with my date we discussed whether we should grab our seats or get something to nosh on. We both had an admittedly absurd craving for a ballpark frank we knew we’d gladly pay a hefty sum for just to say we’ve had the experience of doing so. Eating a hotdog while watching an MLB game in the Big O.

Strike that off the ‘things to do in Montreal’ checklist…

Such occurrences are rare these days.

We decided to take our seats imagining there would be vendors working the bleachers, and besides, the game had already began. That’s why we came here after-all.


And not a moment later there I was watching something that hadn’t been seen in our city in just about a decade and I personally hadn’t witnessed in twenty-seven years. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan growing up, I preferred hockey, and later rugby. My interest in and appreciation of baseball came much later, and is nearly entirely as a consequence of the saga of the Montreal Expos as a franchise and the lasting impression the club (and to a greater extent the sport and the stadium) has had on our city.

Baseball in Montreal isn’t entirely about baseball. It’s about the city and its people.

Baseball is symbolic. Baseball is metaphor.

And resurrecting the Expos, long shot though it may be, has everything to do with people power and nothing to do with baseball as a business.

And yet, sitting there, one of 46,000 fans who filled the Big O on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project had succeeded at least in rounding first base as far as they’re own business case was concerned. They had proved that, ten years after the loss of the Expos, professional baseball could still draw significant interest in Montreal. Then they proved it again Saturday afternoon when 50,000 people showed up to the second part of the Jays-Mets pre-season double-header.


Think about it – what kind of a game was this? An exhibition game between the Jays and the Mets, with the ground crew sponsored by the Quebec Egg Council, at the stadium that’s always been ‘too far away’ to be of any use? A total no-frills affair of no real consequence for either ‘away’ team? Just this first step alone was a bit of a long-shot in its own right. The stadium looked like it had just been re-opened after being completely shuttered for the last decade; the back bleachers were dusty with old cigarette butts still lying where they had been extinguished underfoot decades past.

But none of these minor and major inconveniences mattered. Everyone was happy to be watching a ball game. The stadium was nearly full, and it has more than twice the capacity of any of the other major sports venues in our city. No one was bitching about politics, or even this year’s endless winter. The crowd was as diverse as the city, with fans cheering both teams despite the assumption we’d be rooting for the Blue Jays out of some kind of misguided patriotism. The most awkward moment of the night was doubtless the half-hearted attempt to get a bunch of Montrealers to sing the Blue Jays’ version of ‘take me out to the ball game’ but even though I find group sing-alongs fascistic in nature and couldn’t possibly cooperate the crowd was in one of those typically Montreal ‘anything goes’ moods and saved face by joining in at the end.


The game itself was great and provided plenty of excitement, but I can’t help but wonder how many spectators were thinking to themselves, pretty much all night, ‘how long will we have to wait until this happens again?’

After all, we don’t want to be teased, and Montrealers are sensitive enough as is.

What I saw on Friday night was step in the right direction and proof not only of baseball’s viability, but of the Olympic Stadium’s utility as well. I imagine the next step for Cromartie and the MBP will be to secure one or more regular season games to see if they can replicate their recent successes. From there planning would shift to next year and a set of exhibition and regular season games played at the Big O on a set schedule, say eight games over the span of four months to see if baseball can be sustained past the novelty stage. If all that works they’ll have much of their business case already made and all the evidence they need to support it before seriously starting the MLB-courtship, franchise-development and stadium design and financing stages.

So we shouldn’t get our hopes up we’ll see the Expos return any time soon, but I think it’s a safe bet we’ll see more baseball at the Big O in general.

My personal hope and desire is that the people in charge over at the RIO (Olympic installations board) get funding for minor aesthetic and functional improvements and do all they can to secure more sporting events at the Big O generally speaking. In a really ideal world some kind of a deal would be worked out to secure a set number of CFL and MLS games (with anticipated over-sized crowds), in addition to more exhibition and/or regular season MLB games and maybe even an NFL exhibition match too. Why not? It’s a sports venue, the people in charge of it should be in the business of ensuring it’s used for large-capacity sporting events.

