Blue Jays Embrace Role As Canada's Team
By Larry Millson
TORONTO--If you're a Canadian sports fan, the past winter has been one best forgotten.
In December, the Montreal Expos, after years of speculation, left behind an uninterested Quebec to become the Washington Nationals. Then the National Hockey League, Canada's pastime, became the first North American league to lose an entire season to a work stoppage.
But as spring arrives, the Blue Jays believe they are well equipped to provide a ray of hope to Canadian sports fans, while showing that major league baseball can thrive again in Canada.
The Blue Jays don't expect to follow the Expos to a destination south of the border, despite their struggles since the World Series championship seasons of 1992 and '93.
"I have no concern about the team continuing to be in Toronto three, four five decades from now," team president Paul Godfrey said. "We really think the tide has turned and we're very excited."
Godfrey looks at the talented farm system and other positive developments and sees a revitalized organization, so he discards suggestions the Blue Jays could follow the Expos put of the country. "I don't buy into that for a number of reasons," he said.
While the Expos became a ward of Major League Baseball, ownerless and with fewer and fewer fans, the Blue Jays have a solid ownership, and a fan base that remains solid even though it has dipped from its mid-1990s heights.
Season ticket sales for 2005 are exceeding expectations. After last year's injury-plagued 67-74 season that squelched the promise of an 86-victory season in 2003, the club planned for an 80 percent renewal rate. But Godfrey said it was already at 83 percent one month before the season was to open. And while last year was a disappointment on the field, the team drew 1.9 million fans, an increase of more than 100,000 from 2003.
But there are more significant, long-term reasons for Godfrey's optimism.
The Canadian dollar is much stronger in relation to its U.S. counterpart since Ted Rogers and his Rogers Communications purchased the Blue Jays in 2000. That is significant for a business that takes in mostly Canadian dollars and spends mostly U.S. greenbacks.
The improving Canadian dollar and cost-cutting measures have improved the club's bottom line, prompting ownership to promise that the team will spend $210 million on payroll in the next three years, up from the $50 million a year that it has been spending. While the decision came too late to retain first baseman Carlos Delgado, general manager J.P. Ricciardi will be able to add salary in trades during the season instead of trying to dump salary.
The team will also be buoyed by Rogers Communication's purchase of SkyDome, which has been renamed the Rogers Centre. For the first time the club will control its own ballpark and take a healthier share of the revenue it generates, while turning the ballpark into a more fan-friendly destination.
And unlike the Expos, the Blue Jays have solid radio and television deals. Rogers owns Sportsnet, which shows most of the Blue Jays' televised games, as well as the club's flagship radio station in Toronto. The Blue Jays will have 145 games on television this year and 145 next year with what the team calls "a very reasonable rights fee." With the Expos gone, the Blue Jays may eventually expand their reach on television and radio across most of Canada.
"We are going to attempt to appeal to all parts of the country and especially Quebec," Godfrey said. "We're going to try to get games broadcast on radio and television there as much as we can. Because the decisions were made late on moving the Expos we'll have limited opportunities this year, but we're going to try and appeal to people in Quebec and the Maritimes who may not have been exposed to Blue Jay baseball in the past."
The Blue Jays' major free-agent acquisition in the offseason was third baseman Corey Koskie, a Manitoba native who could help reinforce the organization's position as Canada's team. "It wasn't planned that way, it just worked out that way," Godfrey said.
The Blue Jays' baseball executives surmised that Koskie was a free agent who was within their means and filled a need. The fact that he grew up in Manitoba watching the Blue Jays was a bonus. He also proves that good players are still being developed in Canada.
Canada's success in the Olympics (the team finished fourth) helped reinforce that fact. The Blue Jays are helping out as well by trying to grow the grassroots of the sport, sponsoring Ontario’s whole Mosquito baseball division, which had 4,800 participants ages 9 to 11 in the province last year.
"And we'll look at expanding that in the future," Godfrey said.
Between the improving dollar, increased payroll and an expanding market for baseball fans, the Blue Jays say that they have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future.
"We won't get back to the attendance of 1992 and 1993 (when four million fans a season attended the SkyDome)," he said, “but we feel that that this team can increase its attendance and increase its fan interest."