06 June 2014

Time for Major League Baseball to Return to Montréal?

“Le baseball peut sauver Montréal” screamed the headline of the Sports section of the 28 March 2014 edition of La Presse, one of Canada’s top 10 newspapers, and the only one with a growing weekly circulation.

“Baseball can save Montréal.

The paper was quoting Warren Cromartie, a versatile outfielder who played with the original Montréal Expos, who has been vocal in generating enthusiasm for a return of Major League Baseball to Montréal.  And Cromartie has not been alone.

On the weekend the full-page news article appeared, not one, but two Major League Baseball games were played at Montreal’s Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium) as the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets for a two-game exhibition series. It was  the first time MLB baseball had been played in Québec since the Montreal Expos left town ten years earlier.

Was there interest in Francophone Québec for this stereotypically “American” sport?

To quote reporter David Lengel of The Guardian,

“Beer was poured, hot dogs were steamed (buns toasted), and programs were sold. Fans, legions of them, cheered home runs, booed errors and gasped at great defensive plays, heckling in both English and French…Montreal was a Major League Baseball city for the first time since its franchise picked up and relocated to Washington DC 10 years ago.” 

The numbers?  More than 96,000 Canadian fans turned out for two games.  They chanted, “Let’s go Expos!” and “We want baseball!”

For comparison purposes, that’s just about the equivalent of two complete sell-outs of the entire 50,000-seat-strong new Yankee Stadium. The average attendance at Boston Red Sox games so far in 2014 has been 36,000; for Seattle, 22,500; for Tampa Bay, just 18,000. The number of fans at the Blue Jays-Mets games was astounding.

 Once upon a time, Montréal had an MLB team in the Expos.  In fact, they were home to the very first MLB franchise located outside of the United States.   

Montréal seemed to burst on the scene in the 1960s. The 1967 World's Fair, called Expo 67 was hailed as a success, and the city subsequently won the bid for the 1976 Summer Olympics and then unveiled a new subway system, the Métro. This was all capped by winning of one of the four MLB expansion franchises awarded 1969.

While they had a long and slow growth period, the Expos had achieved the best record in Major League Baseball (74–40), when the 1994 players’ strike suddenly ended the season.  The strike dragged on through the fall, forcing the cancellation of the playoffs and the World Series. Shut out of their best season to date, the strike damaged the Expos' campaign for a new stadium, and the local ownership group chose not to invest additional funds to retain the team's best players. 

In fact, they did the opposite:During the 1994–1995 offseason, owner Claude Brochu instructed general manager Kevin Malone to conduct a “fire sale” of their players: ties with their major stars were severed, players were released as Free Agents, and others traded away. Game attendance dropped to under 20,000, and Malone resigned in October 1995, saying "I'm in the building business, not in the dismantling business."   Subsequent years found the owners engaged in head-scratching gambits such as having the Canadian team play games in Puerto Rico.

On September 29, 2004, the date of Montreal's last home game of the season, MLB announced that the Montreal franchise would move to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season, and the team was reborn as the Washington Nationals.

Nonetheless, Montréalers have never stopped hoping for the return of a team, and they made their feelings known this past spring.

Basic sports economics would support the notion that Montréal is ripe for another team:  the largest source of revenue for Major League Baseball teams are local media broadcast revenues, the majority of which stay with (and enrich) the home team; this is why baseball teams are always located in large media markets like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, and never in media-poor cities hosting NFL teams like Green Bay and Nashville.

Montreal is currently the largest North American media market without a major league baseball team.

Andrew Zimbalist, prolific author and my sports economics colleague 20 minutes down the road at Smith College, agrees.  Interviewed by La Presse, and asked if a Montréal team could be viable, he stated (and this is my translation; original French appears at the end of this blog post),

“For me, there is no doubt. If Montréal possessed a good stadium, it would work. I don’t see why not – there is no longer a serious devaluation of the Canadian dollar against the American, which contributed to the Expos departure in 2004.”

Cromartie and others have started an actual internet campaign to generate momentum for a team, with a website at Montreal Baseball Project and a Facebook Page  .

But does that mean moving the Nationals back, or shuffling the hapless Rays or the Cleveland Indians (currently possessing the poorest attendance records in MLB) to Canada? 

Not necessarily.

In a May 16 article in Sporting News, Jesse Spector of  Sporting News  argued for expansion to 32 teams.

 “With 32 teams, it would be possible to go to four divisions of eight teams each. The playoffs could then place a heavier emphasis on divisional rivalries, with the second- and third-place teams in each division squaring off in one-game wild card playoffs, then facing the division winners….Why wouldn’t a division of the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays and Expos 2.0 work?  The time is right for the move from 30 teams to 32.”


*”Pour moi, il n’ya pas de doute. Si Montréal possède un bon stade, c’est un marché positif. Je ne vois pas pourquoi pas non plus d’une possible dévaluation du dollar canadien par rapport à la devise américaine, ce qui avait contribué au départ des Expos en 2004. »


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