The Montreal Expos left the city before the 2005 season amidst laughably low attendance and poor on-field production. A decade later, is the city ready for a re-do?
It’s been nearly 11 years. Nearly 11 long years since the Montreal Expos recorded their final home out in a loss to the Marlins on September 29, 2004… But for some it seems like it’s been nearly an eternity.
Many baseball fans probably wonder why. Why would a team that played in a bad ballpark for so long and was dead last in attendance with an average of 9,048 fans and a 19.5 percent stadium capacity as late as 2002 be so fondly remembered, to the point where there’s now an organized effort underway to bring Major League Baseball back to Quebec? For some reason, nostalgia does funny things to us, especially when it comes to baseball. So much of what is, and what surrounds, the game is steeped in tradition and nostalgia.
But make no mistake about it, the efforts of former Expos player Warren Cromartie and his Montreal Baseball Project isn’t some quaint campaign; it’s a coordinated effort backed by the business community in the city to show that Montreal is a viable home to an MLB franchise, and that conditions have even improved since the Expos’ departure in 2004. Make no mistake about it, too – people are listening.
In February, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times had a sit-down interview with new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred about a whole host of issues, including expansion and relocation. When asked specifically about relocation or expansion in terms of Montreal’s efforts, this is what he had to say.
“There has not been a lot of talk about expansion. In terms of internationalizing the game, North America, in terms of sustained international activity, is someplace we need to focus. Canada, Mexico, if we were going to think about it, those would be the kinds of places that I would be interested in.” – Rob Manfred to the Los Angeles Times, February 2015.
Manfred is certainly not taking Montreal off the table in that quote, but a lot needs to be done before any plans of another team there come to fruition.
Cromartie and his group believe that those hurdles can be overcome without too much stress in order to bring baseball back to the largest metropolitan area in North America without an MLB franchise. A feasibility study was published by Ernst & Young in December 2013 and stated that increased revenue sharing, a new state-of-the-art downtown ballpark, a stronger Canadian dollar, and more lucrative media deals can all lead to a different result a second time around.
With the record numbers that regional TV deals are bringing Major League teams these days, combined with the fact that Canadian media giants Rogers and Bell could compete for any English media rights, while Quebec media giant Quebecor could compete with Bell for any French language media rights, it becomes quickly apparent that even in terms of the media rights dollars alone, any potential return will look radically different (and potentially radically more lucrative) than in 2004.
But the ballpark is the $600 million question (or however many loonies and toonies it’ll take): Where would any Major League franchise play in Montreal with no current viable home? One would imagine that a state-of-the-art ballpark located downtown would be the best option, but as we all know, ironing out the political and financial details of such projects can be an uphill battle as high as the Canadian Rockies.
The 2013 study spent extensive time looking at Minnesota’s Target Field as a comparable example for a ballpark and the type of success that can be had when building that caliber of facility.
Despite the rash of details that need to be ironed out, the fans in Montreal who will be heading back to Stade Olympique on April 3rd and 4th for a two-game exhibition series between the Blue Jays and Reds won’t have to look far for proof that teams can return and thrive.
After leaving due to a weak Canadian dollar and lack of a viable arena in the works, the National Hockey League returned to Winnipeg after a 14-year absence. The combination of a modern arena, lucrative local and national TV deals, and a strong demand for tickets despite the fact that the team hasn’t played in a single playoff game since their relocation to the city has made the return venture a successful one for the NHL.
Only time will tell if we’ll see a similar comeback in la belle province.