I have often wondered why former Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau put so much effort into supporting an MLB franchise here in our fair city. Drapeau wasn’t just a fan of the Expos, but a driving force in the team’s creation and popular support. The Expos were never a ‘dynasty’ club, though for a while they drew large crowds and some high-end talent. They also drew American attention to our city, something I’m convinced Drapeau must have understood all too well.
The 1981 and 1994 MLB seasons were cut short due to labour negotiations and lock-outs, and it just so happens that these two particular years were those in which the Expos had their best chances at making it to the World Series, a feat which would have doubtless secured the franchise’s existence for a considerable period of time. The 1994 season and the failure of the Labatt Ballpark project, in addition to the generally poor management of Jeffrey Loria caused countless headaches and resulted in significant cuts to the fan base. In the end, neither the City nor the Province would continue to support the Expos, and the rest is history.
We’ve been without an MLB franchise since 2004 and here’s the reality of sports in our city:
1. Both the Canadiens and the Alouettes have been doing very well for themselves over the course of the last decade. Their facilities are modern, their fan-bases are expanding and you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself watching either team play. Both benefit from well-oiled public relations and marketing machines, and both teams have a solid attachment to the citizens. Clearly the expertise exists locally to successfully develop and market pro sports teams to the local population.
2. The Expos are still very much a part of our collective experience. At least part of this is thanks to expert design, as the Expos logo endures on t-shirts and ball-caps; consider how often you see this potent symbol of a city.
3. New sports ventures may be profitable; consider the success of the Montreal Impact soccer team which will become a new Major League Soccer franchise in 2012 (they also have a brand new stadium, built adjacent to the Olympic Stadium, with a capacity of some 20,000 people!). Consider as well the several recent attempts to develop fan interest in other sports clubs, whether it be our numerous attempts to get a basketball team started, to more recent attempts at developing interest in indoor lacrosse and junior ice-hockey teams. Without a doubt there are more failures here than successes, but it also demonstrates that there’s a wealth of experience and expertise which could be used to develop more successful clubs.
4. Golf, boxing, tennis and Formula-1 racing are all major draws in the world of local professional sports, each with long local histories (implying a potential multi-generational fan-base, something which is crucial to establishing sports dynasties); all of these major sporting events, coupled with our major sports teams, give this city a reason to be known by outsiders too, and in this sense having a major league sports franchise is a useful tool in stimulating outside interest and potential investment. In an indirect fashion, sports teams keep cities on the map, and help stimulate our tourism industry.
5. We happen to have a wealth of major public sports facilities in addition to Olympic-quality installations, though some of these facilities are grossly underused and/or in dire need of renovation. These facilities are worth the investment, and it would be wise for the city to develop a master-plan to renovate and expand public sporting installations along with public minor-league sports organizations. Direct sponsorship arrangements with professional sports franchises may assist in deflecting renovation costs while boosting public interest in the franchise. Either way, the city must fully implicate itself in local pro-sports, heading multiple partner investment and diffusion strategies. In this way, a win-win situation may be possible, in which the city provides a large fan-base and the franchise provides investments to the city. Again, we should look to Drapeau as the inspiration for developing such relationships.
So, with all that in mind, ask yourself whether a resurrected Expos would appeal to you. Ask yourself whether such a team could be successful operating out of a (potentially) renovated Big-O, or whether a new downtown ballpark is a better investment.
What do you think? Do we need the Expos, or did we lose a headache and an embarrassment in 2004?