The experience made me think the Big O could be the kind of ‘people’s stadium’ with local teams playing a few games each season at the Big O with heavily discounted tickets for the upper deck sections so as to encourage high attendance (and further ensure pro sports remains accessible to the people who have helped subsidize their development, both directly and indirectly.


On a closing note, two other things worth mentioning. First, when I ordered my franks I concluded the transaction in French, my mother tongue. The vendor, upon hearing my Anglophone accent decided to switch to English. I continue speaking French, to which he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you spoke English’.

I said I do, and that I speak French as well and I typically just go with whatever’s most instinctive at a given moment. I told him he should never apologize for being so accommodating, it’s far too stereotypically Canadian.

We shared a laugh.

Much later on, travelling back home on the Métro, I noticed the determined stride and Lupine-blue eyes of Gilles Duceppe leaving the crowded Métro train in a huff. I said, rather too excitedly, ‘hey look it’s Gilles Duceppe!’ to which the crowd responded with ‘ooohs’ and ‘awwws’, such as it is when local aristocracy tread too close to subterranean common-folk.

What a night it was…

Back to Baseball Basics

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.

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 11.07.04 PM

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.

Killed by Management, Revived by Fans?

The video above was recorded in April 2012, and features former Montreal Expos’ outfielder Warren Cromartie in a press conference, announcing the launch of the Montreal Baseball Project, something of a ‘fan-sourced’ effort to resurrect the defunct Montreal Expos baseball club.

Cromartie, also known to his adoring local fans as Cro, was a top-flight outfielder for the organization and was part of a triplet of excellent outfielders (including Andre Dawson) during the late 1970s that helped bring the club to the National League Championship in 1981. Those were very good years for Nos Amours.

Cro would later go on to become the most prominent American player in Japanese baseball history (not an easy feat – the Japanese are hardcore when it comes to baseball. He’s also jammed and befriended Canadian rock-band Rush, as he’s an accomplished drummer!). And not only that, he happens to be personally invested in bringing baseball back to Montreal, ideally as an MLB franchise. This is good news for local fans of the club, which was transferred to Washington D.C. (to be rechristened the Nationals) in 2004 after a multi-year slide into low attendance, dismal performance and a go-nowhere downtown ballpark project.

Bad press and bad management killed a highly competitive team that had entertained multiple generations of Montrealers; not ten years prior to their dissolution the team was positioned to make a pennant run, though the season and the city’s aspirations were cancelled by a strike. The 1994 Montreal Expos season was significant in that the Expos had the best team record in the entire league and had further sent five players to that year’s All-Star Game. It’s a bitter memory for die hard fans of the club, like the estimated 1,000 members of ‘Expos Nation’ who recently travelled to Toronto decked out in the Expos’ iconic colours and logo. Though ostensibly there to watch a Blue Jays game, they seemed more interested in making a case to MLB management – we want a team.

Now this is a nice idea, but how feasible is it?

And how do these social-media organized, fan-driven initiatives position a return of major league baseball to be as beneficial as possible not only to their own interest of having a local baseball franchise but to the city as well? Because ultimately the case has to be made to a wide spectrum of potentially interested parties at multiple levels (in sum, bringing the MLB to Montreal would require the city just to get all the pieces organized), and further still, we should be mindful of how we approach MLB higher-management.

That is, we cannot go hat-in-hand begging for a ball club.

Rather, I’d argue the best way to capitalize on current public sentiment towards the Expos is to be first to the finish line with a well-conceived business plan, because ultimately the Expos are a business and, if they work well, will subsequently begin generating revenue in this city in many indirect ways – namely through local small business stimulus, tourism stimulus and all the money generated from corporate entertainment and having another major venue in our city. Neither the city nor potential investors will pursue an idea that only extends as far as a Facebook page or a website, so those interested need to actually draft a physical document, making their case and providing the numbers for how they intend to make this work.

