NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - A paltry 2,134 fans came out to see the Montreal Expos Thursday night, the smallest number in the history of a franchise best known for drawing small crowds.
But the more than 40,000 empty seats that night won't be enough for the team to find a new home for next season.
The threat of disbanding the team through contraction vanished a week ago with the new labor contract, which blocks owners from cutting teams for at least the next four seasons. The assumption is that Montreal, a team owned collectively by the other 29 teams in the majors, will now be moved to a new city, perhaps as soon as next year.
But the Expos will more likely see next year's World Series than a home opener south of the border. There likely isn't time to make all the decisions necessary to move. And Expos President Tony Tavares told me Friday the team needs to start acting quickly even if it is going to stay put, from getting work visas renewed to extending the lease on the artificial turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.
"We need to know yesterday," he said. "The more time that goes by, the more difficult the decision is."
|Thousands of good seats will still be available - don't expect the Expos to leave Montreal next year despite paltry crowds.
Washington., D.C., is generally seen at the front of the line to get the Expos if or when they do move. RFK Stadium, home of the Washington Senators until the team left town in 1971, is still available, and several groups are jockeying to bring a team to either Washington or its northern Virginia suburbs.
But the neighboring Baltimore Orioles are not about to drop their strenuous objection to a team moving into what is essentially the same market unless the new team gives the Orioles more than $100 million to compensate for lost television and ticket revenue.
That dollar figure is not something that can be worked out by the end of next week, which is the time frame that Tavares said is necessary to commit to where the team is going to play next season.
In addition, baseball has yet to even select which of several Washington ownership groups would get the nod to buy the Expos from the major leagues, and where the team would play long-term. These are things that need to be settled before, not after, a decision is made to move a franchise, said Marc Ganis, a sports marketing consultant with SportsCorp Ltd., who has consulted on franchise relocations.
|Expos President Tony Tavares says the team needs to know where it will play next season by "yesterday."
"The only time you have the leverage to get political bodies and financing to come together is before the team comes, not after it comes," Ganis said. "You don't relocate a team unless you know everything is finished. The only team that didn't do that is the [NFL] Arizona Cardinals, and they still don't have a new stadium 15 years later."
A RICO lawsuit filed by former minority owners of the Expos against Major League Baseball, concerning the purchase of the franchise by MLB this past winter, would also likely have to be settled or dismissed before the franchise could be sold again to new owners in a new city.
If the Expos don't move this offseason, the advantage that Washington has of a major league stadium already in place lessens. And the money that the Orioles would have to be paid puts the option of moving to Washington or northern Virginia at a significant disadvantage. That's money that a new ownership group probably wouldn't have available to pay the franchise from MLB. And that means less money for the other 28 owners.
Also with a team moving to D.C., it stops other teams from using it as a threat when trying to wrestle publicly financed stadiums from their current local governments. That use of an empty Washington market as a tool of blackmail is not something baseball owners would want to give up easily.
But even if Washington doesn't happen, Tavares told me he believes there are other cities where the Expos could play next year, although he wouldn't identify them. Several cities have strong arguments in their favor, but none is without a downside.
Las Vegas is the nation's fastest growing city, and its gaming industry provides ways to tax visitors rather than residents to raise money to build a new park. Baseball's fear of gambling might put it at a disadvantage, though. And the current stadium holds fewer than 10,000 fans.
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Sacramento has proven itself able to support a major sports team -- the NBA's Kings -- as well a minor league baseball team, the Sacramento River Cats, that will likely outdraw the Expos once again this year.
But putting a team there would take it away as a relocation option for the nearby Oakland A's, who would like to use the threat of moving there to win public financing for a new stadium.
Portland, Ore., has a 20,000-seat minor league stadium that could probably serve until a new stadium is built. It also has a strong corporate base, with Nike Inc.'s headquarters and some high-tech money still to be found. But its television market, while larger than four other major-league cities', would look good only in comparison to the Expo's nearly non-existent broadcast revenue.
Charlotte's recent loss of the NBA Hornets to New Orleans leaves the city with only one major franchise, the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Ganis said that is actually an argument for, not against, it getting a major league baseball team.
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"When you get out of the top 10 markets, it's really important how many other sports teams are in town," Ganis said. "You want to move to a market with zero or one. Charlotte can definitely support two teams."
But don't be surprised if the Expos don't move at all. Baseball owners feel they won some important concessions from players by complaining about baseball economics and then giving up their dream of contraction. They might want to keep the Expos limping along in Montreal for the next four years, using them as a poster child for their argument for the next round of labor talks and contraction threats.