Go Buy a Ticket for Expos' Opener

by Jack Todd

All right, fellas - if the concept of slugging percentage leaves you with a headache, you're excused for the day. If you're mad at Claude Brochu - here's something you can do. Go buy a ticket for the Expos' home opener. Brochu is delighted that the tickets aren't selling (obviously, he's not about to go out of his way to persuade you to come to the ball park), because if the home opener draws 15,000, Brochu goes to his buddy Bud Selig and says: "See! I told you baseball won't work in Montreal!"

So if you want to do something to keep Brochu from hijacking our baseball franchise for himself, go buy a ticket or tickets. Call your friends and do the same. Now that the fire department has pronounced the stadium safe, let's get 40,000 strong into the ball park on the evening of April 8, all of them waving banners telling Selig to leave our Expos alone. It beats grousing into your beer over Brochu.

The rest of you? We have to talk about how to get this ball park built. We've been through some of this before, but bear with me. The survival of the Expos is at stake here, and before Lucien Bouchard is allowed to bail out with some nonsense about bedpans, we need to explain one more time how Labatt Park can be constructed with government help, but without costing taxpayers a cent.

In fact, this can be a winning situation for the taxpayer all the way.

Jacques Menard and Mark Routtenberg met with prospective principal investor Jeffrey Loria in New York this week, a preliminary to the approach Menard will make to Bouchard next week. Menard still has not said publicly what plan or combination of plans he will present to the premier.

A finance professional with a good working knowledge of how these things are done suggests one plan that ought to be palatable to all concerned: First, taxable bonds that are not RRSP eligible are sold on the bond market. In the U.S., projects like this are financed with tax-free bonds, which are eligible for American IRAs, the equivalent of Canadian RRSPs. Making the bonds taxable is simply a way to assure the government that in no sense is this a handout.

The proceeds from the bond sale would then be invested in convertible treasury bills, because the T-bills would continue to earn interest while the rest of the stadium financing is put together through a combination of investment from the ownership group itself and completion of the seat-license sale.

The first seat-license effort raised about $35 million for construction of the stadium and stalled; the existence of an additional $100-million or $150- million fund from the bond sale (and the departure of Brochu) should make it far easier to sell the balance of the seat licenses. If the seat-license sale still won't bridge the price of construction and the project is ultimately a no-go, then the T-bills are cashed to pay off the bond debt.

Through this plan (first advanced in this space last October) all the government has to do is to agree to collect the taxes on the player payroll and apply it to paying off the bond debt.

It's a simple plan, really, but it should be politically fireproof, because if the Expos leave you collect no taxes on player payroll anyway. Within 20 years, the stadium would be paid off through the payroll taxes alone, and the two levels of government would pocket somewhere between $30 million and $75 million from the payroll taxes alone. What's the catch? There really is none - except that both the federal and provincial governments would have to agree to the tax-collection plan. Why wouldn't they? After all, no ball-players - no payroll taxes. And from the government perspective, the payroll taxes are only part of the over-all picture: there is also the GST and PST on stadium construction, the GST and PST on tickets, concessions and parking, the GST and PST every time a player signs a contract and buys a Mercedes in Montreal.

True, it requires a little thought. My E-mail yesterday indicated that there is no shortage out there of people who can't add two and two and come up with anything in the neighbourhood of four. But Menard is a finance professional. Bernard Landry is a finance minister, who proudly takes the credit for finally joining the rest of North America in balancing his budget, thanks to a generous handout from the feds, a booming stock market on the rest of the continent and stable interest rates.

Whatever, Landry and Bouchard shouldn't have much trouble getting to the heart of this. In the past, they've gotten away with the simplistic (and just plain wrong) hospitals vs. ball parks nonsense because no one called them on it. Menard and some of his partners with separatist sympathies may be reluctant to provoke a public battle with Landry and Bouchard, but surely they can lay it out for the premier in private and then enlist his help in the process of public education, which will be necessary to make people understand the government is not handing money to rich ball-players.

Obviously, there will be questions:
- Q. What if Labatt Park is a flop and the ownership wants to sell and move after five years?
- A. Then the balance of the stadium debt is paid off out of the sale price.

- Q. How can the Expos compete in a runaway baseball economy when players like Kevin Brown are signing $105-million contracts?
- A. As Jim Beattie pointed out after the Brown signing, it could be the best thing to happen to baseball. The mega-rich owners (like Rupert Murdoch with the Dodgers, Ted Turner with the Braves, Peter Angelos with the Orioles and George Steinbrenner with the Yankees) are eliminating the middle class from contention. Major League Baseball can't survive as a six-team league. Sooner or later, people like Steinbrenner and Angelos have to realize that and either 1) adapt a genuine revenue-sharing plan similar to that of the National Football League or 2) agree - and force the players' association to agree - to a genuine salary cap.

- Q. What if the Expos' payroll (and thus the payroll tax) is less than anticipated?
- A. If it is, the Expos can't survive. The whole point of building Labatt Park is to create a revenue machine that can meet a payroll in the $60-million range by 2002. With that payroll, even under the current baseball system, the club, with its solid scouting and development system, can create "windows of opportunity," in Beattie's words, in which a group like the current crop of stars, led by Vladimir Guerrero, matures together, producing a genuine contender.

- Q. Menard has been talking about a $175-million stadium, instead of the $250-million stadium first proposed by Brochu. Is it feasible?
- A. The Expos have to be very careful here. The whole idea of Labatt Park is to build a revenue-producing stadium that can make the Expos competitive and enable them to make use of the ultimate marketing tool in baseball - star players under long-term contracts. Low-ball the stadium and there is a very real danger that the ball park itself can't do what it was designed to do, which is to attract enough fans (and luxury-box buyers) to fund a competitive team. If a planner as solid as Laurier Carpentier said the ball park would cost $250 million, we doubt it can be done for less without sacrificing everything.

- Q. So what is the alternative?
- A. Build a $200-million stadium - without a roof. Build it so that a roof can be financed and added later. So what if you have to make up eight rain dates a year? You give Montreal baseball fans what they want, which is to be in the open air. Remember, the climate is changing. Last season, you could have started playing outdoor games in early April and kept playing outdoors - right to the end of the World Series.

If Labatt Park is as big a success as I believe it will be, adding a real, retractable roof in the future will be no problem, especially after the provincial government realizes it's time to pull the plug on the Big O.

"It would be so amazing in Montreal," Expos catcher Chris Widger says. "Look what it did for Baltimore, and that part of Baltimore was a hole before they built the ball park. In Montreal, you've already got the restaurants, the bars, everything right there. It's one of the few cities in North America where you can walk around downtown at night and feel safe. It would just be so amazing, downtown Montreal in the summer with a ball park right there."

It's really important to have a good crowd for opening day so everyone has to be sure and go buy a ticket for the game. If you think you can't go, it'd be really good to buy a ticket and donate it to a charity like Big Brothers or any other childrens charity. This way you can do a good thing by letting a kid see a baseball game which they normaly wouldn't be able to and it would put a good crowd in the seats opening day which is crucial to the team's survival.

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