- Cost overruns in hosting 1976 Olympics continue to haunt city
- Canadian Grand Prix is the city’s largest event, generating C$90m from outside visitors
- City looks to converge sports events with arts and culture festivals
In a country blessed with numerous first-class host cities – from Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 winter Olympic Games, to Toronto, which staged the 2015 Pan American Games – competition to be named the Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance’s ‘Canadian Sport City’ is understandably fierce.
But in each of the three years since the Alliance launched its Canadian Sport Hosting Index, it is Montréal that has scooped the prestigious annual accolade.
Such is the climate of Montréal – temperatures can range from minus-35 to 35 degrees Celsius every two seasons – the city is equally capable of hosting winter and summer events. The city held no fewer than 54 sporting events in 2019 – 20 more than its nearest rival, Québec City.
It also holds a storied place in Canadian sports history, having staged the country’s first and only summer Olympic Games back in 1976, while long-running events such as Formula One’s Canadian Grand Prix – which attracted an total attendance of more than 300,000 fans last year – and tennis’ Rogers Cup are well established on the calendar.
The city’s franchises include Major League Soccer’s Montréal Impact, the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, and the Montréal Canadiens, the most successful team in the history of the NHL ice hockey league.
Looking ahead, Montréal will host golf’s Presidents Cup for the second time in 2024, and the Olympic Stadium has been proposed as one of the host venues for the 2026 edition of football’s Fifa World Cup.
The ‘Big Owe’
The Olympic Stadium – or more precisely, the cost of building it – occupies a notorious chapter in Games folklore.
The extraordinary financial burden placed on the city by the project meant that it was November 2006, a full three decades after the Olympic flame was snuffed out, that the cost of building the 56,000-seat venue was finally paid off.
The stadium had originally been tagged as a C$250m ($189.89m/€159.75m) project, but the price tag ballooned to C$1.4bn – an increase so dramatic that some locals adapted the venue’s ‘Big O’ moniker, in reference to its name and its doughnut-shaped roof, to ‘Big Owe’.
The reputational legacy of such a crippling cost overrun lingered for many years and, while the city has proved on numerous occasions since that it is capable of being a financially responsible event host, in recent times there has been a concerted effort finally to draw a line under the infamous Games.
“Since before the Olympic Games in 1976, Montréal was positioned, and had an enviable reputation, for its experience in various events, as well as the ease of working with our organisations and local businesses,” says Yves Lalumière, chief executive of Tourisme Montréal.
“Nowadays, more precisely in the last five years, the situation has shifted a little bit. Montréal is looking at refreshing its image and moving away from the 1976 Montréal that the international federations still have in mind sometimes. Therefore, we are now focusing more on selling how the city has changed in a good way and how we have improved our sports facilities and infrastructures in order to welcome any kind of sports and events.
“Montréal is a millennial, student, urban and dynamic city where sports play a prominent role; this is one of the main reasons why it is the natural choice for major sporting events.”
Tourisme Montréal, through the Sports Events Montréal team, serves as a point of contact between promoters and rights-holders. The organisation seeks to highlight Montréal’s strengths as a host city and, as Lalumière says, make things happen in a “smooth and satisfying way”.
Tourisme Montréal places an importance on attracting sports events that enable the city to achieve “specific long-term goals”.
Lalumière adds: “Usually, Montréal will look into events that offer a good return on investment – that generate good social and economic benefits, while keeping in mind its capacities and strategic decisions.
“Along with the city and partners, we have established six investment principles that guide our decision for hosting sporting events: fit with Montréal’s DNA, reach and scale, potential to succeed, social and sport benefits, infrastructure legacy, and economic spinoffs.”
The Olympic Stadium has managed to avoid becoming a ‘white elephant’ by hosting music festivals, shows, fairs and exhibitions. The stadium is also set to receive a new roof in 2024, ahead of the Fifa World Cup two years later.
The Olympic Stadium also hosted the Expos Major League Baseball (MLB) team before it relocated to Washington in 2004 and rebranded as the Nationals. Plans for a new MLB franchise and a purpose-built stadium are at an early stage, with the city’s public consultation office earlier this year requesting further discussions on the matter.
The Claude-Robillard Sports Complex, another Montréal 1976 venue, currently serves as the busiest hub for different sporting events in the city, with facilities for aquatics, football and track-and-field athletics, among others.
