Expos Bought by Loria

An ardent baseball fan since the 1950s and a minority owner of the Montreal Expos, Mark Routtenberg concedes that even his passion for the Grand Old Game waned during the past year.

Expos Bought by Loria

An ardent baseball fan since the 1950s and a minority owner of the Montreal Expos, Mark Routtenberg concedes that even his passion for the Grand Old Game waned during the past year. "That's how tough it's been for me," says Routtenberg, referring to drawn-out efforts by the Expos ownership to keep the baseball club in Montreal, not to mention the sad-sack performances by the team and stay-away fans. After a saga marked by floating deadlines and speculation that the club might head south, Expos owners finally got a go-ahead last week for a corporate game plan: major-league baseball owners unanimously approved the purchase of a controlling interest in the team by New York City art dealer Jeffrey Loria. For now, at least, the deal helps secure the club's future in Montreal and brings it a step closer to getting a new, downtown, baseball-only ball park. New city-core stadiums and winning teams have proved to be lucratively popular elsewhere, Routtenberg noted, "and that's our goal over the next three years."

It won't be easy. The Expos must still resolve financial issues before they can launch construction on a projected $200-million ball park with seats for about 37,000 fans. Other questions loom. After the worst attendance in the majors last season - an average of just 9,547 people a game - how will the Expos lure fans back to much-maligned Olympic Stadium, their east-end home since 1977, until the new park opens, the owners hope, in 2002? Loria faced such questions as he prepared to make his debut before Montreal's news media this week. A baseball afficionado who once owned a Triple-A team in Oklahoma City, Loria replaces departing owner Claude Brochu, leading a group injecting $75 million into the club.

One of the prospective minority investors is a member of the wealthy and powerful Bronfman family: Stephen, 35, a Seagrams board member and the son of the Expos founding owner-chairman, Charles Bronfman. His participation gives a boost to the survival plan of the 31-year-old club. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he is "very hopeful" that last week's developments will contribute to "long-term stability and health" for the Expos.

To reach that goal, the corporate players must finalize several key matters, including details of the new ownership arrangement and a deal with the federal government for Crown land south of the Molson Centre that the club seeks as the stadium site. The owners want to start construction early in the new year. They also want to raise about $70 million from the public partly through the sale of so-called seat licences, which provide the right to buy season tickets in the new ball park. Still sounding cautious last week, Expos chairman Jacques Ménard declared: "I will celebrate and taste the champagne when we break ground."

Other Montrealers were already happy. "I think it's fantastic for the city and for baseball fans," said retailer Stuart Shiveck, 32, who mailed off his first instalment cheque last week for a $10,000 seat licence. But skeptics wonder whether Montrealers will generate enough support to keep the team in the city. In the background loom the sometimes-fatal pressures on all Canadian clubs: big-money competition with American teams for players; the added cost of paying salaries in U.S. funds. The Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets are already casualties, and other NHL teams are skating scared. Last week, Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden said he is starting to look at selling the team to U.S. interests because the Canadian government has not offered tax breaks he says are necessary for his team to compete. And without such help, said Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke, more NHL clubs are sure to topple.

But Routtenberg remains optimistic: "With the right product and right venue, I'm convinced the franchise will work as well as most in the United States." As with each chapter in the Expos story, the next one remains pivotal.

Maclean's December 13, 1999