Sunday, November 23, 2008

Was Montreal pushed?

Ben Knight has dug up a really interesting press release from the Montreal Impact on Montreal dropping its MLS bid, which I covered over at Out of Left Field a couple of days ago. Here's the release:


Following MLS Commissioner Don Garber's statements regarding Montreal's bid, the Montreal partnership group would like to bring one important rectification:

Montreal did not withdrew its bid from Major League Soccer but was informed that the league did not retain its bid. Out of respect for the Grey Cup festivities, the partnership group will not make any additional statements over the weekend. However, the President of the Montreal Impact [and] Saputo Stadium, Mr. Joey Saputo, who is spearheading Montreal's MLS bid, will meet the media: Monday, November 24, 2008, 10:30 am, Saputo Stadium, 4750 Sherbrooke Street, Montreal."

That's fascinating. According to this release, it wasn't that Montreal backed out; MLS decided not to consider their application. It's hard to imagine why at first, especially considering that most observers thought Montreal had the strongest bid of any city and was pretty much a lock. However, there could be concerns with the financial health of George Gillett's sporting empire, especially considering Liverpool's troubles [Ian Herbert and Andrew Warshaw, The Independent]. Joey Saputo, the owner of the Impact and Gillett's partner in the MLS bid, has also brought up the notion of staying in the USL, so perhaps Garber was concerned about Montreal's commitment to MLS.

We have conflicting statements, though. From the AP story with Garber's comments:

"Garber said that Montreal's delegation — led by Joey Saputo and George Gillett, who owns Liverpool FC in England's Premier League and the NHL's Montreal Canadiens — had informed him within the past week of possible trouble.

'Montreal has had to evaluate what kinds of private capital they needed to refinance their stadium to fund the expansion fee, and what kind of public support would be available,' Garber said. 'I'm not sure they were able to come to terms in this economic environment.'"

Garber doesn't directly say that Montreal withdrew their bid on their own, but that's certainly the logical inference, and it's the one the unnamed AP writer drew; his lede reads "Montreal withdrew its bid for a Major League Soccer expansion team, commissioner Don Garber said Friday in his state-of-the-league address."

Garber and Saputo (or whoever wrote the Impact's press release) could both telling the truth, though. Garber never said that Montreal abandoned their bid, even though he implied it. It's possible Saputo and Gillett wanted to keep the bid alive despite financial trouble, but Garber canned it after seeing the numbers.

Still, kicking Montreal of the bid process seems rather unusual, especially given the strength of their bid. Even if the league had already decided to go with a different franchises, retaining Montreal as an option would force the other markets to up the ante of their bids in an attempt to compete. If the press release is accurate, this decision doesn't seem to make business sense for MLS on the surface; less markets under consideration means less competition for the limited expansion slots, and more complaining about and reluctance to pay the sky-high expansion fees sure to be required. You have to wonder if there's more going on here. Monday's press conference will surely be fascinating.

(Cross-posted to Out of Left Field.)

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