Going to bat for the Expos


David Johnson/The Gazette

Tuesday, June 20th, 2000
As Stephen Bronfman ambled out of Alexandre's pub on downtown Peel St. after lunch last Thursday, a waiter rushed out after him onto the sidewalk to shake his hand goodbye. As he continued down Peel, heads turned, fingers pointed. One man stopped Bronfman and said: "Good luck with the Expos."

With his messy blond hair, dark suit, bold blue tie and his two hands deep into his pockets, Bronfman looked every bit an ordinary guy attracting an extraordinary amount of attention. Which was really only half true. For no Bronfman, of course, is ordinary, least of all any Bronfman in Montreal, although these are indeed extraordinary times for the 35-year-old businessman.

As the Expos have become embroiled in a backroom corporate fight pitting controlling owner Jeffrey Loria against his 15 local shareholder partners, there's been mounting speculation that Bronfman, the richest by far of the 15, is under pressure from his colleagues to step forward and buy out Loria, thus ensuring the Major League Baseball team stays in Montreal.

Bronfman puts up the dough, Loria exits off stage back to Manhattan, and everybody lives happily ever after.

If only it were that simple. One complication: maybe Loria doesn't want to be bought out.

One recent report suggested the local partners tried to buy out Loria at a meeting on May 18, and that Loria refused, and responded with the retort: "Are any of you willing to sell?"

Neither Loria nor the local partners are speaking to the media, at least not on the record, so the report can't be confirmed. But if there is such a thing as a Loria buyout price, Bronfman, who joined the consortium last December, is the most likely candidate to pay it.

"When I look around the table, he's the only one I see doing it," one local shareholder said yesterday. "No one else is willing to put up any new money. In the baseball business, you need three things: deep pockets, a big ego and a lot of patience."

There's no question Bronfman meets the first criterion. As a grandson of legendary Seagram Co. Ltd. founder Sam Bronfman, money is the least of Stephen's worries.

A Seagram proxy circular issued last fall, before Stephen's election in November to the company's board, lists him as owning 21.04 million Seagram shares, which closed in Toronto yesterday at $92.40 a share on news of the expected takeover of Seagram by Vivendi SA of France. That works out to $1.94 billion in Seagram holdings alone. The price per share under the takeover deal, according to Seagram, will be $77 U.S., putting Stephen's holdings at $1.62 billion U.S.

Financially speaking, Stephen is able. But is he willing? That's another matter. Stephen, of course, is the only son of Charles Bronfman, who was majority Expos owner from the club's inception in 1968 until he and his partners sold in 1990.

Charles didn't like the direction baseball economics was moving in, and baseball is in a bigger economic mess today than it was then. So if the father is talking to the son, and the son is listening, the son probably isn't taking his white-knight clothes out of his closet right now.

Even his business associates at Claridge SRB Investments of Montreal, his own private investment firm, where he holds the title of chairman, are advising caution.

"There's no point in him bellying up to the bar if his other partners don't," one associate said.

Stephen, though, isn't talking.

"I can't say anything about the Expos to you right now," he said after his lunch at Alexandre's last Thursday. "But there might be something to say in a few days." Yesterday, however, there was no news on the buyout front.

Last December, Loria put up $18 million - and Bronfman, Jean Coutu and the Loblaws grocery chain $1 million each - to help buy out Claude Brochu as managing partner of the local consortium to which Charles Bronfman et al sold in 1990. Loria took over from Brochu, and Stephen Bronfman was named co-chairman of the new ownership group.

But now Loria and his local partners are feuding over cash calls and conflicting visions for the proposed new $200-million downtown stadium. And that feud has stalled plans by Loria to put up another $57 million he had pledged, and Bronfman, Coutu, Loblaws and potential new local investors another $72 million, including $9 million more from Bronfman. Without this new money, there can be no new stadium.

Charles Bronfman was down on baseball when he sold in 1990. In his last interview as Expos principal owner with The Gazette in December 1990, Charles was asked if he would recommend buying a Major League Baseball team, given the contemporary economics of the sport.

"No," he replied. "No bloody way. When I got into baseball, it was still a sport. You could make a few bucks and lose a few bucks but, basically, it was a sport. Today it's a big business, it's a tough business, and there's too much enmity."

A decade later, it's an even tougher business for small-market cities like Montreal, and Charles has undoubtedly told Stephen that. One of the funniest moments of Stephen's first press conference last December, as Expos co-chairman, came when he was asked if he had spoken to his father about his plans to invest in the team.

"He said: 'Don't touch it!' " replied Bronfman with a chuckle. After the room full of reporters exploded in laughter, he added: "No, of course, he's supportive. I think he's just proud that the team has been able to stay in Montreal. Obviously, he has his views, and ... "

Bronfman paused. A silence overcame the room. "And I'm glad he's not here today!"

More laughter.

Stephen went on to explain that he had decided to get involved with the Expos after attending the 1999 home opener in April of last year.

"Obviously," he said, "I knew there was some trouble with the team (between Brochu and the local shareholders and the club's inability to afford rising player payrolls). And I went to Opening Day and walked into the stadium and got to my seats and looked around the house and saw 40,000-plus screaming, happy fans. And I've got to say it brought a tear to my eye because I thought: 'Well, my dad built a great thing and I'll be damned if it moves.' "

Fifteen months later, nothing has changed. Charles Bronfman built a great thing here in Montreal, and Stephen Bronfman has again been cast in a starring role in the ongoing story of the preservation of his father's legacy. As columnist Martin Leclerc put it so perfectly in the Journal de Montreal yesterday: "Sometimes there's no way of escaping the choices that destiny imposes on us."

Even rich guys can't do that. But they can spend their way through those choices if they're both willing and able. The smart money is saying he's not going to do that, at least not alone.

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