Montreal’s return to MLB could impact Blue Jays’ brand, bottom line

On the heels of a report stating that the Tampa Bay Rays have received permission from MLB to explore a plan that could see the team split its home games with Montreal, MLB Insider Jeff Blair joins Faizal Khamisa to break down what it could mean.

TORONTO – The business-side struggles of the Tampa Bay Rays have created an intriguing possibility for Montreal baseball fans who have been without a team since the Expos left for Washington 15 years ago.

While discussions remain preliminary, MLB has allowed the Rays to explore the possibility of playing a split season between St. Petersburg, Fla., and Montreal. Under those circumstances, early season games would likely take place in Florida and late-season games would be played in Canada.

For Montrealers, it would be a second chance at supporting a big-league team. And now that investor Stephen Bronfman has designs on developing a new stadium in the Peel Basin, the idea has tangible support it lacked in previous years.

But of course the Rays wouldn’t be the only team affected under the proposed scenario, which was first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The return of baseball to Montreal would also have the potential to impact the Toronto Blue Jays’ travel schedule, brand and bottom line. As a result, team decision-makers were immediately intrigued.

For manager Charlie Montoyo, who played for the Expos before coaching with the Rays, Montreal fans deserve another chance.

“It’d be pretty cool,” Montoyo said. “I live in Toronto now and it’s right there if they were in the same division. But I also know there’s people that live in Tampa, friends of mine, who’d love to stay in that area because they’ve got their lives and families there. It’s mixed feelings for me, but I know it’d be great to have baseball back in Montreal.”

The return of baseball to Montreal would be especially intriguing if the shared team played in the AL East. The Expos played in the National League for all 36 seasons of their existence, so there was never the possibility of a Montreal-Toronto pennant race.

Suddenly that’s imaginable. Still, that possibility’s not close to becoming reality.

“While details are just beginning to emerge, the city of Montreal has a long, proud history of professional and major-league baseball and we will be watching any developments with interest,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi.

Since the departure of the Expos, the Blue Jays have filled the void for baseball fans coast to coast, embarking on cross-country fan-engagement tours and using the phrase ‘Canada’s Team’ in branding efforts.

Whether deliberately or not, players often refer to the fact that they’re playing for a whole country. It’s more than just empty words, too. Thanks in part to the Blue Jays’ recent playoff runs, support for the team exists nation-wide.

The return of baseball to Montreal would mean the Blue Jays no longer have such a complete hold on Canadian fans’ attention, TV viewership and, ultimately, dollars. Eventually, that could create significant complications, but in the meantime the Blue Jays are simply watching with interest as the Rays consider their options.

“A really cool idea,” GM Ross Atkins said. “I love the city, love the thought of it, love the creativity in and around it. It’ll be exciting to follow. We’ll pay attention to see how that progresses.”

June 20: The Montreal-Tampa Ex-Rays?
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Still, splitting time between two cities seems far from ideal as the Expos experienced first-hand when playing 22 games per season in San Juan, Puerto Rico from 2003-04. Beyond the logistical issues for players, coaches and staff, a split schedule would raise questions about the location of playoff games and what to name the team.

As Atkins noted, those issues would “be significant to work through.” On a smaller scale, a split schedule would impact the Blue Jays, who play six series per season against the Rays. Travel to Montreal would be marginally easier, but it’s not as though the three-hour flight to Tampa’s overly taxing.

Big picture, none of this matters unless the Rays decide playing games in Montreal makes sense from a business standpoint. If they do, the Blue Jays’ reach could be threatened, but more broadly it would still be welcome news for fans of Canadian baseball.

After all, a Toronto-Montreal pennant race would be far more compelling than watching September baseball at empty Tropicana Field.

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