In sum, it’s a different conversation if there’s an actual plan in play.

And I’m not altogether averse to the idea that the city becomes the proprietor not only of the club, but possibly the ballpark too. With the right brains behind the project there’s no real reason why a rejuvenated ball club couldn’t be a money-making machine for the city – like a crown corporation at a municipal level. And ownership of the venue would be a plus for the same reason, it can generate revenue to pay itself off as a location for rock concerts, trade shows and just about anything else requiring a lot of surface space.

That said, I don’t know if a city has ever ‘owned’ their own team.

But I digress. Here are a few arguments I came up with in favour of returning Montreal to the Major League.

1. We already have a fan base to build off of, not to mention a name, a brilliant logo, team colours and a host of former players and members of the management interested in helping the cause.

2. We’re directly implicated in baseball’s history and have had pro baseball clubs since the Montreal Royals were founded in 1897. Ergo, we’re not really adding anything new, but rather, Montreal is getting back something it lost. This makes for a compelling marketing angle – one that no doubt already assisted the return of professional football to our city after a ten year absence with the resurrection of the Alouettes in 1996. That we’ve resurrected one professional sports team before should not go unnoticed, it’s not an easy thing to do. And fan support helped get the Als into the enviable position they’re in today, with the CFL’s longest running playoff appearance streak of all time. Suffice it to say, the Als work; our city already has a successful model for resurrecting a pro sports team.

3. We can save (a lot) on overhead costs and start-up capital by making use of existing facilities, and as it happens, we already have a multi-use sports stadium that’s been a bit of a ghost town since the Expos left. Another parallel with the Alouettes, who successfully rehabilitated Percival Molson Stadium in the mid-1990s (one of several large-scale renovation projects to occur during the decade). Molson Stadium had trees growing in it and was generally considered to be too small and inconveniently located. Today it works just fine. We should apply the same thinking to the proposed new Expos – at least initially, in my opinion, they should play at the Big O. I think the fact that we already have a stadium is a major selling point; the Big O’s purported structural instability is nothing but idiotic rumours we foolishly perpetuate as though to glorify our perceived demise as a city – the building’s fine (gulp, I think – we’d need multiple evaluations to be 110% certain), it just needs a better retractable roof design. Either way, a roof costs a lot less than a whole new stadium, and the Big O is perfectly located, as it stands between two Métro station, fed by numerous bus lines and major thoroughfares, and is well positioned within the larger transit scheme of the metropolitan region. The success of the Montreal Impact at the adjoining Saputo Stadium is another example of why the Big O’s location is not the reason the club went defunct (I think we’ve all heard this argument before).

4. The Montreal Expos have been making money for the MLB for nearly ten years after the team’s official abandonment. How? The Montreal Expos ballcap, featuring the iconic stylized ‘M’ logo, is still one of the best-selling pieces of officially licensed MLB merchandize. Now obviously baseball hats aren’t justification enough to win back a team, but it needs to be said anyways. It’s a good sign, at the very least.

5. Baseball in Montreal boils down to one key point: it’s fundamentally about giving Americans another reason to know we exist, to know who we are. I believe the Expos were victims of a society that happened to become very uncertain of its future, and as such lost some of its ambition and drive. We got caught up in the post-1995 Referendum economic and social malaise that plagued our city until just before the economic collapse of 2008. But I truly believe this ‘loss of nerves’ to be a temporary affliction, and resurrecting an MLB franchise would be a major coup for the local business community, if not the city as a whole. It’s not easy to bring something back from the dead, after all, and brining Montreal back into this community of North American cities and citizens would undeniably facilitate trade and economic development in our city. Whether we like it or not, Montreal is directly implicated in the economies of Canada and the United States. Playing the game gives us common ground, keeps us integrated, and demonstrates ours is an economy worth investing in.


And now, counterpoints.

One of the benefits of my new pad in Saint Henri is the long wooden backyard balcony that runs the length of several row houses. As such, the balcony is ‘shared’ in a sense by a dozen or so people, making it very conducive to striking up conversations with your neighbours. I recently discussed the potential of an Expos renaissance with my neighbour from two doors down, Austin Jalilvand. Here’s the Coles Notes version of some of the intriguing points he brought up.

