Could cascading effects of COVID-19 impact baseball returning to Montreal?

Montreal-Expos

Montreal Expos first baseman Brad Wilkerson signs autographs before the team's final home game against the Florida Marlins in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Surely, we are past the point now where we need to throw in a caveat in every sports story, explaining: “I know this doesn’t matter when people are dying, but…” And at our place, at least, we have emerged from a 14-day period of my self-isolation with an understanding that once this pandemic is over, things will be very much changed — and that it us up to us to make that change wholly positive, and maybe actually come out on the other end better than when we went in.

It has been an interesting two weeks for those of us in the sports media industry, with a lot of looking back interspersed with the odd snippet of breaking news. When there is no present — and the future is on hold — the past is all that’s left to us.

Yet there were a few green shoots; a few signs that the shock of the sudden stoppage of all our games had given way to planning for a resumption. Mark Cuban spit-balls May as a point of resumption for the NBA. The Independent’s Miguel Delaney reported Sunday that the Premier League is serious about basing club teams in isolated training facilities in the Midlands and London — as is often done in the World Cup or at Euros — and playing its remaining 92 matches during the summer months. The Bundesliga seems bent on the same idea.

Of course, nobody can give us a date when normalcy returns or even what it looks like, but what does seem clear is that return will most likely be behind closed doors — certainly, that any early return (however we might define early) will be done in that manner in order to honour the remnants of broadcasting and sponsorship deals.

We saw that in the wording of Major League Baseball’s agreement with the MLB Players Association dealing with service time, salary and scheduling issues. Lip service was paid to the notion of playing in front of fans — with commissioner Rob Manfred effectively retaining the ability to use his powers “in the best interest of the game” to order games played behind closed doors.

But here’s another caveat: Minnesota Twins president and chief executive officer Dave St. Peter acknowledged he had not completely ruled out the entire 2020 season being cancelled. Meanwhile, look at China and the Chinese Basketball Association: three dates for resumption of play. None of them met.

Writers Bloc
Devon White fields some questions from Writers Bloc
March 26 2020

David Samson, the former president of the Florida Marlins, has been part of a franchise swap, built a stadium and won a World Series, and saw a $25-million or thereabouts investment by his stepfather, Jeffrey Loria, turn into a $1.1-billion sale of the Marlins in less than two decades. He now hosts a podcast called Nothing Personal and, yeah, I am a big believer in giving the devil his due especially when he gives us insight into the board-room.

He joined Richard Deitsch, Stephen Brunt and myself on Writers Bloc this week and talked a bit about watching the game handle 9/11 and how this was a different kettle of fish; how baseball won’t be able to take as much of a lead role as it did then. (Indeed, it’s difficult not to get the sense that, at this time, it is the NBA that has possession of the ball.)

Brunt asked him whether we might see professional sports franchises fold as a result of this shutdown and his response was that it was more likely we’d see teams sold than fold, given that some business owners — think Mickey Arison, who owns Carnival Cruise Lines and the Miami Heat — might need a quick cash infusion because of damage to their non-sports businesses.

My first reaction as someone with a vested emotional interest in baseball returning to Montreal: what impact does this have on what appeared to be an almost-certain thing? How much life is left in the split-city concept?

I know this: if the United States descends into a kind of intellectual-nationalistic quarantine after the death of many of its citizens, taking a franchise half out of the country while building a new ballpark in Tampa might be a difficult political sell. And my guess is a substantial re-investment in health care will be a bigger deal for many jurisdictions — at least initially — than new sports palaces.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Those of us who believe that the split-city thing is actually part of a longer-term strategy of negotiating the Rays out of the Tampa Bay area for good need to mull over that one.

It has become fashionable to think that paid attendance has become less important to teams than network TV deals, robust advanced media arms, corporate sponsorships and zeroing in on alliances with the expanding world of legalized gambling — and, yes, I am throwing my own hand up in the air for that one.

Yet, as Neil Paine of Forbes notes: Major League Baseball teams still rely on gate receipts for 30 per-cent of their revenue. That’s still a sizable whack of money, and as Samson said: the reliance on gate receipts compared to other revenue streams varies from team to team. The Marlins couldn’t draw flies, so they relied on network and regional TV. But clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and the like? Sell-out crowds are a huge revenue asset.

I’m going to tell you a true story. Years ago, the late Kevin Towers asked a bunch of us over spring training beers in Arizona if we could ever see a time when sports teams no longer relied on mammoth constructions built out of bricks and mortar, and instead played on what amounted to sports sound stages with, maybe, a small amount of fans — no doubt willing to pay big prices — in very small stadiums. Think 10,000 folks in luxury boxes.

I remember the debate dissolved into whether or not he’d allow baseball writers in, and I’m reasonably certain it ended up going unresolved as we puttered off for a late night In-N-Out Burger — as one does. I think about stuff like that now, and what all this means for how and where we watch sports going forward, and when we’ll feel comfortable sitting with 40,000 other people eating concession food in the stands. I think about a lot, and find myself oddly intrigued about the dislocation this will cause the sports world.

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Quibbles And Bits

• This is terrific: New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton has opened his playbook to all of us…lingo and all.

• We’ve had a number of terrific guests and interviews on our show and it’s amazing how, at a time like this, the most obvious common-sense thing can give you pause for reflection. David Branch, Ontario Hockey League commissioner and former president of the Canadian Hockey League got all of us thinking about the implications of the cancellation of the Memorial Cup, which was scheduled for Kelowna.

As Branch told us, host teams begin preparing for the event two years out, trading and developing players with an eye toward being competitive when it comes time to play the champions of the OHL, Western League and QMJHL. So simply holding it again next year in Kelowna is not a slam-dunk.

Second, Branch is concerned about the financial impact on mid-sized junior hockey markets as opposed to smaller markets. “In those smaller markets, people will just automatically rally around the team,” he said.

• Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg were the best line I’ve had the privilege of watching on a nightly basis. In 1979 on this date, the NHL agreed to let four WHA teams — the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets — join the league and proceeded to screw over the four teams, in particular stripping the Jets. The ‘Hot Line’ never did get to play together in the NHL. You don’t know what you missed.

•The CFL has made the logical decision to postpone the start of training camp, which was scheduled to open in mid-May. There is no league I am more concerned about in this pandemic.

The Endgame

Watching the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays games this weekend made me wonder about two things.

First: what would have happened if then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos hadn’t balked at the price for Ben Zobrist — a Twitter follower alerted me this weekend to an interview with the now-general manager of the Atlanta Braves in which he said the inclusion of Rowdy Tellez was the holdup in a deal with the Oakland Athletics for Zobrist — who was Anthopoulos’ primary target, and instead ended with the Kansas City Royals in return for pitchers Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks.

Hey, I know David Price and Troy Tulowitzki were terrific additions, and Zobrists acquisition would likely have precluded one of them, but Zobrist went on to play six positions for the Royals, hit .333 in an American League Division Series win over the Houston Astros and .320 with a 1.050 OPS in the AL Championship Series against the Jays. He signed a four-year, $56-million with the Chicago Cubs in the off-season and went on to be the World Series most valuable player in 2016 when the Cubs finally ended the Curse of the Billy Goat.

It’s true that Tulo’s defence at shortstop was a key component of the Jays for two years but, man…Zobrist ticked a helluva lot of boxes.

The second thing: who knew the Blue Jays would need five years to find a full-time lead-off hitter after Ben Revere.


Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 1-4 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. You can also hear us live on the Sportsnet app, at Sprtsnt.ca/590listen, or tell Google or Alexa to “play Sportsnet 590.” Rate, review and subscribe to our podcast here.


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