Thursday, May 28, 2015
Montreal's Mayor Letting MLB Know His City Wants Baseball Back
First, Montreal had to prove it still cared passionately about baseball. That happened last year, when crowds of 46,121 and 50,229 witnessed a pair of exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets.
Then Montrealers needed to demonstrate that the robust turnout in 2014 wasn’t a one-off nostalgic burst. They took care of that in April, when even more fans returned to the suddenly reinvigorated Stade Olympique to watch the Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds.
Thursday, Montreal’s dream of regaining a Major League Baseball franchise — and, for now, a dream is what it remains — will take another necessary step, with Denis Coderre, the charismatic Montreal mayor, set to meet MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in New York.
“I think we’re sending a strong message,” Coderre told FOX Sports in a Wednesday telephone conversation. “I want to open the channel with Mr. Manfred. He spoke very highly of Montreal when he was first elected. He went to the Blue Jays’ (home opener) and spoke highly of Montreal there.
“This is going to be our first meeting. I want to show him our love of baseball, the fact that the political will is there to make this happen. I’m not going to negotiate publicly, but I’m going to send the strong message that we have the tools. I’m going to show him that we’re serious.
“This is the beginning.”
MLB officials already are aware of the renewed baseball fervor in Montreal, as well as the recent feasibility study that concluded an MLB franchise could be successful in a new downtown ballpark built with public and private funds.
So, Coderre’s presentation to Manfred will include additional elements — including the city’s recent $11-million investment in local baseball fields, along with what Coderre said is a 25-percent increase in youth baseball registration in Montreal over the past two years. Coderre cited the popularity of Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin — who grew up in Montreal — as another reason for growing local interest in the sport.
“We have a strong foundation for baseball,” Coderre said.
Separate from Montreal’s effort to bring a permanent franchise to the city, Coderre said he’s interested in hosting regular-season games at Olympic Stadium in the near term. That fits with Manfred’s goal — articulated during a recent MLB Network interview — to stage larger numbers of games in Canada and Mexico on a more sustained basis.
Make no mistake: There’s money to be made in Montreal. Only 17 of this season’s 688 MLB games through Tuesday — roughly 2.5 percent — exceeded the 48,223 average attendance of the Blue Jays-Reds exhibition series in Montreal.
Montreal, often described as the most European metropolis in North America, also represents a cultural link to the European markets MLB wishes to capture in coming years.
“Montreal is a gateway,” Coderre said. “Montreal adds value, because of our cultural mosaic and the unique diversity we have within the Americas. We are a hub, and clearly we’re a great place to be as a strategic position to get anywhere else.”
Montreal is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. or Canada without an MLB franchise, and evidence is mounting that one would thrive in the city — particularly given the revenue potential of media rights in English and French.
Of course, there’s the rather significant question of a franchise becoming available through relocation or expansion. Manfred said at the MLB owners meetings last week that expansion is not a “hot topic” for the moment — but suggested that could change in the next five or 10 years, depending on the game’s economic conditions.
It could be problematic for the league to expand with the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics still struggling to secure new stadiums. The Rays, in particular, seem likely to remain at Tropicana Field — where they have a lease through 2027 — for at least the next several years. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has remained frustrated in his effort to receive permission from the St. Petersburg (Fla.) City Council to evaluate new stadium sites in the Tampa Bay region.
Coderre doesn’t sound concerned that the momentum of the city’s effort would stall if it takes years to woo the commissioner’s office and/or a team owner who is willing to sell.
“I think what we need to do is establish a roadmap,” Coderre said. “Our enthusiasm for this project is clear. We love the sport. We’re serious about it. This isn’t just a gesture. We’ve put forward a new baseball policy in our city, and we’re spending $11 million on baseball fields here. We’ve seen the increase in registration. That already shows the positive impact of the comeback.
“It’s one step at a time. I’m not going to negotiate publicly, of course, but we’re going to be able to show those steps to the commissioner. I don’t know about a timeframe, but this is a town for baseball, and we’re keeping the flame.”