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Montreal’s new business generation goes to bat for Major League Baseball

Montreal's new-money entrepreneurs are crazy about a very old sport. While younger North Americans seem to go gaga over basketball and soccer, the new guard of Montreal business pines for the return of Major League Baseball to the city that still mourns its lost Expos.

And it seems they're even willing to put their money where their broken hearts are. Old money heir Stephen Bronfman last week confirmed reports that he has assembled an investor group to put up the estimated $1-billion (U.S.) or more that would be needed to bring an existing MLB team or expansion franchise to the city whose once beloved Expos fled for greener fields in 2004.

According to various reports, the investor group includes Caesars Acquisition CEO Mitch Garber, Stingray Digital CEO Eric Boyko and GardaWorld CEO Stéphan Crétier, Generation X entrepreneurs who emerged over the past decade to breathe new life into Quebec Inc. with daring ventures in the gambling, digital streaming and security industries, respectively.

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They're reportedly joined by Dollarama executive chairman Larry Rossy, the son of Lebanese immigrants who turned the family-run dollar store into one of the country's most successful retail chains with annual sales nearing $3-billion and a market capitalization exceeding $13-billion.

None of these entrepreneurs was established enough to keep the Expos from leaving town in 2004, after the team's then-majority owner Jeffrey Loria sold it back to the league. MLB moved the franchise to Washington for the 2005 season, ending a painful saga in Montreal's sports history and orphaning team mascot Youppi (subsequently adopted by the NHL's Canadiens).

Once a year, since 2014, Expos nostalgics get to taste again the thrills of watching pro ball locally when the Toronto Blue Jays play two preseason exhibition games at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. This year's edition of the Big O double-header, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, drew 95,000 fans amid a mood of optimism on the news that the investor lineup is in place for MLB's permanent return.

"It's not a question of 'if' but 'when'" insists RBC Capital Markets vice-chairman Michael Fortier, whose firm and others helped get the ball rolling by providing seed funding for the Montreal Baseball Project, which promotes MLB's return to the city. "There's been a lot of wealth creation in Montreal in the past decade. And these new wealthy Montrealers love baseball."

Indeed, it was through their mutual love for baseball that Mr. Fortier got to know Mr. Crétier. Both once aspired to be Major League umpires, but Mr. Crétier took his passion furthest. He moved to Florida in his 20s to go to umpire school, doing an MBA on the side. The MBA turned out to be handier than the degree in umping.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is said to have persuaded MLB commissioner Rob Manfred of the seriousness of the city's bid. Mr. Manfred is using Montreal's interest to pressure the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays to build a new stadium or move the team. He also aims to add two new franchises to the league.

Montreal would also have to agree to build a new stadium and neither Mr. Coderre nor the provincial government have officially committed to putting public money to such a venture. They might find themselves with a taxpayers revolt on their hands if they did. Quebec City's $370-million Centre Vidéotron, built entirely with public money, remains underused while Quebecor pursues a National Hockey League franchise for the city. The 18-month-old arena racked up a $3.7-million operating deficit in 2016 with no NHL team in sight.

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Baseball backers insist a MLB team could play in the Big O while a new downtown stadium is built. A 2013 Ernst & Young feasibility study prepared for the Montreal Board of Trade estimated average game attendance of 28,500 in a new stadium within two kilometres of the downtown core. "The return of Major League Baseball would be financially viable under a set of realistic assumptions" that include a competitive payroll, average ticket prices, a local broadcasting rights deal and revenue sharing among MLB teams, the study concluded.

The business case has improved since that report. Pension fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec's proposed $6-billion light rapid transit project, which was not on the horizon in 2013, will include a major station hub near the proposed site for a new stadium in the so-called Peel Basin, making the venue accessible for fans in Montreal's far flung suburbs on the north and south shores of the St. Lawrence River. The Caisse is also touted as a potential stadium investor.

How long, then, until Montrealers are talking ERAs and RBIs on their LRT ride to a MLB home game?

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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