Montreal Alouettes stable under Pierre Karl Péladeau but team needs long-term stadium solution

Photo: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

It’s been six months since the Montreal Alouettes came out of an ownership crisis with a solid new foundation as local billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau purchased the team and hired Mark Weightman as its new president. The club has quickly reached stability off the field, though it still requires a solution to its ongoing stadium woes to ensure long-term success.

The Alouettes essentially have three options to fix their stadium situation: renovate Percival Molson Stadium, move back to Olympic Stadium, or build something brand new. Weightman described the possibility of constructing a new stadium as the least likely outcome, though he acknowledged that he has discussed it as a possibility with Péladeau alongside the other two choices.

“We need to look at all the options, analyze them properly, and if there’s one of the three that we need to throw out, then we throw it out,” Weightman told 3DownNation as part of a lengthy sit-down interview. “But we’re gonna go through the process of analyzing those three, figuring out what is the best solution for this franchise long term, recognizing that each one of those three have some really big upsides and we just need to figure out which is the one that we put across the goal line with the most success.”

Photo: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Percival Molson Stadium, which is owned by McGill University and situated on campus, was constructed in 1915 and has since undergone significant renovations. Capacity was expanded from 20,202 to 25,012 during Weightman’s first tenure with the team in 2010, which was considered a necessity after the club sold out every game for over a decade. The seating has since been reduced to 23,420 with the team averaging attendance just shy of 17,500 so far this season.

The facility is located conveniently in the north part of Montreal’s downtown with plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance. The stadium has great sight lines and an undeniable charm, including an attractive front entrance at its northeast corner. Péladeau has also purchased a new video screen for the north side of the facility, though it has yet to be installed as the team awaits delivery from the manufacturer. Weightman considers the stadium to be appropriately sized for what the Alouettes need.

“The CFL is changing and I think that people are recognizing that. We don’t need a bigger stadium. We used to think that once you fill a 20,000-seat stadium that now you’ve gotta go to 25,000 or 30,000. That’s not true anymore. I think that having a 20-something thousand (seat) stadium is plenty. I think that where we need to look to reinvest and add to our offerings for our fan base and attract a new fan base is hospitality, party areas, and activation areas where people can come to the game and there’s a party going on,” said Weightman.

“You see it more and more at stadiums out west that do a great job. I know that even they would tell you that if you could do it over, you’d put maybe a bit more hospitality and a bit less general seating to have a better mix. At the end of the day, what you’ve gotta do is make a decision in how you’re going to use your stadium to maximize your return per square foot, that’s what it comes down to. We don’t have a lot of square feet here (at Percival Molson), so we need to make sure that our calculations are really good.”

Photo: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The facility sorely lacks the amenities fans have come to expect from modern sports venues. All of the seating at Percival Molson Stadium is benches, some of which are supported by metal brackets and some of which are fixed directly onto concrete risers. Most of the seating doesn’t have railings or supports, creating an accessibility issue for those with poor mobility.

The front-row seating in the stadium’s southeast corner is adjacent to two large pipes that descend from the neighbouring neurological institute. Beside them is a bright yellow sign warning that extremely cold gas could be exhausted at any time, causing cold burns. Fans who pay for front-row seats often want thrilling experiences, though it seems fair to assume they’re not interested in suffering horrific injuries.

Photo: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The stadium’s “family zone” also leaves a lot to be desired. Located on the upper level on the east side of the facility, two folding tables were set up on a green mat with a handful of games, including connect four, checkers, and Jenga. The view of downtown is beautiful but a chainlink fence is all that separates guests from the roof of the adjacent Currie Gymnasium, a drop-off of approximately 20 feet. The team’s made an effort but nothing about the area seems family friendly.

Photo: John Hodge/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The lighting along the path from the northeast gate to Park Avenue has also stopped functioning, creating a safety problem for fans leaving games that finish after sunset.

General manager Danny Maciocia spoke largely in support of Percival Molson Stadium, calling it more than adequate for what the team needs. He acknowledged the size of the locker rooms and the quality of seating as things that could be improved but spoke highly of its location and atmosphere, particularly when the Alouettes draw strong crowds.

“I still think that there’s a lot that you can do with Percival Molson. I think it’s intimate, I think it’s romantic. I think when you’re sitting there at night under the lights and you’ve got the skyline of downtown Montreal staring you in the face, it’s pretty unique. It’s not something that you can experience too many different places across our great country,” said Maciocia.

“It’s never going to be perfect but I think what trumps all is where it’s located in prime real estate. And when you’re playing to a sold-out crowd, that’s as loud of a stadium as you’re gonna come across in Canada.”

If the team chooses to renovate the stadium, Weightman would like to upgrade seating and widen the concourses. He also wants to add more points of sale and move over to a cashless system to help with automation and accelerate the speed of service. In the meantime, the team has invested in more entertaining halftime shows, featuring a performance by Our Lady Peace at their home opener, as well as an exciting bicycle stunt show during the team’s recent loss to the Toronto Argonauts.

