Baseball Montreal

Why bringing pro baseball back to Montreal is a colossal mistake

“We’re watching Stephen Bronfman plan a robbery, but because it’s the people’s money, no one in government really gives a shit.”

One day, I suspect, not very long from now, Montreal will have a unique distinction amongst cities: we may be the very first city to get half a baseball team for explicitly political purposes. Whether Montreal merits a part-time team seems to hinge on the apparent political expediency of the decision more than any other factor — including, and especially, the interest of the citizens.

It’s expedient for the mairesse to be seen as ‘pro business’, and nothing says so quite like tacitly approving the machinations of the Bronfman family. Similarly, it’s in Plante’s best interest to keep CAQuistador Frank Lego happy, and he’s quite keen to get white Québécois to play white sports (no money for jai alai this year, Juan).

And so, even though none of us voted for it, and despite baseball being conspicuously absent from this most recent election season, it seems like we’re falling ass-backwards into baseball — again.

Montreal baseball
Mayor Valérie Plante — Why bringing pro baseball back to Montreal is a colossal mistake

The latest news is somehow both astonishing and predictable: Stephen Bronfman, a billionaire and supposedly some kind of innovative business leader (who came up with the failsafe business strategy of being born into one of the wealthiest bootlegging families in Canada and parking his money tax-free in the Cayman Islands), wants hundreds of millions of dollars from the Quebec government. La Presse reports that the Quebec government is considering different options, including providing Bronfman’s Montreal Baseball Group with grants and forgivable loans which they insist won’t cost the public a dime, but are in fact based on the discount ball club generating sufficient tax revenue for the province. Papa Premier has said that the venture wouldn’t cost Quebec taxpayers any money, but when asked by Québec Solidaire leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois to say so on the record in the National Assembly, Legault inexplicably could only attack Nadeau-Dubois’s apparently “un-prime-ministerial” language on social media. Watch this video and ask yourself how the hell this clown managed to become premier of Quebec.


Once upon a time, when I was younger and dumber, I was of the mind that any large city should pull out all the stops to have as many professional league franchises as possible. I was convinced that it was good for the economy; I was convinced that pro sports stimulate the restaurant and hospitality sectors, draw in tourists and that new stadiums provide economic stimulus by employing construction workers, architects and engineers, and once they’re built, they’re a source of jobs. What’s not to like?

Montreal baseball
Bye bye Montreal Expos — Why bringing pro baseball back to Montreal is a colossal mistake

More importantly, I thought it was a good idea for Montreal to have teams playing in sports Americans love, such as baseball, because it was important to keep our city on their radar. Wouldn’t that be good for business and tourism, especially considering the percentage of tourists from the States that regularly come and visit?

When I found out that former mayor Jean Drapeau pushed hard to secure a Major League Baseball expansion team back in the late-1960s for precisely these reasons, I took this to confirm both my own intelligence and that ‘great minds thought alike’ (and that perhaps I should consider a career in municipal politics). 

It turns out I wasn’t that bright and had an inflated sense of my own intelligence. I’d have been a shoo-in for a career in politics.

Pro sports does nothing for the economy

I also discovered that this issue has been studied fairly throughly by economists, and you’d be hard pressed to find a serious economist who’d advocate to any city getting into the business of paying for pro sports. Professional sports franchises contribute next to nothing to municipal economies, let alone tourism or the restaurant/hospitality sector. Those American tourists are already coming here and we don’t have a baseball team. The number of diehard American baseball fans who will choose to make a trip to Montreal to watch a game aren’t sufficient enough in number to pay down the cost of a billion-dollar stadium. And yes, people go out to bars to watch the game, and yes, some people will also go out to a restaurant and/or bar before or after seeing a game played in the local arena/stadium/ballpark. But we’re talking about such a small minority of the population that the economic impact is negligible.

Under normal, non-pandemic, economic conditions most people will be going out to bars and restaurants irrespective of whether professional sports are occurring at the same time. The presence or absence of pro sports has no bearing whatsoever on people’s desire to go to restaurants or bars, as evidenced by the fact that our city has an exceptional bar and dining scene despite only having a single sports franchise in one of the four North American major leagues. Moreover, the average citizen has a more or less fixed entertainment and leisure budget in a given year, meaning if they’re already spending money to go see a hockey game, they’re likely not also spending more money before or afterwards (especially considering what you might pay for watered-down beer and casse-croûte fare at the Bell Centre). This logic extends to introducing new sports franchises into the mix: the average person will choose between seeing a hockey game or a baseball game, and will rarely choose both. If they do, in one or the other (or both), they won’t also then go spend more money at a bar or restaurant. You can imagine that those who will spend that extra sum are people with a lot of disposable income, but again, that’s an ultra-minority of the population.

