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MLB AND MONTREAL ARE NO MATCH

The noise coming from the North is the sound of old – and new – Montreal Expos fans. On Saturday, about 1,000 baseball-hungry fans from Montreal were waving flags, drinking cold beverages and shouting from the outfield seats at Rogers Centre during the Tampa Bay Rays-Toronto Blue Jays game.

The trip was organized by Matthew Ross who owns ExposNation.com. “Our goal is to celebrate the history of the Expos and show that there is still a viable market for it,” he told the Associated Press.

I’m not buying it. Major League Baseball packed up and left Montreal after the 2004 season. The Expos relocated to Washington and are now the Nationals. That happened for a reason: fans didn’t support baseball in Montreal, despite Keith Olbermann’s claims that the market did.

The last seven years in Montreal the team ranked last in the league in attendance, including 642,745 in 2001 – or 7,935 per home game. On September 20, 2001, the Expos hosted the Florida Marlins. Attendance: 2,887. If you stripped away the Opening Day crowd of 45,000, the Expos average game attendance was 7,471 per game. Remember, Olympic Stadium could hold 66,000+, so 7, 500 or so fans filled about one-tenth of the stadium.

It wasn’t for a lack of talent. The Expos had All-Stars and a handful of future Hall of Famers including Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Larry Walker, Randy Johnson, Vladimir Guerrero, Dennis Martinez, Warren Cromartie, Steve Rogers, Andres Galarraga, Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Marquis Grissom, Tim Wallach, Bill Gullickson, Cliff Floyd and Ellis Valentine.

As attendance waned, the Expos could not afford to hold onto talent, so they traded Pedro, Carter, Raines and Johnson while others – Dawson, Alou and Walker -- pursued more money on the open market.

The Montreal Expos best year of fan support came in 1981. The team drew 1.5 million to Olympic Stadium over the course of the strike-shortened home schedule. It was the organization’s best year on the field and in the stands. The Expos made their only post-season appearance, beating the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Divisional Series before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS.

Warren Cromartie knows what Montreal, Quebec, Canada -- population: 3,824,221 – is capable of supporting when it comes to baseball. He, too, is making a push to bring the game back to the North through the Montreal Baseball Project, a consortium of interested parties studies the economic viability for MLB in Montreal in the 21st Century.

As a boy, and later as a college student, I attended games in Montreal, first at Jarry Park and later at Olympic Stadium. Two parks, two totally different baseball teams and the same result: poor attendance. It was summer time, so leave the hockey discussion out of the debate.

Montreal is a great city and a great place to watch a baseball game but, in my opinion, history reveals baseball in Montreal is irrelevant. In every decade, through success and failure on the field, despite talent and time of the year, Major League Baseball and Montreal were – and are still – not meant to be.

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Comments

  1. Hi, a few corrections:

    – 1981 was not the best season of fan support for the Expos. They averaged 27,403 fans per home game that season, which ranks fourth all-time in Expos home attendance.

    – The high water mark for the Expos in home attendance was the 1983 season, when they averaged 28,650 per home contest.

    – The names you mention, only Vladimir Guerrero played for the Expos after the 1997 season (unless you count the 15 games Cliff Floyd played for the team when he was briefly reacquired in 2002 before being re-traded 19 days later).

    – You claim a long history of poor support, but the Expos actually ranked as high as third in the league in attendance (1981, 1982, and 1983). Until the last of the nucleus of the successful mid-90s teams was traded away following the 1997 season, the Expos ranked last in home attendance in the National League just one season — the 90-loss 1991 campaign.

    – The decline of attendances at Stade Olimpique was the result of several detrimental events. The first and most obvious (and most cited) being the strike of 1994 that cut short a season where a young Expos team boasted a baseball-best 74-40 mark at the time of the work stoppage. Still, average home attendance stayed north of 18,000 per game until 1998, when the last of the great players were dealt. Finally, it was under the ownership of Jeffrey Loria that fan support for the Expos truly died. Loria’s ownership saw the team fail to secure English broadcasting deals and the infrastructure at State Olimpique disintegrated — literally.

    Here’s an informative chart of home attendances at Stade Olimpique:
    http://s23.postimg.org/bbrsbsjaz/graph_6.png

    You’ll note that attendances were relatively steady until 1994, when the above-mentioned decline began.

    I’m not saying MLB should put another franchise back in Montreal, but let’s at least use facts in the discussion.

  2. johnstrubel says:

    JD:

    Thanks for the comment. Remember, 1981 was shortened by the strike. The Expos played only 58 of the scheduled 81 home games. In numbers, you are correct.

