SBJ/June 25 - July 1, 2001/Opinion

A tale of 2 cities, 2 very different leagues

As the slow and painful demise of the Montreal Expos continues, one can't help but compare the Expos' recent history with that of the Vancouver Grizzlies, the struggling NBA franchise that will soon be moving south of the Canadian border.

The history of these two franchises illustrates the major challenges common to professional sports teams operating in Canada — and speaks volumes about the differences in the leadership of the NBA and Major League Baseball.

The trials and tribulations of the Montreal Expos have been well chronicled. The Expos are a baseball team with a history of losing in a hockey town used to the winning ways of the Canadiens. The team plays in a ballpark built for the Olympics that offers none of the charm or allure of modern baseball venues. Its expenses are paid largely in U.S. dollars but its revenue comes in Canadian dollars, worth 35 cents less.

Only the most talented and creative team and league executives might possess the necessary skills to overcome these obstacles. While previous ownership groups made attempts at making the Expos economically viable by reducing payroll and developing a constant stream of young and talented major league players, those ownership groups were unable to succeed in turning the franchise around.

Even the advent of revenue sharing following the conclusion of the players' strike in 1995 couldn't help. The ownership group led by Claude Brochu chose not to use its portion of revenue sharing to improve the product on the field but pocketed it for other purposes.

After a prolonged process, an ownership group led by American Jeffrey Loria purchased the Expos from the Brochu ownership group two seasons ago. While Loria was publicly pledging to turn the franchise around, many speculated from the outset that his motive was to move the team to Virginia or another U.S. location.

Even though Loria has increased the team's payroll, numerous operational decisions he has made have destined the team for continuing failure. In 2000, the Expos played the entire season with no TV contract and no over-the-air radio contract — losing the chance for exposure — because Loria refused to accept deals that he felt were below market value. This season, television and radio are back to a limited extent.

Loria's leadership has led to dramatic declines in attendance. Through June 18, home attendance stood at a pathetic average of barely 8,800 fans per game, and crowds now are regularly below 5,000 fans per game. To add icing to the cake, the team fired its long-time manager, Felipe Alou, a managerial icon and fan favorite in Montreal.

Throughout the decline of the Expos, Major League Baseball kept its distance, presumably not wanting to pull the team out of Montreal and hoping the franchise could work things out. It doesn't take a genius to see that the writing has been on the wall in Montreal for several seasons. Apart from the piddling revenue sharing under the collective-bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball offered little in the way of assistance or guidance.

Of late, MLB's solution is the unprecedented suggestion of "contraction," and that isn't being suggested as a solution to the Expos' problem as much as it is being thrown out as a bargaining ploy for the upcoming labor negotiations with the MLBPA.

In contrast to the Expos, the short history of the Vancouver Grizzlies in Canada tells quite a different story. After a few short years of ownership, John McCaw decided to divest his interest in the Grizzlies two years ago. Yet the NBA initially vetoed his sale to Bill Laurie, new owner of the NHL St. Louis Blues and the Savvis Center, presumably doubting Laurie's intentions of keeping the team in Vancouver.

Orca Bay then quickly found a new buyer, Michael Heisley, who was swiftly approved by the NBA. However, after less than one season, claiming losses in excess of $40 million, Heisley announced his intention to move the Grizzlies to the United States rather than continue the charade of trying to survive in an economic market that just doesn't make long-term sense for NBA basketball.

The NBA, rather than prolonging a situation that could not be profitable in the foreseeable future, quickly agreed that Heisley could move the franchise. Further, the NBA was not shy in publicly stating its own view that professional basketball could not succeed in Vancouver under current economic circumstances.

The NBA's handling of the Grizzlies situation demonstrates the great difference between the leadership of the NBA and the leadership of MLB. In the competitive world of professional sports, it is crucial to react swiftly in situations that cast the sport in a negative light. Sometimes difficult short-term decisions must be made to avoid long-term negative publicity.

From a public relations point of view, the NBA quickly realized that the Vancouver situation was not going to be resolved. Pretending that it would be resolved could create years of negative media coverage focusing not only on the economic problems faced by the Grizzlies, but by the NBA itself. By going ahead with the move, the NBA and the Grizzlies can begin to turn the corner and focus on the possibility of success in a new market.

In contrast, Major League Baseball has allowed the Expos' situation to fester to the point where baseball fans in Montreal have completely lost interest. With media reports constantly focusing on the negatives surrounding the Expos, the public's view of the sport and baseball has soured dramatically. Instead of dealing with the situation decisively and making hard decisions, the Expos and baseball continue to suffer a slow death in Montreal.

While the Expos and the Grizzlies faced some common economic challenges, the NBA's swift response to the Grizzlies' situation speaks volumes for its success as an organization as contrasted to that of Major League Baseball.

Jeffrey Citron is former counsel at the National Hockey League Players' Association and now is a sports business consultant and sports lawyer with Goodmans LLP in Toronto.

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