Bell Centre VIP — Why bringing pro baseball back to Montreal is a colossal mistake

The pro-sports side also argues that the stadiums provide economic stimulus in their own right, but this too is a lot of smoke and mirrors. The Canadiens, whether they’re sucking like vacuums or making it to the Stanley Cup finals, chiefly make money for the Molson family, and the money is made inside the Bell Centre. This would be just as true of any future baseball team: sports venues are designed specifically so that you can purchase your food and drink within the venue. The argument that the presence of an arena or stadium will either provide a steady stream of customers to the bars and restaurants around them (or lead to the creation of a whole new entertainment district) is ludicrous. Consider the locations of our city’s sports venues: neither Molson Stadium nor Saputo Stadium have anything of the sort even remotely close to them. As for the Bell Centre, though there are some bars and restaurants nearby today, many of these only came to be in the last five years or so. For about the first two decades of the Bell Centre’s existence, the closest bars and restaurants remained several blocks away.

As for the jobs such venues may create, the majority of the people who wind up employed at the venue work in very basic service or security roles, meaning they neither make very good money, nor are they likely to keep the same job for a prolonged period of time. An economist once told me the average sports venue has about the same economic impact as a large Walmart. Yes, there’s a brief bit of stimuli for the construction/engineering/architectural sector, if the city is building a new stadium from scratch. But in an increasing number of cases, stadiums are built either with direct public financial support (i.e. the government pays for it) or through indirect financial assistance (i.e. tax breaks, free land etc), so the economic stimulus winds up being little more than more public subsidy.

This brings us to the problem at hand. While the proponents of Major League Baseball’s part-time return to Montreal insist it won’t cost the public a dime, this is demonstrably impossible to believe — Bronfman is asking for money! To begin with, the ‘Ex-Rays’ would need a place to play, and I doubt this deal will go through unless the local promoters either have a stadium already built or one in the planning stages. Building an entirely new stadium from scratch for a half-off team seems unlikely without some kind of government assistance—a new stadium could cost between $500- and $600-million. What’s more, the site most often discussed — the various parcels of ‘undeveloped’ land around the Peel Basin — are owned by the federal government, meaning it’s public land that ought to serve the public, not private, interest. I can imagine a scenario in which the ‘Rayspos’ play at the Big O for a couple years while the ‘funding for the new stadium is put together’, but I can also imagine a scenario in which they’re not quite paying the full price for the privilege. Then you have to add in all the other things sports teams and stadiums often don’t pay for: electricity, sewerage, water, gas, police, to say nothing of the strain pro sports puts on traffic, transit and parking infrastructure.

Montreal baseball
The Tampa Bay Rays — Why bringing pro baseball back to Montreal is a colossal mistake

And bear in mind: if baseball was such an economic home run, the Tampa Bay Rays wouldn’t be looking for a part-time partner — the people of Tampa Bay would have already paid for a whole new stadium, which is exactly what Rays’ management wanted all along. We’re not potentially getting half a team because it’s a surefire money-maker — it’s a club desperate to keep the lights on that went out looking for suckers who aren’t smart enough to realize pro sports is a money pit. We’re those suckers!

Hello, we already have a stadium

And the astonishing irony of all this is that, even if we were to allow ourselves once again to fall for the con that is investing public money into pro sports, the Olympic Stadium would be the better option by far. Aside from the fact that it’s already built and paid for, it’s also already directly integrated into the city’s public transit network, meaning there wouldn’t be much in the way of major capital expenditures necessary to have a workable stadium. As the exhibition games of recent years have already demonstrated, the Big O still mostly works in its vocation as a major sports stadium.

Olympic Stadium mass vaccination
Olympic Stadium

Additionally, unlike the Peel Basin location, the Big O is mostly surrounded by other cultural, sports, entertainment and leisure venues — not housing. Putting a stadium in the Peel Basin area not only precludes the development of more housing in a chiefly residential area, we run risk of that housing then becoming short-term vacation rentals, much like what has happened around the Bell Centre. This is because, as hard as it might be to imagine, people don’t actually like living next to noisy, crowded, traffic-clogged sports venues. The Big O doesn’t have any of these problems (though it does have about 4,000 parking spots conveniently built into the complex’s basement).

Further still, most of the people who live near the Peel Basin have money — these aren’t poor neighbourhoods any more, and their residents aren’t in need of service sector jobs. But out in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, it’s a bit of a different story, and it would certainly be a boon to that part of town to drop a few hundred new jobs right in the middle of the East End. Finally, the whole nonsense of the Big O being too far obviously no longer holds any water, given the success of Saputo Stadium, to say nothing of all the other major attractions in that area.

But none of this really seems to matter, and it seems the city that was handed a billion-dollar bill after the 1976 Olympics, and learned the hard way that publicly subsidizing sports is a bad investment, is trying do the exact same thing all over again. Not because it’s needed or wanted, but simply because there was no politician in Montreal willing to stand up and resist the money elites.

We’re watching Stephen Bronfman plan a robbery, but because it’s the people’s money, no one in government really gives a shit. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.