Holes in the Plan

From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.
From 1987 or 1988. Taken shortly after the kevlar retractable roof was installed.

If ever there was a photo that sapped the public’s confidence in the Olympic Stadium, this is probably it.

I figure the photo dates back to 1987 or 1988, one of the first instances in which the stadium’s retractable kevlar roof tore. It happened a few more times before the Olympic Installations Board (or RIO en Français) installed the current non-retractable roof in 1998 (at a cost of $26 million in 1998 dollars).

The current roof has been problematic since it was installed, having torn several times, including a major failure in 1999 that led to the lawsuits and counter-suits between contractors and the second roof’s designer.

As it stands the roof remains closed and the stadium field is unusable if three centimetres of snow accumulation (or three millimetres of rainwater accumulation) is expected within 24 hours of a planned event. This rule caused the postponement of a Montreal Impact game scheduled back in March of 2014.

For this reason, according to the Olympic Installations Board, using the Big O as a temporary home for a revived local Major League Baseball franchise is out of the question. The RIO is currently investing $100 million over the next five years to improve the stadium and related facilities, including renovating the tower and funicular as well as improving the overall ‘client experience’ (sound quality, heating, concessions etc.)

I find this a bit paradoxical. On the one hand the RIO is investing money into improving and maintaining the stadium for current and future use, but won’t allow the stadium to be used for regular MLB usage unless a new roof is installed (and they have no current plans to finance the roof project). The RIO is supposed to provide the provincial government with a report outlining new roof options by the fall. It should be noted that the provincial government awarded a contract to build a new stadium roof (at a cost of $300 million) back in 2004 and nothing came of it. In 2010 the RIO apparently sought approval from the provincial government for this roof replacement contract and, again, nothing happened.

In other words, there was a plan to build a new roof more than a decade ago, so I’m not altogether certain what these new reports will ultimately suggest. The requirements are fairly straightforward: build a roof that a) will allow year-round use of the stadium field without concern of it falling down and b) if technically feasible, design a retractable roof. I think it should be obvious the RIO should be aiming for the best possible roof design, and that would require the ability to at least partly open it.

If you didn’t know any better you might assume Denis Coderre is a brand ambassador for Major League Baseball, and it seems resurrecting the Expos is the primary focus of his administration. He says it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Don’t be fooled…

While exhibition games at the Olympic Stadium have proven immensely successful, and indeed the RIO has been doing a good job at increasing the public’s use of the entirety of the Olympic Park (and its many diverse attractions), the Olympic Installations Board doesn’t seem to be working closely with the city administration to secure the Big O as the first home of the resurrected team. It’ll take time and a significant private investment to build a new purpose-built downtown ballpark, so the rationale is to use what we already have until such a stadium is built.

But this all comes undone what with the roof replacement issue. The province already has a hard time justifying the status quo (i.e. a stadium for special events only), and should be hesitant to invest a considerable sum of public money into developing a new roof if there’s no guarantee of an MLB team returning to the city.

By contrast, the word from the MLB is: no team without a commitment to a new stadium.

Ergo, a site has to be chosen, cleared, decontaminated and then excavated before Major League Baseball will seriously consider relocating even a failing team to this city. And while there seems to be a general agreement in this city that a team could be relocated here and use the Big O until the new stadium is completed, it doesn’t seem that Major League Baseball is convinced. Assuming the Big O’s roof was replaced and that other major renovations were executed, it then begs the question: why build a new stadium at all?

And who’s going to front all that capital without a guarantee?

Unfortunately it increasingly seems as though the only way Montreal will get its Expos back is if the province and possibly the city invest public money into building an entirely new stadium from scratch, though this plan has already been done in Quebec City (and backfired).

The whole ‘if you build it they will come’ idea doesn’t entirely work. Right now Quebec City and Las Vegas are competing for an NHL expansion franchise, and that’s hardly a contest between equals. Vegas has a metro population of nearly two million people, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Quebec City has a metro population of under 800,000, and though both cities are major North American tourist attractions, clearly Las Vegas is by far the bigger draw, not to mention it’s a city whose sole existence is based on tourism. And then there’s the whole issue of broadcasting rights, advertising and certain aspects of Bill 101 that make it disadvantageous to operate a professional sports team in La Belle Province. Take note, the Centre Vidéotron was paid for by the Ville de Québec and the province, splitting the $370 million cost of construction 50-50. Quebecor was given exclusive management and naming rights to the stadium (there was no bidding process) for between $33 and $63 million up front and between $3 and $5 million per annum in rent.

In other words, the public purse pays to build a stadium with no anchor tenant on a hope and a prayer that a city that lost its hockey team will get it back twenty some-odd years later, and one of the province’s biggest corporations gets the exclusive right to manage and name the building providing they pony up between one tenth and one fifth the construction costs up front.

