Why the Montreal Expos could make a comeback

It seems that more than a decade without major league baseball has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of those in Montreal who believe it could return.

The Toronto Blue Jays' annual exhibition series at Olympic Stadium, where they play the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, is once again providing the pretext to crank up the rumour mill and fuel the yearnings of Expos fans.

The week began with reports that investors had government support and potential stadium locations and designs lined up. All that was needed, they seemed to suggest, was the green light from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Well, not quite. Investors quickly told local media that the reports were "inaccurate."

So is the return of major league baseball to Montreal a realistic hope? Or is it, as many believe, just a pipe dream?

"Montreal as an international market makes sense," says Maury Brown, who writes about business and baseball for Forbes. "The biggest issue will always be the stadium. Right now, if somebody walked up and said we've got $500 million or $700 million to commit to a ballpark, I would imagine that something would happen."

Let's go downtown

The challenge of getting a stadium deal in place is one Eugenio Carelli is familiar with. An architect with the Montreal firm Provencher_Roy, Carelli was involved with the design of Labatt Park, the downtown park that was supposed to save the Expos but was never built.

The land for that proposed venue is no longer in play, but Carelli says there's still an inventory of viable downtown sites, where most agree any new stadium would need to be located.

"It's the only way to make a team viable in Montreal," he says. "The trend in MLB has been to build downtown stadiums, and that formula has worked."

A key is differentiating the new park from the outdated, decaying Olympic Stadium, which has a retractable roof that no longer functions.

"The people involved are looking to detach themselves from the past, from the whole experience of the Big O, and create a whole new experience downtown in an open-air stadium," Carelli says.

The issue of who pays for such a building has always been contentious. In 1999, then premier Lucien Bouchard balked at contributing government money for a new baseball stadium. And the idea of pouring public funds into professional sports stadiums remains tricky in a province where the economy has contracted in recent years.

But Bruno Delorme, a part-time professor at McGill and Concordia universities, says there is a way forward.

"People often forget this, but the Bell Centre [known as Molson Centre when it was built] was entirely privately funded by the Molson family [which owns the Canadiens]," Delorme says. "Fast forward to the Videotron Centre in Quebec City, it's publicly funded, so you have both models."

Delorme says politicians will have to be cautious in making any guarantees.

"All of the economic studies show there is no payback for municipalities, no payback when they invest public funds, spin it anyway you want," Delorme says. "So you're playing emotions. I love baseball, but I want my tax money well spent."

Expanding universe

While the lack of a stadium remains a giant, unchanged obstacle, the landscape beyond that has drastically changed.

The way teams earn money, how much revenue they share, and the sheer amount of cash baseball rakes in these days are completely different than in 2004, the last year Montreal had a team.

And that's why talk of an Expos return can be humoured.

Some point to Tampa Bay and Oakland, both dealing with stadium issues, as potential relocation candidates. But baseball's return to Montreal could also come through expansion.

"The commissioner has said on more than one occasion that they see baseball as an expansion industry, and they wish to do that," says Brown. "He has made clear that expansion is there and if you are going to have that conversation, then Montreal makes sense."

Brown says all professional sports leagues are expanding their footprints internationally, in search of new audiences and revenue.

"All the big U.S. markets have been sucked up long ago and that really leaves you with a bunch of mid-markets and small markets," Brown says.

A Major League Baseball team and its 162-game schedule could be attractive to media giant Bell, always hungry for content for its many platforms, including its cable sports network TSN.

Bell rival Rogers, which owns the Blue Jays, currently has a stranglehold on the baseball market in Canada.

'A whole new world'

But the economic pie extends far beyond television. As media rights fees have exploded and MLB has expanded its digital empire, there are millions of dollars available annually to all 30 MLB teams that simply didn't exist when the Expos left town.

With a more generous revenue-sharing plan now in place to help level the playing field, franchise values have skyrocketed. It's a long way from the talk of contraction and economic doom that accompanied the Expos' demise.

Today, even poorly run franchises are extremely valuable. Take the Miami Marlins, with their thin attendance and dismal local television deal. They have a sparkling new stadium and are valued at between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion US.

"It's a whole new world," says Brown.

It all makes a return of the Montreal Expos at least plausible.

Now about that stadium …