Counting the cost
Inevitably, for a city that boasts such a high volume of sporting events, Covid-19 has had a significant impact.
The city’s 21,000-seat Bell Centre arena, the home of the Canadiens, had been due to host the International Skating Union’s World Figure Skating Championships in mid-March until the event became one of the first international championships to fall victim to the pandemic.
Arguably the biggest blow, though, was the cancellation of F1’s Canadian Grand Prix.
The event at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was originally planned for June 14 and was initially postponed in April. And it was cancelled completely in July after F1 admitted that it would “not be possible” to race in Canada, Brazil, USA or Mexico.
“Without spectators and without revenues, it’s not viable,” Canadian Grand Prix president François Dumontier said following the cancellation.
The grand prix provides a substantial sports tourism boost to Montréal and the broader province of Québec. According to Dumontier, about 56 per cent of fans travel to the event from outside the province, while hotel occupancy rates stand at 94 per cent on race weekend.
An economic study published in 2016 found that the grand prix is the largest tourist event in Canada, generating a total spend of C$90m from visitors outside the Greater Montréal Area.
Montréal did temporarily have two major motorsport events, with the city having staged its first and only Formula E races in 2017. The electric car-racing series had a three-year deal in place with Montréal, but the city elected to terminate the contract after incoming mayor Valérie Plante stated that the agreement represented a “financial fiasco”.
Plante opted to pull the plug on the agreement after her administration had learned taxpayers would be liable for up to C$35m for the second edition of the event, which had been scheduled for July 2018. At the time, Montréal c’est électrique, the non-profit organisation which operated the race, was said to owe creditors C$6.2m for unpaid bills and was C$9.5m into its line of credit, while the City of Montréal was liable for C$24m over six years.
Plante pointed the finger firmly at the previous administration, stating: “Montréalers have made it clear that we can’t waste their money on poorly planned projects that don’t serve them.”
Formula E, which did not choose to replace Montréal on the calendar, said at the time that it would be pursuing legal action.
Flexibility is the key
Although national and local health authorities last month started to approve the reopening of most of Montréal’s public spaces and businesses, Lalumière admits that there is “close to no possibility” of large international sporting events, given the government of Canada’s ongoing mandatory 14-day quarantine restrictions for people arriving in the country from abroad.
“Tourisme Montréal is therefore now mostly focused on a mid- to long-term strategy when it comes to hosting large sports events,” he explains. “We are monitoring closely and assessing what is happening in similar markets and keeping in touch with our partners.
“Our objective is to remain as flexible as possible in order to find solutions, while being cautious about the risks. Safety and health remain our priorities. The idea is to keep in the mind of organisers and partners that Montréal is and will remain one of the best host cities in North America for sports events.”
A semblance of normality did return to Montréal on July 18 as the city hosted ‘On court Montréal!’, a three-distance race sanctioned by the provincial athletics body. However, it could be some time before major international events are allowed to resume.
The NHL season restarted with the Canadiens seeking a 25th Stanley Cup, but Bell Centre will not be staging any games as the NHL opted to hold all fixtures at centralised hubs in Toronto and Edmonton.
Covid-19 is also causing problems for the Impact in the MLS, with the team only facing off against fellow Canadian franchises Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps for the next few weeks amid ongoing border restrictions with the US.
Of course, the current coronavirus-related challenges are not unique to Montréal or indeed Canada. However, even in a non-pandemic world, Lalumière notes that the city’s status as a culture and entertainment hub can sometimes prove to be problematic from a sporting perspective.
“Outside of a world pandemic situation, we would say that finding private sponsors for events is probably one of the main challenges, as there are a considerable number of events and causes to support,” he says.
“In addition to being Canada’s top host city for sporting events, Montréal is a cultural hub and an arts and entertainment mecca. Therefore, for promoters and event organisers, this can represent a certain challenge when it comes to soliciting available dollars for major events.
“However, as Montréal is a very creative city, we try to improve synergies between sports and culture to come up with unique genres of events that make space for both sectors of activities,” he adds. “Tourisme Montréal is always encouraging those two spheres to work together to create or host events that will, in the end, please a wider crowd.”
For Montréal, converging complementing attractions in this way can transform a challenge into a significant opportunity. With a busy calendar of sporting events in normal times and thriving arts, cultural and entertainment scenes, the city will be ready to offer visiting sports fans an experience that few other destinations can dream of matching – when it is finally allowed to do so.