The Alouettes currently rent their practice facilities and offices at Olympic Stadium with the club reportedly considering the construction of a new practice facility. The B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts don’t practice in their stadiums full-time either, so Montreal’s situation isn’t unprecedented. The system can be tenuous, however, given the buildings are almost ten kilometres apart.

“With the exception of maybe Saskatchewan or Winnipeg, there’s probably seven other teams that would like to have a little bit more,” said Maciocia. “Having said that, even when we do play at home, I understand full well that we still have to move our personal effects to Molson Stadium, but I think that’s also the case for a few other teams.”

Weightman doesn’t see the construction of a practice facility as a means to save money but as a way of potentially having greater control of the quality of the amenities.

“The quality of the practice facility is a big part of what we provide to our players as far as an environment that will be conducive to success and to attract new players, so I think the value there is really more on the player part than on the financial viability side because, to be honest, people have put a lot of emphasis and a lot of importance on, ‘Well, the Als don’t own anything, their stadium, and this and that,'” he said.

“Especially concerning the practice facility, I don’t necessarily agree that that’s that relevant because if you own it, there’s still a whole bunch of costs of maintenance and this and that and the other thing and if you have a really good rental deal where you’re not paying a lot of money because it’s being used for something else the rest of the time, then you actually financially may be better off.”

Weightman listed having a lounge for the players, larger meeting rooms, a nice cafeteria, and ease of access as amenities he’d like to be able to offer players as part of their practice facilities. He wants to ensure that players and other team employees are happy with their work environment, presumably so they are more likely to work long hours and remain with the organization on a long-term basis.

Olympic Stadium has seemingly needed repair since it opened in 1976. In 2017, the province committed $250 million to repair the building’s roof by 2022, though the timeline for the repair has been pushed back multiple times. Two months ago, it was announced that the concrete ring that supports the roof also needs to be replaced, which is expected to drastically raise the cost of the project.

AP/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

The former home of the Montreal Expos was once a possible venue for the 2026 World Cup, though the city has since withdrawn from consideration. The stadium has also hosted occasional CFL games, most recently in 2012 for the East Final.

“There’s lots of talks about Olympic Stadium finally getting a new roof and are they going to do kind of like what BC Place did and rejuvenate the entire building?” said Weightman. “I think there’s a lot of plans in place. There’s a lot of ifs, there’s a lot of maybes, and there’s a lot of whens, so we need to kind of see how that plays out, but that venue, if it becomes available again, to be able to host playoff games and Grey Cups would be a big part of what I think the long-term solution for this club needs to be.”

Péladeau, who declined 3DownNation’s interview request, has a history of getting new venues built, even if he hasn’t paid for them himself. The Vidéotron Centre opened in Quebec City in 2015 intending to attract an NHL team to the city. The 18,000-seat venue houses the Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, a team that is owned by Quebecor, the company founded by Péladeau’s father and for which he currently serves as the president and CEO. The facility had a construction cost of $370 million, which was entirely covered by the city and province. Quebecor has since taken over the management of the arena and reportedly pays an annual rental fee for its use.

Weightman indicated that it would be irresponsible of him to speculate regarding a new stadium given how little time the organization has had to take inventory of their next steps. If a new stadium were going to be built, which he stressed he has no reason to believe will happen, he estimated it would take seven or eight years to get done when taking into account purchasing land, securing financing and permits, and the actual construction itself. He has accompanied the team on all of their road trips this season to visit opposing venues and was disappointed the Alouettes didn’t visit Regina this year, as he missed the opportunity to tour Mosaic Stadium.

“My job is to put all the options on the table and figure out what we think the best path is, and even though there’s some things I have a pretty good idea of — and there’s some things that even though we’re starting to do the research, I have at least an idea of what to expect — I still don’t know,” he said. “Even if I were to guess, which I can’t, I still don’t know right now what really is the best solution.”

Maciocia has full confidence in Weightman as the two started together with the Alouettes in 1996 when Maciocia was a volunteer and Weightman was an intern. He also raved about the leadership of Péladeau, saying things have “gone from one extreme to the other” from the club’s previous owner. He praised the organization’s stability, alignment, and clearly defined roles, and expressed his happiness that the media focus has gone from the club’s off-field issues to the on-field product.

Weightman admitted that he’s not a particularly patient person. He indicated that the club is still determining which steps would be wisest to take but said they’ll be ready to move forward as soon as that decision is made. He wouldn’t describe the Alouettes as being in a hurry but made it clear that they also wouldn’t drag their feet.

“This team hasn’t had a tremendous amount of success in the last 10 years. There’s been bits here and there and obviously, I don’t mean to discount any of that because there’s been a ton of effort made by all the people involved, but the reality is we haven’t been back to Grey Cup since we won it in 2010,” said Weightman.

“If you’re really a diehard football fan, your interest may have trailed off a little bit. 10 years later, your lifestyle has changed because maybe now you have kids and you’re too busy going to your own kids’ soccer practices or hockey practices or football practices that you can’t come to the games all the time. So to replenish that fan base and to start that cycle up again, you need to onboard people by sometimes getting them hooked through another means like making it a party.”

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.