Though it may seem a lifetime ago, it was just eight months ago when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred went on the record to assert that increasing the chances of Montreal re-acquiring a baseball team, in some form or fashion, is a major goal of his in the near future.
“Montreal could be a standalone market. It could be,” Manfred said to Sportsnet back in February. “I think the judgment you have to make if you’re Montreal is, if and when we’re going to 32, and you have an opportunity to have some baseball [in Montreal], it might be a good plan. They have to make that judgment.” In this respect, Manfred was speaking both to the possibility of the Expos being a target market in the increasingly likely event that Major League Baseball expands beyond the current 30 teams. But, at the same time, he was shining a positive light on the then-proposed home park split of the Tampa Bay Rays — a plan which was first floated in 2019 and has oscillated in and out of the spotlight since.
“It’s become even more important not to be reliant on one place and one market,” asserted Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg in early July, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fiscal uncertainty and discomfort that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and the truncated 2020 baseball season, many observers have put the split park proposal on the back-burner — but not, it would appear, Sternberg. When asked about whether he has reconsidered a full-time future for the Rays in Tampa Bay, he asserted that he has not. A bold and inflammatory statement, but one that has roots in fiscal reality.
Although ongoing labor strife and the obvious pitfalls surrounding the pandemic season have cast baseball eyes elsewhere, multiple reports out of Montreal in 2020 have suggested that Quebec-based billionaire and equity-fund CEO Stephen Bronfman has been in advanced negotiations to buy a minority stake in the Rays. Such rumors should be taken with more than just a grain of salt, as Bronfman is the son of the Expos’ founding owner, Charles Bronfman, and has a long history of being one of the most vocal proponents of bringing baseball back to Montreal. Further, his attempts in 2010 to buy the crown jewel of Montreal sports, the NHL’s Canadiens, show that he has a large public appetite to own a professional sports franchise in the city. If the pandemic and the subsequent global financial uncertainty hasn’t dulled that interest, the temptation is undoubtedly there for Rays ownership, which has been vocal about cratering ticket sales in the pre-pandemic environment as well as its clashes with the city of St. Petersburg over ballpark upgrades.
“It’s huge,” said Bronfman to Journal de Montreal back in the Spring, when asked specifically about the split city concept. “It’s a concept completely new and we will adventure on the seas that haven’t been explored.”
— CBC Montreal (@CBCMontreal) June 13, 2017
There are obvious logistical issues and concerns with the split city scenario. For one, it would be an absolute nightmare (in theory) for the players, who would be loath to uproot their families thousands of miles and across an international border, for half of the season — but who would be equally unlikely to want to be away from their families for months on end. It is expected that the Players Association would be prepared to mount some kind of resistance to such a plan, but Manfred has suggested in interviews that a viable solution and compromise could be reached. Naturally, someone in his position would suggest such things.
It’s important to note that many of the interviews with Bronfman specifically took place prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the profit-landscape of North American sports fall off a veritable cliff. It is fair to say that sporting franchises are poor gambles right now, with MLB initially estimating that every lost game (of which each club lost 102) cost $640,000. Add to that reduced or entirely wiped-out gate revenues which will likely persist deep into the 2021 season, and you have a frayed and deeply damaged product that should scare any potential investor. But this has been a decades-long project for Bronfman, and it’s unlikely that such circumstances would steer him away entirely.
The one major logistical snafu for baseball in Montreal is, of course, the stadium situation. Although the exhibition games that the Toronto Blue Jays have been playing in the city since 2014 have all taken place at Olympic Stadium, it is simply impossible to imagine baseball returning to that venue, even as an interregnum. The province of Quebec and the city of Montreal have both, in the past, indicated that public funding of what would be a multi-billion dollar stadium project is a no-go. The potential of a decade-long recovery COVID-19, which hasn’t hit Canada as hard as it has the United States but will still have enormous fiscal echoes into the new decade, will only further dull that appetite. There is potential for Bronfman to explore private investment and funding of a new ballpark — and he has spoken with the city of Montreal about the waterfront Peel Basin area — but it is still extremely naive to assume that these plans haven’t been wounded by the fall-out from the pandemic. What’s more, the financing of a multi-billion dollar stadium would be completely impractical (one would assume) if we were to see a “split-season” situation with the Rays, as a 41-home-game slate would hardly net the short- or long-term return on investment that such a project demands
So what exactly is the viability — and, perhaps, the odds — 0f baseball returning to La Belle Province? All signs would point to cautious positivity. There is a desire among people in the city, who have clamored for the league’s return since the day the club left. There is vocal and very public support among baseball players, municipal and federal politicians (including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), and large swathes of the baseball media. And with many pointing to expansion in the near-term as a potential fiscal solution to the deep losses suffered during the COVID pandemic, there seems to be a climate of “when, not if” surrounding such expansion. At the very least, it might be time to consider dusting off those ‘”ebb” logo hats and gorgeous powder-blue jerseys, in anticipation of what would be the welcomed return of a strong shot of baseball nostalgia.
Photo by VJ Lovero/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)