Huge news today that Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett is officially trying to offload at least a portion of the team [Sean Gordon, The Globe and Mail]. The timing's certainly unfortunate for the Canadiens, given their recent struggles and coaching turnover in the midst of what was supposed to be a glorious centennial season. It's likely that the sale won't matter all that much for Montreal hockey in the end, though; this is the league's most storied franchise and one that successfully dominates not just its local market, but its entire province. The idea of moving the team can't be in the cards, unless the dealer is an absolute moron.
The real potential losers here are Montreal soccer fans. Keep in mind that Gillett was responsible for much of the money backstopping the Montreal Impact's bid for MLS status. Given that the Globe story mentions that Gillett may also be looking to offload his interests in Liverpool FC and NASCAR, it's hard to see him having an interest in supplying the financing for Montreal to make another run at one of the 2012 expansion slots.
That's too bad, as the Impact will need all the money they can get. As the Canadian Guys pointed out on the weekend, Stade Saputo is not an acceptable MLS stadium in its current 13,000 seat incarnation. Renovations to make it a 20,000-seater were discussed this fall, but they're going to be expensive. Although Joey Saputo stated firmly after Montreal's withdrawal that the partnership "never, at any point, had any trouble whatsoever financing its bid," it's looking more and more like that may not have been the case; Gillett's troubles with Liverpool were in full swing by that point, and the economy was already in the tank. Of course, Saputo's words may well be technically correct; they may not have ever had trouble financing their proposal of $43 million Canadian (as reported by Ben Knight back in his Globe days), including construction costs, but it seems that they were unwilling or unable to come up with the $40 million U.S. franchise fee. You have to wonder if part of that was perhaps due to Gillett becoming uneasy about investing more in sports at a time when he was already facing a cash crunch at Liverpool.
This is not meant to paint Gillett as a villain. In fact, as portrayed in Stephen Brunt's columns, he comes off as the sort of man you'd want as an owner; not stingy with the wages or the stadium expansions and respectful of cherished traditions. His Liverpool counterpart Tom Hicks is quite a different story, but Gillett seems to care about sports and to do so for the right reasons. Obviously I can't know his motivation for trying to sell his sports interests now, but given the global economic turmoil, the possibility exists that it might not have been his choice under better circumstances. He was a great owner for the Canadiens, and he should be remembered as such; he also supported the idea of MLS soccer in Montreal and he deserves praise for that.
The question for any future Montreal bid for MLS status is if they can find someone willing to take Gillett's place, and they'll have to do it soon. As Ives reported, MLS wants to add two more teams in 2012. If we presume the same two-year gap between expansion announcements and starting play, that would mean that the next two cities would be decided about a year from now. That's not a lot of time for Montreal to find an investor willing to pony up the cash for stadium renovations and the full franchise fee. Plus, it may even be more expensive this time. Yes, Vancouver got in for $35 million in the end, but they had significant leverage on their side; there weren't a lot of promising bids left at that point, and as Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province pointed out, there's quite a difference between his estimate of the $24 million that Montreal offered (which may even be generous considering construction costs in Montreal) as a franchise fee and the $35 million the Whitecaps paid. Montreal has no such leverage, and they may even be starting from less than zero given the ugly public ending to their last MLS bid.
Meanwhile, the USL is looking less and less attractive for Montreal. Seattle's already left, and Vancouver and Portland are soon to follow suit; there go three of the marquee teams. Plus, Vancouver in MLS means there will be less Canadian media coverage of Montreal and the USL; they'll probably still get local write-ups, but the national soccer narrative is likely to focus on the MLS teams (especially if they get a good national TV deal). That doesn't mean that the USL won't still be viable, but it's going to look more and more small-time down the road. If I was a Montreal soccer fan, I would be hoping like hell that the Impact find a wealthy investor to replace Gillett and get a solid bid together for the 2012 round of expansion. If they don't, soccer in Canada may pass them by.