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The Woes of the Expos
L. Jon Wertheim
June 28, 1999
Will a beleaguered franchise finally bid Montreal adieu?
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June 28, 1999

The Woes Of The Expos

Will a beleaguered franchise finally bid Montreal adieu?

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Rather than clapping their hands and stomping I their feet, Montreal Expos fans have a novel way of applauding. They kick the metal seats in front of them. The abused seats, of course, must be unoccupied, but that's usually a foregone conclusion at Montreal's sepulchral Olympic Stadium. Through last weekend the Expos were averaging 9,001 fans a game, less than 20% of capacity. The upper deck is closed for most games. "It's obviously a bad situation," says Hugh Hallward, a former Expos co-owner. "Something has to give."

Indeed something will. Perhaps as soon as the All-Star break, major league baseball will announce whether it agrees with the assessment of team president and general partner, Claude Brochu, that the Expos simply cannot thrive in Montreal. If so, MLB will orchestrate a sale of the team, probably to an ownership group in either Washington, D.C., or Charlotte. While no MLB franchise has defected in nearly 30 years, patience is wearing thin for the hapless Expos, who derive 70% of their $47 million ( U.S.) in gross revenues from leaguewide revenue sharing. "No one likes to see teams move," says Giants' president and managing general partner Peter Magowan. "But they've had time to get their act together, and the situation still looks pretty bleak."

The Expos' relocation to les �tats-Unis was regarded as a done deal as recently as this spring, but, in their last at bat, Montreal's ownership group may have produced a game-winning rally. The team's 13 limited partners have all turned against Brochu and forged plans for constructing an outdoor stadium downtown, funded by a blend of modest public monies, seat licenses and corporate support. The Labatt Brewing Co. has made a tentative commitment of $70 million that includes naming rights, and the provincial government will pick up the tab for interest payments on the stadium loan. The existing ownership group would then buy out Brochu's interest for $15 million and replace him with a new general partner, New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria, who vows to bring roughly $50 million to the table. With Loria's infusion of capital, the business plan calls for the team to triple its payroll to $50 million within two years.

But this effort to keep the team in Montreal is not failsafe. The budget for the new ballpark has dwindled to $117 million, about half the cost of the new stadium in Pittsburgh that will open in 2001. Loria's bona fides have come under scrutiny, as well. After failing in his bid to purchase the Orioles earlier this decade, he scotched a deal to buy the Royals at the 11th hour last year.

Still, as the commissioner's office reviews the plans for the new ballpark and Loria's potential ownership, optimism prevails. "This is a unique market, and we have passionate fans—they're just tired of being told "wait till next year,' " says Mark Routtenberg, one of the Expos' limited partners. "If we get the right venue, all the ingredients for being successful in Montreal are there."

In that case, the stands will be more densely peopled, and the fans will have to come up with a more decorous way of rooting for the home team.