Als thrive at Molson

SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | The Montreal Alouettes have certainly scored a touchdown by moving to McGill's Percival Molson Stadium.

Ever since the famed football team officially relocated from the Olympic Stadium to McGill, attendance has nearly doubled -- not to mention team spirit.

Montreal is in the midst of football frenzy with most newspapers gushing over the quaint and intimate locale. More importantly, the public has been equally appreciative; a record crowd of 17,501 packed the place when the Alouettes took on the Calgary Stampeders on August 28. Not bad for a team that was on the brink of disaster about a year ago.

Alouettes president Larry Smith says the team couldn't be happier about playing at McGill, a school, he adds, with a great football history. Alouettes running back Michael Soles, for instance, was part of the McGill Redmen football team that won a national championship in 1987.

"It was an easy choice," Smith says about changing venues. "And economically, we had no alternative but to move."

Indeed. While playing at the Big O, the Alouettes drew an average crowd of 9,000 spectators -- an unacceptable number, says Smith, considering the cavernous facility seats up to 70,000. Poor attendance, coupled with internal ills, quickly buried the team under a sea of red ink that needed a solution. Fast.

The team's management pondered a move to another stadium. Thanks to the Irish band U2, the Alouettes earned the right to test the waters at McGill -- a concert by the rock group at the Big O conflicted with an Alouettes playoff game late last year. The Als arranged for the match to be played at McGill.

That game's stunning success -- with the team playing to a near-full house and garnering gushing press reviews -- prompted the team to sign a one-year agreement with McGill that is up for renewal this November.

Under the terms of the deal, the Alouettes injected about $400,000 to help upgrade Molson Stadium and were allowed to play their 1998 home games at the University. In return for the renovations, McGill didn't charge any rent.

Because Molson Stadium, built in the 1940s, had fallen into disrepair over time due to budgetary constraints, McGill welcomed the infusion of funds from an outside organization. Most of the money was used for fresh coats of paint, to replace or renumber damaged seats and to spruce up the public washrooms and concession stands.

"This was a fantastic deal for McGill," says Smith, noting the Alouettes have begun negotiations with the University for a new lease, since they have no intention of returning to their former home.

"There's no competition," Smith adds, between being at an intimate downtown stadium with a view of both the mountain and the city's skyline versus playing in a gigantic concrete building, with a questionable roof, in east-end Montreal.

But Smith stressed Molson Stadium still needs more improvements, like a new scoreboard, more washrooms and better concession stands, to bring it up to Canadian Football League standards.

Robert Dubeau, director of McGill's Department of Athletics, says that everyone turned out a winner by having the Alouettes play at McGill, since the University will probably start collecting rent from the franchise and already receives a small percentage of concession sales.

"Having [the Als] here has also been a great promotion for the University," he says, noting that the large McGill sign painted on centre-field often receives national television exposure during home games. "There's been a lot of publicity around this. The University's name has been mentioned often in the newspapers and on TV."

And lending its field to the Als when the team's future seemed uncertain, Dubeau offers, "was McGill's chance to be good citizens during their time of deep trouble."

There are other benefits. "The improvements to the stands clearly make the place look nicer," says Dubeau. The Als have also paid for upgrades to the locker rooms, making the facility a much more comfortable place to play for student teams from McGill and other universities.

Since the Alouettes only use the stadium for 10 games a season and practice elsewhere, Dubeau said there have been no conflicting dates with intercollegiate football and soccer games, only minor modifications.

The presence of the Als has presented some problems, though. As a result of the pro team's games, intramural soccer teams haven't been able to use the stadium at all. Officials in the Department of Athletics and the Environmental Safety Office also had to scramble to make sure that the stadium was up to scratch in terms of evacuation routes, proper lighting and signage. "The fire department was all over us," relates Dubeau. If thousands of people were going to start visiting the McGill stadium on a regular basis, "they wanted to ensure that we met all the safety codes."

The Alouettes earn possession of the facility the day before each game, handing it back once the match is over. Eyal Baruch, the assistant manager of facilities and events for the Department of Athletics, supervises the switchovers -- making certain that McGill symbols replace Alouettes logos, for instance.

There are items to iron out in the talks that are beginning on the Alouettes' future at McGill. The team would like a five-year lease -- McGill would prefer a yearly lease. The Alouettes also want to add more seats to the stadium. That's fine by Dubeau, but he insists that McGill won't pay for them.

While further upgrades to the facility could make it tempting for the University to rent it to other organizations to generate additional revenue, Dubeau says having more than the Als using the field would likely make coordinating McGill games too difficult. "There is so much demand from students to use the stadium," he says, "that I don't know if it would be possible after August 24."

As for football fans, it seems some are more enthused about Molson Stadium itself than they are about the Als' renewed vigour. "It's a great stadium," says Stéphane Caron, who attended the June 25 exhibition game. He never made the pilgrimage to see the team play at the Big O, preferring to watch them on TV. "It seems that no matter where you sit, you have a great view. It's a really intimate, convivial place."