    In regards to talent, I disagree. If they signed or held on to talent, Guerrero would not have been the only player left after 1997. Pedro Martinez was approaching the prime of his career, from 1999-2002 Randy Johnson had the best four-year stretch of his career, Moises Alou hit over .300 in 1998, 2000 and 2001 (injured in 1999) and Larry Walker owned MLB pitching for six consecutive years (1997-2002). Why didn’t they attempt to keep these guys? Payroll? What drives payroll? Revenue.

    Despite the talent and the winning seasons (specifically, 1979-1981, 1987, 1993 and 1994) the Expos did not get the fan support other successful teams did during those time periods. You said it yourself, “…a young Expos team boasted a baseball-best 74-40 mark at the time of the work stoppage. Still, average home attendance stayed north of 18,000 per game until 1998 …” If I were a GM and my team had a record of 74-40 and the attendance was 11th of 14 teams in the league, I’d be searching for answers. The same problems followed Jeffrey Loria to Florida. Is it Loria or is the location? I can’t answer that, but I have an opinion.

    I enjoy the debate.

    Thanks,

    John

  3. John, you’re right Montreal is the dark side of the moon as far as MLB is concerned and Minor League Baseball has allowed all but one MiLB franchise to leave (as many as 8 during the last 12 years) as well. Expos caught lightning in a bottle in ’69 as a novelty, that could not last and didn’t help the franchise when the economics of MLB started a radical change not long after the franchise commenced with the reserve clause reversal.

    Expos might have survived in the old business model but the Flood case as well as other reserve clause challenges that resulted in the current MLB business climate sealed the Expos fate long before they moved.
    Charles Bronfman had to rescue the franchise when the original promised investors failed to pay the expansion fees on time in ’68,
    he was the only deep-pocketed Quebecer who cared about the Expos. By the 90’s he could see the changing MLB revenue streams that US based franchises were profiting from were not as available in Montreal so he knew it was time to get out.
    If the corporate side of Quebec had stepped up, the Expos could have drawn 500,000 and still been able to operate. But even in the Bronfman days there was big bucks apathy and a shrinking economy that doomed the franchise. If a deep pocketed local had stepped up, this would have made the vampire-like blood letting that Selig and MLB inflicted on the franchise almost impossible to carry out.

    Ticket sales were just one small factor in the Expos demise.
    Montrealers like to blame the stadium, MLB and many other minor factors for what happened, but since a strong deep-pocketed single owner (which MLB has always favored) stepped up when Bronfman was selling and the subsequent owner consortium
    was a joke the die was cast for the move long before it happened.
    Expos fans forget about the 85% of US and foreign players who did not want to be there because of the additional layer of taxes and the expensive cost of living there. Many players that I’ve discussed this point with agree that if they didn’t have to be there, they’d sign elsewhere to keep more of what they made. There were also visa, language and legal problems that most fans have no idea about. Fans use emotion about all this but the owners and most players don’t and that’s the difference.

    They want to make it personal, but to those who run MLB it’s business not personal.
    And the place is still the dark side of the moon.

    • John Strubel says:

      Appreciate your feedback on the story! I agree with your assessment, but it’s sad, isn’t it? The Expos had some fun teams to watch, some great talent through the years and a great city in Montreal! I always loved visiting. Have you ever been?

  4. John,

    It’s unfortunate that facts about the fan base weren’t fully explained and accounted for in your piece. I respectfully suggest listening to this definitive explanation as to why fans stopped going to the games. It’s a logical and perfectly rational explanation. Unfortunately, few people actually want to know the truth. You can begin listening around 2 minutes and 40 seconds in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0L3rgfDWoA

    • John Strubel says:

      Hi Matthew —

      Thank you for your post and I will listen to the explanation. For the record, I respect your passion and efforts to bring baseball back to Montreal.

      Sincerely,

      John

  5. Um – you are totally incorrect. In 1994 with a championship team – attendance was great. Combine that with the 1995 fire sale and you know why attendance dropped. Montreal is a great baseball city and always will be…

    • johnstrubel says:

      Hi Scott – Thanks for your comment. I agree that Montreal is a great baseball city; been there, seen it firsthand. I disagree with your point on attendance. The numbers state that the Expos ranked 11th of 14 in NL attendance. For a team that posted the best record in all of MLB, in my opinion, that isn’t “great.” Success on the field didn’t translate into stronger attendance

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  1. […] what you will about Montreal, I am still not convinced the city can support a Major League Baseball franchise. As I stated last […]

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