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opinion

About the only people who seemed surprised to learn last week that Major League Baseball will not be returning to Montreal any time soon were the two people who most promoted the idea.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and Canadian businessman Stephen Bronfman expressed disbelief after MLB rejected a proposal for the Florida team to play half of its home games in Montreal at a new baseball stadium in the city.

The joint-custody plan never generated much enthusiasm from fans. It was seen by many as a Hail Mary pass after attempts by Mr. Bronfman’s Groupe baseball Montréal (GMB) to bring a full MLB franchise to the city ran up against the laws of economics.

Mr. Bronfman’s investment group, whose members include Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. chairman Alain Bouchard and GardaWorld Corp. chief executive officer Stéphan Crétier, were unwilling to put up the more than US$2-billion MLB would have required for a new franchise. So, it instead sold Mr. Sternberg on the idea of “sharing” the Rays with Tampa Bay, where the team has played to a half-empty stadium.

Montreal baseball fans have dreamed of a return of their beloved Expos to the city where they played between 1969 and 2004 since the team left for Washington, D.C. Mr. Bronfman, whose Seagram’s heir father, Charles Bronfman, was the original Expos owner, championed the fans’ cause and even managed to bring politicians on board.

Quebec Premier François Legault last fall suggested his government could be willing put up some of the estimated $500-million cost of new baseball stadium on federally owned land south of downtown, provided future tax revenues from the project could justify the investment of public funds.

The site, known as Peel Basin, is set to get its own station on Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light-rail transit line that Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is building. But development of the lot on the Lachine Canal, owned by Canada Lands Co., is now up in the air after MLB’s rejection of the Bronfman plan.

On the bright side, Quebec taxpayers are off the hook, for now.

Since 1976, they have faced never ending bills for the Olympic Park, whose nearly-useless 60,000-seat stadium and adjacent facilities cost $1.7-billion to build and maintain by 2017, according to an official tally by the agency that runs the site. (The total cost surpassed $5-billion in 2017 dollars.) The tab has only risen since. The stadium needs a new roof. Its current one makes it too unsafe for winter events.

Quebec taxpayers also foot the bill for the $400-million Centre Vidéotron, which opened in 2015 in the hopes of luring a National Hockey League franchise back to the provincial capital. Since then, Las Vegas and Seattle have both obtained NHL franchises. Quebec City is still not on the NHL’s radar. It is not even clear Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau, whose media and telecommunications company had initially pitched the plan, is still interested in owning a pro hockey team.

That has not stopped Mr. Legault from promoting the idea. “I tell myself that if Ottawa and Winnipeg are able to have team, we should be able to have a team in Quebec,” the Premier said in November. But after Finance Minister Eric Girard met virtually with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this month, the league said it was “not aware of any opportunity that could address [Quebec’s] interest at the current time.”

That means RBC Capital Markets vice-chairman Michael Fortier’s efforts to obtain a National Basketball Association franchise for Montreal remains the only pro sports proposal that has not been officially rejected by major league officials. Whether that means it has better odds of ever becoming a reality is unclear – though if anyone can drum up investor interest it is likely Mr. Fortier.

MLB’s rejection of Mr. Bronfman’s proposal leaves the listless Montreal Canadiens, the CFL’s Alouettes and the struggling CF Montréal of Major League Soccer, or MLS, as the only pro sports games in town. The Canadiens remain the third-most valuable NHL franchise, worth US$1.6-billion according to Forbes magazine. But Montreal fans are growing weary of forking out three figures to watch the Canadiens lose at the Bell Centre.

The local business community dreams of the addition of MLB and NBA franchises, especially as it seeks to revive Montreal’s downtown core, which has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than those of most North American cities. There was no joy in watching Mr. Bronfman strike out.

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