In Attendance Race to Show Baseball Interest, Montreal Speaks, San Antonio Dissapoints
In this very space March 18, I wrote about the exhibition games scheduled for March 29-30 that would mean more to the cities of Montreal and San Antonio, than they would to the teams playing in them, Mets and Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium, Rangers and Astros at the Alamodome. I wrote about how unlikely expansion appears to be in the short term for Major League Baseball and I wrote about how we all know which two teams potentially would be paying attention to these efforts, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland athletics who let’s be honest need a new stadium and who genuinely want to stay in the greater San Francisco Bay region. San Jose already offered to build a stadium, but efforts are being blocked by the Athletics’ neighbors in San Francisco, creating a Giant obstacle to stadium efforts and potentially leading to the removal of the Athletics from the region all together. The issues with the Tampa situation I detailed in brief in my March 18 editorial.
My closing comments were strait forward, it would be almost unthinkable that both franchises would relocate and given the less than high percentage odds of expansion, Montreal and San Antonio were not only trying to show folks in the Commissioner’s Office that they deserved baseball, they were also trying to outscore one another. IN terms of the box scores then from those games Friday and Saturday, what truly stood out was the very last column, attendance. I genuinely expected San Antonio to draw more than Montreal and this is not because I am from Texas and yes, I was a big Expos fan growing up. For one, San Antonio drew over 75,000 two a pair of games at the Alamodome last spring, Rangers victories over the San Diego Padres and as baseball capable facilities go, Olympic Stadium 113 months after its last baseball event was still leaps ahead of what the Alamodome could be as a ballpark. Furthermore, this spring saw both of the Lone Star State’s teams playing in San Antonio and unlike last year, both of these games were on dates where the local Spurs basketball franchise was not playing a home game simultaneously. Instead, neither game drew more than 28,000, 22,677 on Friday night and 27,255 on Saturday afternoon, a total of 49,932 fans for the two games. The Saturday game alone last spring in San Antonio drew more than 40,000.
Then there is Montreal, a city most Anglo writers here in the States gave up for dead as a baseball market, a city most thought never deserved another team, despite Montreal outdrawing both the Mets and Yankees at various times from 1979-1992. How did Le Québécois respond? ON Saturday alone, fans of the former Expos chanting “Let’s Go Expos”, showed up and then some, 50229 in attendance, which topped the two nights in San Antonio combined. Oh and the prior night for the Friday game, they only drew another 46,221. If this weekend taught us anything, Montreal is a baseball town and given the proper ownership and support for the team from MLB, Montreal will show up for a winner and for the game that is only outpaced in popularity by hockey. This is not to say that San Antonio is a bad market, it could very easily be a high level baseball city, but such a drop in attendance from year one to year two is concerning. Perhaps the 2014 numbers are a better gauge of baseball fandom in the Alamo city and if an average of between 24,000 and 25,000 per game came to see the Rangers and Astros, perhaps one could argue that such numbers for the new local team if it existed could push north of 30,000. But one could also argue that 2013 was an example of the baseball novelty which drew in more fans per game, over 37,000 than the baseball purity represented by the 2014 numbers. That is alarming for San Antonio, because a drop of 13K per game in attendance is similar to the drop in attendance after the expansion season of 1998 for the afore mentioned Tampa Bay Rays, who saw a drop from 30,900 to 19,200 per game from season 1 to season 2. The Rays in their best years of attendance from 2008-2010 would average right around 23,000, since then the club has not broken 20,000 per game, despite contending teams that made the playoffs in 2011 and 2013 and a team in 2012 that was contending well into September. Montreal remember drew as well in 1995 per game after having its team gutted and its baseball dreams crushed by the 1994 strike, as Tampa drew in its 2011 and 2013 playoff seasons. Montreal in 1994 drew more per game than any Tampa season accept 1998 and how bad was Tampa outdrawn by its expansion cousins that first season, 1993 Marlins +7,000, 1998 Diamondbacks +14,000, 1993 Rockies +25,000. Furthermore, while Tampa saw a drop from its first to second year in average attendance of more than 12,500, Arizona and Miami each dropped by around 5,000 and Colorado actually went up another 2,000. When the Rockies left 70,000 seat Mile High Stadium for 50,000 seats at Coors Field, they averaged over 40,000 for seven seasons 1995-2001 and only once has attendance averaged below 25,000 in 2005. The Diamondbacks worst season average has been in the 25,000 range, but they have never cleared 40,000 a game per season after their huge draw in 1998. San Antonio will not be Denver or Phoenix, but it needs to be better than Tampa and better than Miami to prove its worth as an expansion city. Montreal has numbers that can be as good or better than Miami and this such a relocation to Canada may just be what the Rays need.
What this weekend shows is that Montreal is ready for baseball and if San Antonio had any hopes of trying to convince the Rays or Athletics to relocate to the home of hot salsa, their dreams may be shattered by a cold dose of reality blowing down from baseball hungry Montreal. One can only imagine how the Montreal Expos would be doing right now if they had the current Tampa Rays ownership in place. Montreal would also be a perfect fit in the division where the Rays currently call home and so it would require no realignment. The question is, what is more likely to be in place within five years, a new baseball stadium for the Rays somewhere on Florida’s sunshine coast, or a new stadium for the relocated and rebranded Montreal Expos in French Canada?