He made the argument that we’re looking at a billion dollar project which must include a new, ideally downtown ball park. His argument against the Big O is that it was never designed to be used as a ball park, and that while it is located within a sprawling residential area it is not conveniently located close to the people who would most likely attend games.

Overhead perspective of aborted Labatt Park concept - not the work of the author
Overhead perspective of aborted Labatt Park concept – not the work of the author

A new MLB franchise, like all other pro sports teams, will make most of its bank through corporate boxes and other season-ticket holders, meaning a downtown ball park, located as close to the Central Business District as possible, is more ideal than a suburban location. Now while I wouldn’t call Pie-IX and Sherbrooke suburban, it is very residential and lacks the services required of a major entertainment venue – namely hotels, restaurants and bars. That said, given how little land downtown is available for development, any new ball park would likely still not be immediately adjacent to the aforementioned services, but at the very least would be within walking distance of all the CBD has to offer. Likely locations for a downtown ballpark, according to Austin, would be south of the densest part of the city (i.e Griffintown), though he conceded the best location (and the location chosen for the abortive Labatt Park) has since been developed into ETS and a condo complex. You need to go as far south as what was once Goose Village (currently known as the Montreal Technopole, along the edge of the water and the Bonaventure Expressway) before you find a similarly large empty plot of land, and by that point the stadium would be too far removed from the city to be convenient. Building a smaller stadium on a smaller plot of land would certainly help keep the new stadium looking full, but would necessitate renovations, expansions and possibly new construction later on.

Austin then mentioned an alternative location I had never considered before – Blue Bonnets.

The location of the former Hippodrome de Montréal has a variety of advantages. For one it’s a blank slate – nothing to preserve and enough space to get very creative in terms of design and size. It’s located on the Decarie Expressway, which links highways 40, 13 and 15 with the 720, 20 and 10. It’s also across the street from one of the (currently) least used stations in the entire Métro network, meaning the station could be modified with pedestrian tunnels built under the expressway to shuttle people to and from the ballpark without much inconvenience to the larger public transit scheme. Such a renovation would doubtless make Namur station more useful. It would likely later become a public transit hub of sorts; this is a location that serves public transit needs inasmuch as being exceptionally convenient from a motorist’s vantage point, and the grounds of the Hippodrome are sufficiently large enough to permit a massive, ideally subterranean, parking garage. The advantage here being that the parking garage of a sports stadium could also serve a ‘park-n-ride’ type initiative wherein suburban motorists can also use the garage to transfer onto the city’s public transit grid. From a traffic vantage point, Blue Bonnets is an enticing option.

Then there’s the fact that Blue Bonnets is in the middle of another large residential area, though this one (according to Austin) is where the bulk of our city’s Expos fans would reside. Geographically, Blue Bonnets is across the street from Cote-des-Neiges, the densest borough in the city, and adjacent to the affluent middle class communities of Cote St. Luc, Hampstead, Montreal West, the Town of Mount Royal, not to mention NDG and Saint-Laurent. I’d like to see a demographic breakdown of local baseball (and pro sports in general) fans to see if baseball is of greater interest to Anglophones, Allophones or Francophones, as that should be taken into consideration when choosing the location.

Another major advantage of the Blue Bonnets location is the diversity of zoning around the site (unlike the Big O, which is a self-contained entity amidst a massive collection of leisure, athletic and other entertainment facilities set in a large, mostly working class residential area), coupled with the malleability of the site as it currently exists. Unlike other potential downtown locations, or the Olympic Stadium, Blue Bonnets seems to offer the widest range of possibilities in terms of stadium design and how the new facility will interact with the existing built environment.

Austin also brought up some other points – hurdles if you will – that I hadn’t considered and I think we should be mindful of. Among others, that Montreal isn’t exactly the most enticing market for an MLB player given the high taxes, not to mention they’d be required to enrol their children in a french language school (though I have a feeling there’s some kind of exemption in this case).

