OPINION | Expos 2.0: Is this franchise worth rebooting?

Montrealers should know it is the general consensus of academic economists, and sports economists in particular, that pro sports and large sporting events do not provide significant economic benefit, writes independent journalist Taylor C. Noakes.

Don't believe the hype — baseball's benefit to city's economy negligible at best

A fan wears a Montreal Expos jersey at a Toronto Blue Jays game in 2014. The Expos left Montreal in 2004, but excitement is building for a return. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

I have a question for all Montrealers: Do professional sports and large sporting events provide an economic benefit to the host city: yes or no?

This is the question Montrealers need to keep in the forefront of their minds when considering the extent to which municipal and provincial levels of government will be implicated in any project to resurrect professional baseball in the city.

    Montrealers should know it is the general consensus of academic economists, and sports economists in particular, that pro sports and large sporting events do not provide significant economic benefit. They provide a debatable degree of prestige and little else.

    Michael Leeds, a prominent American sports economist and professor at Temple University, estimates that if a city like Chicago were to lose all five of its pro sports teams, the total impact on the city's economy would be but a fraction of a per cent.

    He compares the economic impact of a professional baseball team on a given city as roughly equivalent to that of a mid-sized department store.

    Yet unlike department stores, the average cost of a new baseball stadium — to say nothing of the cost of a franchise to play in it — is somewhere in the billion-dollar range.

    Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has already said that "not a penny" of public money will be spent on a new baseball stadium — unless Montrealers agree to it in a referendum.

    Meanwhile, the CAQ government has said it's open to contributing funds to pay for the building of a new stadium, as long as a private consortium foots most of the bill.

    Major League Baseball (MLB) expects public involvement in one way or another, according to noted sports economist and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, Andrew Zimbalist — though he cautions public involvement could take many forms.

    "It might be the city turning over land, granting long-term tax-exemptions, or providing indirect subsidies, without actually putting up money to do the construction."

    Economic stimulus?

    MLB justifies its argument by stating that the public contribution pales in comparison to the economic stimulus the league claims to provide.

    Concordia University professor of economics Moshe Lander doubts the claims of guaranteed economic benefit made by the league and the promoters of Expos 2.0.

    "At the end of the day, our disposable income is finite. It doesn't matter whether there's professional baseball in Montreal or not, as I only have x dollars to spend per year on entertainment," says Lander.

    "So if I spend $75 on a baseball game, that's $75 I'm not spending at a restaurant, or going to the movies. If I get season tickets, then that's money I'm not spending at a summer festival. All I'm doing is relocating my disposable income dollars from here to there."

    The argument pro sports are good for a city's economy have been overblown to the point of absurdity. The major North American sports leagues have co-opted (and mis-remembered) the slogan of a 30-year-old Kevin Costner flick as sound economic and urban planning theory: they proselytize, 'If you build it, they will come.'

    Whereas most cities have to consider the above statement in the abstract, Montrealers have the unique advantage of being able to walk the distance between Pie-IX and Viau boulevards along Pierre-de-Coubertin Avenue, where they can soak in the grandeur of one of the greatest monuments to wasteful government spending ever conceived.

    The Olympic Stadium — one of the greatest monuments to wasteful government spending ever conceived, according to the writer. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

    The people of Montreal and Quebec paid a $1.5-billion bill over three decades for the construction of Olympic Stadium and, after the next round of renovations, will have contributed a billion dollars more.

    And all this public money will be spent on an outdated stadium that will never be used by a professional league for regular season play ever again.

      Déjà vu

      Montreal has been down this road before, and clearly neither the Olympic Stadium nor the first iteration of the Expos provided any consequential long-term economic stimulus. Pro sports is entertainment, full stop.

      Building a new stadium in a different part of town isn't going to change the basic economics of pro sports either: the league holds all the cards, cities are played against one another to see who contributes the most to a given expansion or relocation project, and the economic stimulus provided — particularly when weighed against the public investment — is typically neutral or negligible.

      Stephen Bronfman, a Montreal businessman involved in efforts to bring baseball back to the city, sat down with Premier François Legault late last year to talk baseball. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

      Groupe Montréal, a group of affluent Montrealers pushing to bring baseball back, entered negotiations to acquire land in the Peel Basin area for a massive mixed-use development to centre on a new 'downtown' ballpark. That alone would involve indirect public involvement: the land they're looking at is federally owned. Shouldn't the public have the first say in what to do with undeveloped land in a city lacking in affordable downtown urban housing, public schools and/or green space?

      The public contribution to the baseball project could also come in the form of renovations, upgrades and improvements to roadway and utility infrastructure around the proposed site — think of the water, power and sewage treatment requirements of 30,000 spectators. Without even having secured a team, the public contribution could easily reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

      "If all you're doing is building a stadium, and nothing else is happening, and it's being done overwhelmingly with public money, then I think the notion that it would be an economic boon is fanciful," says Zimbalist.

      No guarantees

      Though the prospect of resurrecting a defunct, albeit beloved, sports franchise is doubtless exciting, it is by no means a sensible economic policy, nor is building a new stadium any kind of guarantee — Quebec City is still waiting for the return of the Nordiques.

        Whether Montreal will repeat Quebec City's mistake is worth considering. After all, the promoters of Expos 2.0 have millions of dollars to spend campaigning for their cause — their opponents do not.

        The Videotron Centre was built in hopes of drawing an NHL team. About four years later, still nothing. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

        Citizens elect mayors and municipal governments to plan for the public good, and this occasionally requires making some very tough, unpopular decisions. While most mayors and mayoral candidates wouldn't want to be known as responsible for "costing" their city a professional sports franchise, it remains to be seen whether a Montreal mayor has the courage and common sense to stand up to the predatory leagues with a polite, "Non, merci."

        Montreal's menagerie is already filled with white elephants.

        This column is an opinion piece. For more information about commentary, please read our FAQ.


        Taylor C. Noakes

        Freelance contributor

        Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian.


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