Baseball is back in Canada ... and it isn't going away anytime soon

September 8, 2015

A quarter-century ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were an economic and competitive force in Major League Baseball.

Over the past six weeks, the Jays have shown the potential to regain that lost identity.

It’s widely known that the Jays lead the American League East and are on the verge of qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 1993. But the story among the blue seats at Rogers Centre is equally compelling, now that a frenzied trade deadline and genuine pennant race are energizing what had been a disillusioned fan base.

● Beginning Aug. 2, the Blue Jays have drawn 45,000-plus fans 14 times in their last 20 home games. Only three other franchises — the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies — have done the same over any 20-game stretch since 2010, according to STATS LLC.

● The Blue Jays last accomplished the above attendance feat in 1994, when they drew 45,000 or more in each of their last 56 home games. That’s right: 56 in a row. (The Jays played 59 games at SkyDome in that strike-shortened year. They drew 45,000-plus for all but two ... when the attendances were 44,471 and 44,164.)

● This season, the Jays are averaging 32,887 fans per home game — their highest mark since 1995. If current trends continue, Toronto could finish among the majors’ top 10 in average attendance for the first time since 1997.

By now, you’ve probably noticed a trend: Historical comparisons for the Jays’ contemporary renaissance are found in the 1990s — and mostly the first half of that decade.

The Blue Jays — along with the Montreal Expos — were dominant forces in MLB when the players’ strike began on Aug. 12, 1994. The Jays, coming off consecutive World Series titles, had drawn four million fans in each of the previous three seasons. The Expos had the majors’ best record when the World Series was canceled — a devastating blow from which the organization never recovered, leading to the team’s relocation to Washington, D.C., a decade later.

Consider, then, how Canadian fans must’ve felt: Just as the Blue Jays and Expos reached baseball’s pinnacle, wealthy Americans shut down the sport. It’s understandable that aggrieved fans in Toronto and Montreal were reluctant to again devote their emotions (and paychecks) to America’s pastime. Some still haven’t.

Attendance plummeted in both cities after the strike. From ’94 to ’95, the Blue Jays’ average home crowd dropped by 20.4 percent; in Montreal, the figure was 25.9 percent.

When the games stopped in ’94, the Jays’ average crowd was an AL-leading 49,287. Three years later, it was 31,967 — a number the Jays haven’t surpassed since ... until now.

Unsurprisingly, the Jays and Expos struggled on the field in the strike’s aftermath. Neither franchise has qualified for the postseason since — unless you count the Nationals’ two appearances in Washington, which the good people of Montreal would rather not.

But now the Jays boast the presumptive AL MVP (Josh Donaldson), a well-established mid-lineup tandem (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion), and splashy trade deadline upgrades (David Price and Troy Tulowitzki). In short, they’re operating as a large-market franchise — like they did in the early ’90s, and like their revenue base suggests they should.

Particularly with the Jays and Yankees locked in baseball’s best pennant race this season, it’s entirely appropriate to point out how the two teams ought to be more alike than different. After all, the Jays and Yankees are the only teams in MLB history to draw four million fans more than once.

Toronto is estimated to be the fourth largest city in North America, behind only Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles. (Yes, it’s even bigger than Chicago.) And despite the possibility of losing Price to free agency after the season, there are many reasons to believe the Jays can sustain their recent success.

Rogers Communications Inc. owns the Blue Jays and the all-sports cable television network on which their games air coast-to-coast in Canada. (In other words, Blue Jays games are daily national content, not local/regional content, as is the case for U.S.-based franchises.) Moreover, Rogers operates the cable television and wireless communication platforms on which many Canadian fans watch the games — thus creating a unique sports/media/technology model among MLB teams.

What does all of this mean? Well, in one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities on the continent, baseball is more popular today than at any point in a generation. Interest in baseball is on the rise across Canada, which bodes well for the increasingly credible effort to bring back an MLB franchise to Montreal. (MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made specific mention of Canada as a focal point in the league’s renewed international efforts.)

And so the anticipated return of postseason baseball to Canada is a much bigger deal than many American fans realize — especially because your team could encounter a juggernaut from Toronto this October ... and next October, too.