That said, I don’t think these are insurmountable challenges – the bigger issue is pulling together the investors and other interested parties. And if we do go the course of building a new stadium (whether as a condition of getting a team or as something we do after a few trial years at the Big O), well, that’ll be the bulk of the cost right there. At least now, in the shadow of the Charbonneau Commission, perhaps total construction costs won’t include the usual bribes, kickbacks and other elements of ‘undocumented operational inflation’ that makes any big project unbelievably expensive. Building a new stadium now could be a victory in itself if we get it up ahead of schedule and under budget, and a nice morale-boost prior to the comeback of the team. Again, good multi-level marketing and PR.

In any event, a few things worth considering I think. My interest is pretty straightforward, if we do it right, we all benefit. It’s about ending investor malaise and facilitating new business; the game itself is very secondary when compared to the boost resurrecting the Expos might provide our business community and the city’s economic situation on the whole.


One last final point (I promise).

If we were to build a downtown ballpark and didn’t mind knocking down some old commercial buildings between the Bonaventure Expressway and Old Montreal, why not build here?

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The red square denotes the location of the Labatt Park project, which as you can see is now ETS and some condos. The blue square is a slightly smaller location bounded by Rue St-Maurice, Rue de Longueuil, William and Duke in the Quartier Internationale. Today it’s mostly a massive parking lot, though there are maybe a dozen century-old buildings of varying sizes, none of any particular patrimonial value (to my knowledge). It’s located between Griffintown, the Cité du Multimédia, Old Montreal and the Central Business District, and could be a central feature of the planned redevelopment of the Bonaventure Corridor as a new ‘southern entrance’ to the city. The main difficulty here would be building something that somehow manages to ‘fit’ this aesthetically diverse locale, and if possible somehow incorporating the existing buildings into the new stadium.

As far as downtown locations are concerned, I doubt we could do better. A stadium here could become a major pole of attraction, stimulating entertainment and hospitality services across a broad swath of the downtown, while further filling up ugly empty space.

Sewing a Stadium into the Urban Fabric

Conceptual rendering for
Labatt Park as it was planned in the late-1990s.

Kristian Gravenor commented recently on the perennial professional opinion that Montréal is a prime location for Major League Baseball expansion – apparently Keith Olbermann is a fan of baseball’s return to our fair city, thanks largely to the convincing data we have more than enough of an established fan base to support it. As though the enduring popularity of the Expos logo on baseball caps wasn’t enough of a reason…

Kristian proposes the location of Bridge and Mill in the former Goose Village neighbourhood (near the foot of the Victoria Bridge) as a potential location for the construction of a new ballpark to host what would become a reincarnation of the Expos.

I think his choice has some excellent advantages. He points out that it would be close to the site of the first professional baseball games played in our city back in the 1880s, and would likely aid in the revival of an otherwise forgotten and historic part of the urban tapestry. Other practical advantages include the site’s proximity to the Victoria, Champlain and Cartier bridges, the Bonaventure and Ville-Marie expressways and other major thoroughfares, such as Wellington, Charlevoix, Notre-Dame, St-Patrick and Rue de la Commune. While the closest Métro station is Lucien-L’Allier, it is but a bit further than the distance of Molson Stadium to Place-des-Arts (though is admittedly mostly uphill and through a light-industrial/construction zone, and not an exciting and rather stately residential zone) and STM shuttle buses could be used in the same manner as currently employed for Alouettes games. This site would necessitate the demolition of several light industrial buildings, and finding new locations for these enterprises so as to execute the necessary land acquisitions may present some problems. Alternatively, I suppose it would be better to construct on the south side of Bridge as the Costco could be re-located just about anywhere, though building here would potentially require re-designing the adjacent railway lines. All of this to say, it would be a compact, urban stadium.

