Expos pitch grassroots love story

It may not rank up there with Romeo and Juliet, or even Buffy and Angel, but the relationship between the Montreal Expos and their fans certainly qualifies as one of the tragic romances of our time. While it's difficult to remember...

It may not rank up there with Romeo and Juliet, or even Buffy and Angel, but the relationship between the Montreal Expos and their fans certainly qualifies as one of the tragic romances of our time.

While it’s difficult to remember now, there was a time when the Expos – the first big-league franchise north of the 49th Parallel – held a special place in the hearts of Canadian baseball enthusiasts. Maybe they didn’t win a lot of games, but they were ours all the same. That, of course, was before the Toronto Blue Jays came along in 1977.

In the course of the past couple of decades, the fortunes of Canada’s two Major League Baseball teams have diverged dramatically. The deep-pocketed Jays built themselves into a contender in relatively short order, capturing World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. Post-season success, however, has eluded the Expos. Worse still, shaky finances have compelled them to give up many of their brightest young stars over the years. Last season, the team compiled a dismal 68-94 record, attracting fewer than 800,000 fans to Olympic Stadium. Rumours that the franchise would soon depart Montreal ran rampant.

‘It’s like a love story gone sour,’ says Marcel Barthe, president of Montreal-based Optimum Public Relations.

As the newly-hired PR agency for the Expos, Optimum’s job is to help rekindle that flame, by bringing fans closer to the team and its players and restoring the perception of the franchise as a valued member of the community.

It’s a tall order, to say the least.

Still, the mere fact that the team has engaged Optimum (a division of Cossette Communication-Marketing) is in itself a sign that big changes may be coming. The Expos have never before taken the step of hiring an outside public relations agency. But there’s a new regime in place these days, and it has some very different ideas about how to do things – including PR.

In December, New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria became managing partner of the Expos, shelling out $75 million for a 35% share. (Ownership of the remaining 65% is divided between two groups of Quebec investors.) And at a pre-Christmas press conference organized by Optimum, he made clear that he wants Montrealers to fall in love with the team all over again.

The key to this, of course, is improving the product on the diamond. To this end, Loria has increased the once-miserly Expos payroll, allowing the team to acquire some much-needed new talent – notably, pitchers Hideki Irabu and Graeme Lloyd. And he has passed up no opportunity to promote a winning spirit. (He arrived at spring training in Florida bearing t-shirts that sported the slogan ‘Why not us? Why not now?’)

At the same time, the club is moving forward with plans to build a new park in downtown Montreal – a $200-million facility to be known as Labatt Stadium. If all goes according to schedule, the Expos should be able to leave Olympic Stadium – a vast concrete tomb that is arguably North America’s worst major league ballpark – by 2002.

An ambitious agenda, to say the least. If, however, the Expos are to recapture the hearts of fans, they have to do even more: They must dedicate themselves to creating connections and building relationships in the community – the sort of concerted public relations effort that the team hasn’t undertaken in a long time.

‘We’re trying to make up for years of neglect,’ says David Samson, new executive vice-president of the Expos. ‘People walk around Montreal wearing other teams’ jerseys. [Star outfielder] Vladimir Guerrero could walk down the street and not be recognized. So we need to increase the visibility and get ourselves back on the radar screen. We want people to be talking about the team. Montreal used to be Canada’s team, and we won’t rest until we are again.’

While the Expos have capable public and community relations people internally, Samson says the organization benefits by working with an outside PR firm that can serve as a sounding board and a source of fresh ideas.

As outsiders in the community, Barthe adds, the new front-office team also needs the kind of expertise about the Montreal marketplace and its unique cultural makeup that an agency like Optimum can provide.

‘New Yorkers don’t necessarily do things the same way as Montrealers, and there’s a challenge in bridging the two cultures,’ he says.

Perhaps the most serious public relations challenge facing the franchise, Barthe says, is the cynicism and skepticism of both fans and the media – an all-too-predictable byproduct of the team’s recent troubled times. A winning record will, obviously, go a long way toward changing those sentiments. But it’s also important that the Expos become more actively involved in the community, he argues.

Bringing the players closer to the fans plays a large part in that. Barthe says team management has stressed to players the importance of being more visible – and they seem to be taking heed. The most notable example so far has been this year’s edition of the Expos Caravan, an annual promotional tour that visits all of the major cities of the province during the winter months. Typically, only a small handful of players take part. This year, however, more than 20 – including such star performers as Guerrero and pitcher Ugueth Urbina – chose to join the Caravan.

In the past, Barthe says, players were often reluctant to get out into the community because of the language barrier: Few of them spoke even passable French. Optimum, however, has urged them to push aside their fears and – to coin a phrase – just do it.

‘We convinced them not to be worried about this,’ he says. ‘Quebec fans will simply appreciate the effort to get closer and communicate with them.’

As for the cynicism of the media, Barthe says the best remedy is an open-door policy on the part of Expos management.

‘In the past, there were strained relationships with the media because of the difficulty of getting access,’ he says. ‘So we’re trying to change that, to be as candid, open and transparent as we can in the communications between the management and the media – answering their questions, whether good or bad.’

In addition to cultivating fans and the media, Barthe says the Expos need to establish better relations with the local business community, in order to lay the foundation for future partnerships. Meetings with Quebec business leaders rank high on the to-do list for spring.

While the new management team clearly has a good deal to learn about Montreal and its people, Samson dismisses the notion that this presents any particular obstacles. ‘Everyone says that, but I completely discount it. It’s just an excuse. Montreal, no matter what they say, is no different from other cities.’

There are skeptics who insist that Montreal is first, last and always a hockey town, and that baseball can never capture the imagination of the populace in the same way. But if Samson is troubled by such doubts, he gives no sign.

‘Our goal is to have people proud to be Expos fans,’ he says. ‘We want people to be able to go anywhere in North America and say, ‘I’m from Montreal and I’m an Expos fan,’ and feel good about that. And we’ll get there by doing all the little things that have been neglected in the past.’

Also in this report:

* Extreme behaviour: Cordon Bleu taps youth market with irreverent approach p.B17

* Diesel pumps up the volume: Montreal agency reinvents itself, aided by an infusion of cash and the addition of an industry veteran p.B17

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