Expos' failure due to MLB's economic imbalance: study

It was not because their fans didn't care or that the city couldn't support them that the Expos left Montreal in 2004, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada.

It was not because their fans didn't care or that the city couldn't support them that the Expos left Montreal in 2004, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada.

But one of the key problems that helped drive the Expos out seven years ago — an unlevel economic playing field between teams — makes it unlikely that the city will get another Major League Baseball team any time soon, the report concludes.

"Montreal has a long and proud baseball history," Mario Lefebvre, a co-author of The Future of Major League Baseball in Canada with Glen Hodgson, said in a statement on Friday. "It was the city where Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional baseball.

"It was the first city outside the United States to obtain a major league team in 1969 and the first Canadian franchise to make the playoffs in 1981. But MLB broke the hearts of Montreal fans in 1994, when the season was cancelled while the Expos had the best record in baseball. MLB has done little to change its business model so more teams can be competitive consistently. Without a more level playing field, the Expos' tri-colour caps are likely to remain collectors' items."

The report said the Toronto Blue Jays are in no trouble despite being in a division with two of the richest teams, Boston and the New York Yankess. It said a solid market, stable ownership linked to broadcasting and an attractive stadium make the Blue Jays a viable franchise.

The wide disparity in revenue between clubs and a weak Canadian dollar are seen as the main reasons the Expos were bought out by MLB and moved to Washington.

The report said Montreal has everything needed to support a team, especially with a much stronger dollar in recent years. They are:

  • A team needs a population of at least 2.5 million to support a team and Montreal's metropolitan area has 3.8 million.
  • While Montreal ranks eighth among urban centres in Canada in disposable income, its people have "an appetite for entertainment" and enough money to attend games.
  • It has enough of a corporate presence. It has 98 of Canada's 800 largest companies, ranking third behind Toronto and Calgary.

However, the report points out that the economic playing field in baseball is "the least-level of the four major North American sports.

"The lack of a hard cap on player salaries and massive differences in revenue [including attendance, sale of broadcasting rights, merchandise and other income] among franchises make consistent winning very difficult for all but a handful of rich teams."

It said a new Montreal franchise would not be among the richest clubs so companies may be reluctant to invest. The team would also likely need a new stadium due to "the many problems of the Olympic Stadium as a baseball venue."

The authors said perceptions that baseball fans no longer wanted the team are false.

"Today's generation of sports fans may think Montreal is not a baseball city, but Montreal was at one time very much a baseball city," it said.

"So lets get this straight: the love for the game was there. While the Expos eventually did leave, it wasn't because the fans didn't care. Neither was it because, as our market pillars show, the city couldn't support a Major League Baseball team."

The Conference Board is one of Canada's leading not-for-profit research organizations.