Another advantage would be the integration of this ballpark into what will soon become an entirely new neighbourhood of medium-density condominiums extending south from the central business district all the way to the Victoria Bridge and the underused Montréal Technopark. If we somehow manage to avoid a market correction and can maintain steady residential development in this sector over the next couple decades, I think it’s only natural that this specific kind of residential expansion occurs. The area is blighted and simply put must be better used than it currently is. If it succeeds it will provide accommodation for thousands of middle and upper-middle income earners paying taxes directly to the city government and work to better integrate Pointe-St-Charles, Little Burgundy and the Cité-du-Havre into the public conception of urban living in Montréal. As it is these places are somewhat distinguished by their inaccessibility. A renewed Griffintown and Goose Village would do quite a bit to remove the physical barriers erected a half-century ago. And a new ballpark here would be a step in the right direction, possibly propelling the development of residential buildings and doubtless launching many new small enterprises, part of what the new neighbourhood will need to secure its long-term vitality.

But can we successfully re-launch a pro-sports franchise?

And what role does the stadium as lieu-de-mémoire and cultural landmark play in how a franchise is reborn?

Molson Stadium

In our city’s professional sporting history this would not be a first – the Alouettes are an excellent example of the successful rebirth of a local sports franchise, and location had a lot to do with it. A chance move to the Percival Molson Stadium in 1997 (as a result of a scheduling conflict with a U2 concert at the Olympic Stadium) resulted in a curious increase of fan interest, and the game sold out rather unexpectedly. Keep in mind that when the Als reformed in 1996 it had been twenty years since we had had a successful professional football team and their first few seasons in the late-1990s were abysmal. The move to Molson Stadium is credited in having solidified the fan base, which played no small part in the twelve year development of a powerhouse CFL franchise – they play Sunday, Bloody Sunday before every game in tribute before every game now, and the Alouettes

So it begs the question – what is it about Molson Stadium that makes it work so well?

The Alouettes played at Molson Stadium from the time of their inception until 1968, when they transferred to the Autostade, located just to the south of where Mr. Gravenor proposes. The Autostade was built for Expo 67 and was intended to be the home of the Montr̩al Expos, but they instead chose Jarry Park Рan excellent decision for that club as the proximity to large residential zones helped encourage early attendance. The Alouettes (along with the Expos) would both eventually move to the Olympic Stadium in 1976, and the Als had a few successful seasons there until the franchise eventually fell apart in 1986 after years of poor attendance and bad management. Conversely, at the time the Expos were doing rather well and attendance for their games was increasing.

The Autostade

I find this to be a fascinating point Рthe Expos were not necessarily undone by the location of their ballpark. For more than twenty years the Expos managed to have decent attendance, as did the Alouettes for a while, even though the Olympic Stadium was ill-suited for both needs and often appeared to be poorly-attended. The Olympic Stadium is located far closer to the geographic centre of the larger metropolitan area than the downtown core, and is connected to two M̩tro stations, not to mention the rather ample parking available at the site.

No, the Expos, much like the pre-1996 Alouettes, suffered and folded due to lack of interest as a consequence of poor marketing, bad management, disastrous trades and strikes beyond the team’s control. Regarding the stadium, it wasn’t so much the building’s location as the building’s unfair public perception as a White Elephant. Hardly motivating and bad for morale when coupled with losing seasons and the robbery of our 1994 Season.

It happens in pro-sports much like in life – teams are born and teams die.

In some very lucky instances teams are reborn, and this is my most sincere hope with regards to the Expos – pro sports are good for business and society because they boost morale while drawing people’s attention at an inter-urban level. In this respect it would be wise to see what we can learn from the histories of both the Expos and Alouettes to see what worked for them in the past.

The Alouettes currently have the smallest stadium in the CFL, and they sell it out every game. A strong fan base has emerged and the renovated and expanded stadium is one of the oldest professional sports venues in use today. There’s an element of the antique and the distinguished present at our mountainside stadium; it seems to emerge from Mount Royal into the bucolic expanses of Fletcher’s Field and Parc Jeanne-Mance. It lies at a crossroad between different neighbourhoods, be it the Quartier Ste-Famille, Milton-Park or the upper part oft he McGill University campus and is little more than a stone’s throw away from the Mile-End and the Main. It is a most peculiar stadium, used by and integrated into a large university and situated between two ancient and elegant hospitals and across the street from a telephone exchange and student ghetto.

