Expanding Major League Baseball – 1

We’re in that gap in the Baseball Calendar between the Hall of Fame announcement and the beginning of Spring Training. What better time to talk about baseball, and muse on the future of the sport?

Over at ESPN.com, they’re doing a series of essays under the heading “Baseball 2.0”, where their writers talk about various ideas that come up every now and then. Relocating the A’s to San Jose, tweaking the replay rules, and the like. One of the ideas that’s been talked about there is expanding to 32 teams.

The idea has some merit; with 16 teams in each league, you could have four divisions per league (each with four teams) – and get rid of the silly wild card. You want to make the playoffs, you win your division. It would also remove the need for interleague play (which is probably a good thing). True, it would dilute the talent pool a bit more, especially since you’d also need two more sets of minor league teams. But that’s been a complaint every time baseball has expanded. However, we are just doing a little pie-in-the-sky dreaming here. So we’ll ignore that.

So, assuming we are going to add one team per league, which cities get the honor?

There are a couple of limitations right off the bat. For convenience of travel, we need to restrict things to North America. We also need a large population base, and one with a reasonable level of affluence to be able to financially support a team. And the current owners simply won’t stand for a new team to pop up close to any of theirs (witness the whole kerfuffle about moving the Oakland A’s to San Jose). If you really want to spread and grow baseball, you want to expand into underserved markets. So even though northern New Jersey could support a team, the area is well-served by the Mets, Phillies, and Yankees.

There are a LOT of huge cities in Mexico and the Caribbean, but they sadly lack the political stability and economic conditions to support a major league team for the long term. Sorry, San Juan and Mexico City…..

That leaves us with just the US and Canada. So, what cities could support a team? Not surprisingly, there have been a number of studies on this, which include things like “market saturation”. I don’t see saturation as the problem they do. Baseball’s season doesn’t greatly overlap those of the other major sports; it’s easy to be a multi-sport fan when one of them is baseball.

The first city to look at is Montreal. It’s the largest city in the US and Canada that does NOT have a baseball team. There’s still enough love for the Expos there that expansion shouldn’t be a problem. And it gives Toronto a natural rival….

Orlando is next, but it’s too close to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which has enough trouble supporting its own team. And the Marlins would probably protest, too.

Going on down the list of largest metropolitan areas, we find Vancouver BC, Salt Lake City UT, Charlotte NC, Portland OR, Las Vegas NV, and San Antonio TX. Vancouver and Portland would be neighbors to the Seattle Mariners, who happen to be the most geographically isolated team in MLB. They could use a nearby rival. Llike Orlando, San Antonio is too close to two other MLB markets – Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Las Vegas makes sense, except for the city’s primary industry. It has a minor league team, but I doubt MLB wants to have a team in the nation’s gambling capital. Charlotte splits the distance between Atlanta and Washington DC, but it’s far enough from both so as not to pose an immediate market conflict. Aside from the NBA’s Utah Jazz, Salt Lake City only has a Major League team in soccer. The population base is there, but it’s a relatively tiny media market. And with so much baseball money coming from local TV contracts, I can’t really see them as being able to financially support a team.

One way to “test” a market is to have an exhibition game there. MLB has had exhibition games before in some of these cities; usually the last “spring training” game before the regular season. There’s no reason that the Braves and Nationals can’t meet in Charlotte or the Cardinals and Rangers in Oklahoma City…

So our choices are down to Montreal, Charlotte, Portland, and Vancouver. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the latter two, so let’s lump them together and consider them as one for our planning purposes. Now we’re down to three. We need to get rid of one of them. There are enough teams in the east already, so we’ll keep Portland/Vancouver. That means that either Montreal or Charlotte must go. Charlotte is a growing market, but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for an MLB team there. The same lack of demand applies for Vancouver, too. If they aren’t supporting a AAA team, they probably won’t support a major league team.

That gives us Montreal and Portland.

Now, what does that do for the leagues and divisions?

I’ll cover that next time.

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