If that seems illogical, impractical and ultimately disadvantageous to taxpayers in Quebec, then you understand full well why our city cannot go down the same road with regards to resurrecting the Expos.

Regardless of what politicians might say, there’s overwhelming evidence that pro sports subsidies from the public purse rarely result in a strong return for the taxpayers, and the heads of the various professional North American leagues know this full well. They bank on it. And the public subsidy doesn’t end once the venue is built. According to research by a University of Michigan sports management professor published in 2012, taxpayers are on average subsidizing 78% of the major sporting venues in Canada and the United States.

Denis Coderre should know better: public support isn’t enough. Both the Expos and Nordiques had strong public support (and arguably still do). But both the NHL and MLB are US-focused entertainment conglomerates that pay their players in US funds and seek English-language broadcasting rights. Currently, the Canadian dollar is losing value compared to the Greenback, and Quebec remains a limited media market. We should also note that both the Expos and the Nordiques appealed to the provincial government for bailouts and ‘stimulus spending’ back when they were on the verge of collapsing, and the péquiste government of the time made the unpopular though ethically correct decision not to use public money to help pay the salaries of multimillionaires who for the most part aren’t even Canadian citizens.

Twenty years later we’re more or less back where we started though with a provincial government and local mayor who seem to think the public investment will be returned through indirect economic stimulus, an idea that’s been disproven by most sports economists.

Plus que ça change…

My question is, are we clever enough to find a way around all these potential pitfalls?

Can we game the system to get a chance to play?

The way I figure it, an entirely privately-funded endeavour is exceptionally unlikely. Simply acquiring a plot of land large enough to build a stadium on will almost assuredly require expropriations of one kind or another, not to mention redesigning the streets around the new stadium. Thus, government is implicated from day one no matter where the new ballpark is built.

Regardless of whether a new stadium is privately or publicly financed it will still require several years to build, and given this is the case it would be advantageous to have the team start playing before the new facility is completed. This is particularly advantageous if we don’t want public money to finance new stadium construction, as the team would be able to begin generating revenue from which the costs of construction would eventually be paid.

That said, the Olympic Stadium needs to be brought up to code to permit long-term, year-round use.

And who’s going to pay for that?

The compromise position would require the Olympic Installations Board (and its properties) to be transferred from the province to the city, meaning the city would be responsible for the stadium’s renovations and maintenance but would also collect direct revenue from its use. The cost of bringing the Big O up to code is significantly less than the cost of building a new stadium, and has other major advantages as well (e.g. no need to redesign the street and traffic system; Olympic Park is already directly connected to two Métro stations; there are maybe a dozen other major attractions within a short walk of the stadium etc.). Furthermore, Olympic Stadium is the city’s single highest capacity venue, and building a proper roof (in addition to the current renovation scheme) would allow it to be used year-round (the stadium floor cannot currently be used from December to March). This would not only allow an MLB team to operate out of the stadium, but any large sporting event in addition to concerts and conventions, important additional revenue streams.

While spending public money to build a new purpose-built ballpark in the hopes of attracting a sports franchise is a nearly criminal misuse of government funds, renovating an underused multi-purpose stadium that’s already been paid for is a lot easier to digest, especially if the city were ultimately fully responsible for the stadium. At this point, the city would finance repairing the roof and making the stadium usable throughout the year, but would also own it and be able to use it as a potential revenue stream. It could then be rented by the resurrected Expos (at a fair price) for as long as was necessary to finance the construction of a new purpose-built facility at a different location in the city. And if after five or six seasons the club’s perfectly happy with the Big O the city could then conceivably offer the team an emphyteutic lease arrangement in lieu of an annual rent.

As far as I can figure it this is the best way forward.

At the time of this writing, the RIO indicated that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games to be held in Montreal in 2016.

Reserving dates is problematic with the defective roof, remember? What if more than three millimetres of rainwater accumulates within 24 hours of the planned match? Would the RIO stick to the rules and force the cancellation of a regular season major league game? Or would the MLB pressure the RIO go ahead anyways?

Author’s Note

First, thanks to regular reader Faiz Imam for pointing out that Quebec City and Las Vegas aren’t competing against one another. There are two spots open and as far as I know the only two cities vying for a franchise.

Second, a spokesman from the RIO got in contact with me to correct a few points. The Big O’s roof can support any amount of rainwater; an event would be cancelled if 3mm of sleet accumulated on the roof. The spokesman also corrected a report that went out on 98.5 fm indicating that dates had been reserved for regular season MLB games in 2016. Apparently this is not the case, though the Big O could be available were a request made.

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