De Lorimier Downs, circa 1933 – currently the location of Pierre Dupuy High School on Ontario at De Lorimier

Despite what I would consider an odd location (Molson Stadium was apparently in an advanced state of disrepair in 1997, with a tree growing through the north stands), the decision to go with a smaller and historically significant building over one which had already been largely derided in the public consciousness for its exorbitant costs proved immensely beneficial not just for the team but for the area surrounding it in general – it stimulates land value and supports local businesses. The proximity to the the hotels and restaurants of the urban core are particularly advantageous for the local corporate community and this is at least in part a reflection of the changing nature of professional sports as corporate reward and business facilitator. In many ways I feel the Bell Centre is at least partially successful for the same reason. The relocation of the Montreal Neurological Institute to the new MUHC Superhospital campus at the Glen Yards may lead to the redevelopment of their facilities at the western end of the stadium into a new and larger Molson Stadium (I can imagine restaurants, a University Street entrance, parking garage, team offices, new private boxes, training facilities and a broadcast centre integrated into the facility simply by repurposing the adjacent buildings).

This idea of going small and re-purposing an existing facility has worked out very well for the Alouettes in the long-run, but the Expos will have little choice but to build an entirely new facility. The Olympic Stadium should probably focus on being our city’s principle over-size capacity venue – not ideal for any one particular team or sport but somehow excellent in a pinch for a large expected turnout, such as during a play-off run. In this respect, the onus is really on the Régie des Installations Olympiques to re-conceptualize the purpose of the Big O in our urban environment. It’s already well on its way to simply being another massive multi-function leisure space, not that different from Parc Jean-Drapeau or Mount Royal Park, though it would be far more successful if not designed to be more-or-less self-contained.

I’m a big fan of Miller Park in Milwaukee, as it uses a novel convertible fan-shaped roof.

A new ballpark should probably be placed as close as humanly possible to our central business district to take advantage of access to Métro stations, hotels, restaurants and local nightlife. Further, it should seek to occupy as much otherwise unused land as possible. Kristian’s proposal is a good one, but I wonder if there isn’t a location somewhat closer to the city to take advantage of that would result in fewer demolitions.

I’d counter-propose two other potential locations – either building over the Ville-Marie Expressway between St-Laurent and Hotel-de-Ville, in which otherwise wasted space could be put to better use, the venue would have access to three different Métro stations and a prestige address on the Main. Or, located between Duke, St-Henri, William and St-Maurice on the edge of Old Montréal and the International Quarter. This latter location would require the demolition of several small buildings but the quadrilateral is currently primarily a parking lot. A tunnel could link this location to Square-Victoria station and the Réso.

In both of these cases a stadium would quite literally be sewn into the urban fabric, providing a new anchor of activity in a well-connected and well-used area. The Bridge Street location could help that area develop, but that’s a little more chancy if condo developments don’t progress as we’d like. Regardless of the location, I think we’d be wise to design a compact throw-back design, such as Miller Park or Camden Yards (the developers of which were also involved in the rehabilitation of Molson Stadium) and that’s one reason I’d propose inserting a new ballpark into an existing, older part of the urban core. I’m particularly keen on the St-Laurent site because, as it stands right now, the highway is unsightly and serves as a rather unfortunate blemish. An old-styled ballpark here with a working retractable roof would be an amazing addition to the city-scape, and potentially allow for another large-capacity venue right in the heart of the city.

In any event, its still all up in the air, but on a closing note I would love to see an architecturally adventurous stadium that uses its ability to draw people together to pull disparate neighbourhoods into a more cohesive overall urban plan.

Food for thought. I wonder if street meat is the precursor to or result of downtown ballpark construction…