Will Baseball Return to Montreal?

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The recent news of the induction of Tim Raines into the National Baseball Hall of Fame has brought with it a resurgence of the sentiment that baseball should consider a return to Montreal. Raines played most of the prime years of his fabulous career with the Montreal Expos, so naturally the concept of bringing the team back to Major League Baseball was certain to follow.

The topic is an interesting one because it is both simple yet complicated, both sentimental yet practical, all at the same time. Montreal is the second largest city in Canada in terms of population and it has the capability to support an MLB franchise. The most difficult component of building a successful sports team in a new market is to grow a loyal fan base.

It makes sense when you think of this concept in terms of a business: a restaurant without diners cannot stay in business, a store without loyal shoppers cannot stay open; it is the same idea in sports: the team needs fans to stay profitable. The decision rests with the MLB owners and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (pictured above) to make that determination.

In the case of baseball and Montreal they have a built in fan base from the years that the Expos called the city their home (1969-2004). They have a history and an identity in the community and they have the nostalgia of players like Raines, Gary Carter, Rusty Staub, Tim Wallach, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero.

Those unique aspects of a prior historical context make an expansion or relocation bid for Montreal very sensible. The hurdles to the bid are still significant to overcome, most notably, the team would need a place to play their regular season games.

The Toronto Blue Jays have played exhibition games in Montreal over the past few years and they have drawn huge crowds to the old Olympic Stadium. This is what made the MLB offices in New York take notice regarding the potential revival of the Expos.

There is a market for baseball there in Montreal that will not draw 50,000 fans per night to a regular season game, but could sustain 20 to 25,000 fans on an average attendance basis. That type of average attendance number would be a very solid figure when compared to other teams in current markets in the league.

The league office has already stated that if Montreal were to get a franchise again it would have to play in a new stadium. The economics of baseball today at that level would make playing at Olympic Stadium for any length of time beyond a one or two year temporary arrangement until the new stadium is operational an untenable situation.

The new stadium and the bringing in a team to Montreal is a minimum investment of $1 billion. That is because the expansion/relocation fee that MLB would assess the ownership group for the franchise would be about $500 million and the stadium would cost about $500 million.

The stadium concept would probably be on the smaller side for an MLB facility because the feasibility studies that I saw that potential Montreal groups conducted for baseball are based on a 35,000 seat capacity stadium. That will also help to keep the cost of the facility around that $500 to $550 million mark.

The money and the private financing is available (it is doubtful that any public funds would be used for the stadium project) because of the example of Labatt Park. That was, for those who do not know, the name of a proposed privately financed project in Montreal to build a new baseball stadium for the Expos back when they were originally playing in the city.

The project was eventually cancelled (it is a long story) and the team was moved to Washington, D.C. and became the Nationals. The project surrounding Labatt Park is known by some as the best ballpark that was never built. It serves in this context to prove that Montreal has the capability to finance a new facility for a new big league team without the use of public funds.

The sports writers who specialize in this topic have suggested that a future potential baseball stadium project would most assuredly be part of a much larger real estate development plan. The area noted as a potential site for this development could be the Peel Basin neighborhood which could benefit from a revitalization.

The next baseball stadium for Montreal should they find a way to get a team back again, would be the centerpiece of a complex similar to L.A. Live, the planned downtown development project in Detroit, and the future home of the L.A. Rams and Chargers in Inglewood the “NFL District”. These stadiums are just one component in a much larger development project which generally includes retail, dining, hotel, commercial office space, and entertainment offerings.

The future of professional sports venues is this type of broader real estate development project. The municipal governments gain more ratable tax revenue from that type of project than for simply having a stadium built which will only provide revenue on days when events are held. These types of projects also will provide jobs in a variety of industries, which politically always looks good.

The stadium project and associated development of an entertainment district around it, whether it is in Peel Basin or another part of the city is not the issue. The political and business community have the willingness to undertake this type of project.

The Expos logo and associated merchandise still is sold on MLBShop.com and other websites. That demonstrates that the fan base and the nostalgia for the history of the team still has traction, so that is not the issue.

The issue that remains the main sticking point is the pathway or the mechanism to get a team back into the Montreal marketplace. The expansion of MLB is not something that will happen overnight, they expand the league less frequently than the other “Big Four” major league sports combined.

The expansion route is further complicated because it is unlikely that MLB would expand by just one team, it would create 31 teams and an unbalanced number of franchises. The more likely scenario would be to expand by two franchises, but there are not that many viable candidates for MLB expansion beyond Montreal at this point.

The expansion case could be made for a market like Charlotte, the largest city south of New York without an MLB team, and it would bridge the geographic gap between Washington D.C. and Atlanta for the league. That market would work if it were placed in the American League so they would not compete with the Braves or Nationals directly. That would allow for the Expos to join the National League East once again, which makes sense. It would also place Charlotte in the AL East with tons of games against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles where Charlotte has a large component of the population by way of transplantation from those Northeast area cities.

The other potential option, but more of a longshot, is Portland, Oregon which finished as the runner up to Washington in the process to get the relocated Expos franchise, as strange as all of that now appears. The demographics there are more supportive for an MLB team than other potential candidates. The major issue at this point for Portland, is that after they lost out on the relocation of the Expos, they converted the baseball stadium completely to support soccer.

The city was successful in gaining an MLS expansion team, the Portland Timbers, and the market is very supportive of soccer. The Timbers sell out all of their matches and that would create a scenario for MLB similar to the current situation in Seattle where the Mariners are typically struggling for attendance, while the Sounders MLS team is selling out the gigantic CenturyLink Field for soccer matches.

The sticking point for Portland would be the need for a stadium to be built from the ground up, which there is limited political and public willingness to utilize taxpayer funds for that sort of project. The logistics of that project would take a protracted amount of time and there is no temporary stadium option for the team in the interim.

The only other pathway would be to gain a franchise for Montreal through relocation, and that most likely would be only one potential team: the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have been attempting to resolve their own stadium issue and struggled with having a great on-field product (most of the time) and lousy attendance figures.

The Rays are locked in a bad lease with St. Petersburg that is tying them there for at least another ten years. The lease can be circumvented by paying a fine back to the city, which is thought to be a major mitigating factor to the relocation to another market. The relocation fee would also be about $500 million and so the new ownership group in Montreal would have to be deeply committed to finance this entire relocation effort involving the Rays.

The other factor is that the Rays were granted permission to explore sites in Tampa and other surrounding counties to find a suitable site for a new stadium and given better terms if they broke the lease but remained in the Tampa Bay area. The eventual agreement on a new stadium site in that region seems to be the most likely pathway the situation could take in the future.

The Expos path to a franchise reboot in either mechanism is going to take a long time to come into focus. It is a shame because the league should have never left the market in the first place. The road ahead will take on renewed interest by MLB, the owners, the potential ownership group in Montreal, and the fans that remember “The Rock”, “The Kid”, “Le Grand Orange”, and Vlad playing in Olympic Stadium against teams like the Mets and the Phillies.

It also should be noted that with the evidence of strong ticket demand for the exhibition games that the Toronto Blue Jays have played in Montreal over the last few years, and the sales of Expos team merchandise; a case can be made to bring the franchise back for a reboot. The MLB is just like any of the other major sports leagues, if money can be made from the concept, it will gain considerable merit.

The memories, for now, are what they will be left with unless a pathway can be forged for new memories to be made. The question: will the Expos return to Montreal? The answer: only time will tell, stay tuned.