Loria only bluffing?

By Gregory Dole

Jeff Loria is playing a game of poker and I am calling his bluff. Strike me down if I am wrong.

Has anyone given any critical thought to the proposed Expos relocation? Once again, where pray tell does the team plan to go?

One suggestion on offer is the Washington area, which has been without a baseball club since the Senators left the city in 1971 for the greener pastures of Texas. In the interim, the region has become Baltimore Orioles territory. Indeed, there are Orioles fans around the world because of the team's proximity to the U.S. State Department. Yet the suggestion is that the D.C./Virginia region needs a team to call its own.

If anyone thinks Orioles owner Peter Angelos will take this assault to his market without contest, they dream. Angelos estimates that 25 per cent of his fan base is located in the D.C. area, a one-hour, one-minute drive up I-95 to Baltimore. Baseball insiders report that the commissioner's office is afraid of a prolonged legal attack from Angelos.

Esteemed law firms like Sue, Grabbitt and Runne, with offices in all U.S. cities, are sharpening their pencils and cranking out their opinions. Nothing holds such dread as shark-like, litigious American lawyers, not even a batty sportswriter.

Just who are these Art Modell-Virginian-doppelgangers trying to steal our Expos? They are the Virginians for Baseball Fan Club led by Rick Kowalick and the Northern Virginia Baseball Club, headed by telecommunications moneybags Bill Collins. These jokers have some real money, but they fall short in terms of credibility. In fact, the Virginians for Baseball Fan Club is about as professional as your local minor-league hockey association. They raise money with homemade T-shirts, and boast a whopping membership of 5,000 households.

Never mind that Major League Baseball rejected the Northern Virginia/Washington D.C. bids during the previous round of expansion. Even though Fairfax County, Va., is one of the wealthiest regions in North America, the population numbers don't add up. No city in Virginia has more than 500,000 people! The largest county in Virginia has less than a million people! Is relocation to Virginia a joke?

Let us a take a trip to the www.census.gov site. Bill Collins and Rick Kowalick inform us that Washington D.C.'s metropolitan area has 4,673,900 people. However, only 519,000 people live in the District of Columbia. Most of the metro population lives in Maryland. Indeed 5,171,634 people live in the tiny state of Maryland. It would be fair to say the hearts of baseball people in Maryland support their boys in orange and black in Baltimore, Md.

Are we to believe this region needs another team and can support another?

The Bay area of San Francisco and Oakland has a population of 6,816,000. The Giants are a big-market team. However, the Athletics are considered a small-market team and Oakland has more people than San Francisco.

The Chicago area has a population of 8,809,800. The Cubs are a big-market club and the White Sox are a small-market club. In 15 home dates this season, the White Sox have averaged 14,200 a game. In north Chicago, the Cubs have averaged 31,535 after 20 home dates. And the White Sox are in first place, compared with the Cubs, who are in fourth place.

In Los Angeles, the Dodgers pack the place, averaging 40,059 a game this season. Drive a half-hour south to Anaheim, and the stands are empty. Los Angeles is the second-largest metro area in North America (pop. 15,781,200), yet one team fails to sell tickets. The exception to this trend is New York City, with a metropolitan population of 20,126,100. Washington, D.C., is no NYC, and yet it remains the odds-on favourite to win the franchise-relocation sweepstakes.

John Henry, owner of the Florida Marlins, has discussed relocating to the Washington, D.C., area. Henry's bone of contention is with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who vetoed the baseball club's request to have publically financed ball parks. The Marlins are seeking to raise $400 million-plus for their project, which includes a retractable roof, the reason being that the Marlins have too many rainouts - so much for fun in the Florida tropics. All things considered, the club's request is not entirely unreasonable, considering that they play in a football stadium.

If any club seems destined to relocate, it is the Marlins. In which case, John Henry's bid to relocate would probably garner the most support from other owners, given Henry's long involvement in baseball (he was once co-owner of the New York Yankees).

Where does this leave the Expos, if not in Montreal? The alleged options are all in true small markets. The metropolitan population of Charlotte, N.C., is 1.3 million. Nashville, Tenn., is even smaller. And Salt Lake City is even smaller than the Music City. The only viable option seems to be Portland, Ore., with 2.1 million people, and yet Portland has never been a consideration.

A favourite tag in our economics classes - "Figures can't lie, but liars can figure" - always signals caution. If you believe in numbers, believe that Montreal is a great location for a sports franchise. In terms of 1996 census figures, Montreal's metropolitan population is more than 3.3 million. On a grander scale, when you include the province of Quebec, the Maritimes and the Ottawa region, you are looking at a potential baseball market of 10 million people. Can it be that hard to get some of these millions interested in baseball? After all, more than 300,000 people go out to see the Canadian Grand Prix, almost half the number of people who saw the Expos over the entire 1999 season, and surely these people aren't all car-racing fanatics.

Baseball in Montreal is a good fit and always has been a good fit. Furthermore, the Expos are a good investment. Forbes magazine's annual survey of the value of baseball franchises rated the Expos as the least valuable, pegging the team at $89 million U.S. Were the Expos to move into a new ball park, their value would jump astronomically. That is the iron law of baseball economics. Indeed, when the Detroit Tigers moved into Comerica Park, while attendance did not shoot up, the value of the team increased by 32 per cent.

The world knows this, and it is engraved in six-inch-deep letters on the breasts of the current Expos owners. They will stay in Montreal. They will play out a couple of seasons at the Big O. They will have a new stadium.

If I am wrong, strike me down and as our beloved Yogi Berra said: "I didn't really say everything I said."

I await a call from Loria and Mayor Pierre Bourque. They need me. They need market savvy and a dose of integrity toward the players and the fans, not to speak of marvelous Montreal. The Expos are the winning brand, and now, from me, you have certitude.

- Gregory Dole is the director of international operations for The Center, a sports-management organization based in Cleveland.

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